Breaking The Color Line
A Complex History
The relationship between Baltimore’s Jewish and African-American communities is long and complex.
There have been many moments where the groups have worked together to foster social justice, civil rights and economic development. For example, Jews worked side by side with African-Americans in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Its first chairman was Joel Spingarn — a Jew.
There have also been moments marred by tensions, mistrust, anti-Semitism, racism and even
violence. Many local religious and civic leaders believe the relationship has started to move in a positive direction, while others see much more work still needing to be done.
“The relationship between the Jewish and African-American communities is a work in progress,” said Gil Sandler, a longtime journalist who covered the Gwynn Oak Park protests. “There is a good-faith effort on both sides to bring everyone to the table, but like every relationship there have been ups and downs along the way. Jews have always tried to be at the forefront and take a leadership position when it comes to human rights, and the Gwynn Oak Park desegregation is a prime example. But there have also been events that have weakened the bonds between the communities.”
The Rev. Dr. Frank M. Reid III, who leads Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said the turning point for the relationship between the African-American and Jewish communities came in 1968. From April 6 to April 14, riots wreaked havoc throughout Baltimore — and much of the rest of the country — following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
By the end of the riots, six people had died, 700 people were injured, 5,800 had been arrested, hundreds of fires had been set, and more than a thousand businesses were damaged or looted.
In all, $12 million in damage was caused from the violence, according to multiple published reports at the time.
“We lost our balance,” Rev. Reid said. “The extremists on both sides caused that and made us forget what we could accomplish when we worked together. Instead of dialogue, there was division. … Lines of communications were closed for a long time after 1968.”
The extremists, Rev. Reid said, included the Black Panthers and other militaristic organizations, who during the riots targeted many Jewish-owned businesses that had remained in African-American communities even as Jews migrated to the suburbs.
In 1968, the Baltimore Jewish Times tried to make sense of the violence in an April 12 editorial:
“Jews, owners for the most part of small businesses, which seemed special targets for the looters and fire bombers, were particularly hard hit because their businesses were in the areas of the ghetto fringes, closest to those who wreaked havoc. … What we must remember is that all Negroes were not in favor of the lawlessness. Many Negro leaders were amazed at the reaction, as were the majority of our population.”
In an April 19, 1968 Jewish Times article, then-JT reporter Milton Friedman offered additional analysis.
“The ghetto was once occupied by Jews,” Friedman wrote. “Homes and places of worship were sold to Negroes years ago when most Jews moved to the suburbs. Merchants retained their shops — grocery, clothing, hardware, appliance, furniture, pharmacy and liquor — and commuted.”
Friedman continued: “Stores were ravaged because they were white-owned and their windows displayed tempting items. A number of looters admitted that the murder of Dr. King was merely a pretext. The underlying motivation was to strike out against the white establishment. The still-frustrated Negro sought to assert himself. No distinction was made between the enterprises of Jewish and non-Jewish whites.”
Longtime Baltimore civil rights activist John Roemer, who is white, said the Jewish community played a pivotal role in aiding the African-American community through the 1960s. But by the end of the decade, many Jews were turned off by revolutionaries who sought more radical approaches to civil rights rather than nonviolent protests and legal challenges, which had been proven successful.
“We were spit on, yelled at and attacked, yet we kept the protests nonviolent,” Roemer said. “There was a very powerful contingent helping us from the Jewish community, because if you wanted to move forward with a liberal cause in Baltimore, that was the community you needed to mobilize. … Tensions between the two communities have always existed, but they were able to put it to the side in fighting for the same goal. But once that goal was achieved, many extreme groups like the Black Panthers and other ‘revolutionaries’ came to the forefront, and many people were put off by that.”
Many other issues and incidents popped up through the years that only widened the chasm
between Jews and African-Americans. First, Rev. Reid said, there was the debate over affirmative action, which began in the 1970s, where Jews favored a merit-based system over quotas to guarantee equality for all.
Adding to the tensions, said Baltimore Jewish Council Executive Director Dr. Arthur C. Abramson, was the rise of politically motivated leaders such as Rev. Jesse Jackson, who in the early 1980s inflamed many in the Jewish community with his support of a Palestinian state. Rev. Jackson referred to New York City as “Hymietown.”
Then in 1991, tensions reached their peak. Riots broke out in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., after Gavin Cato, the son of two Guyanese immigrants, was struck and killed by an automobile in the motorcade of prominent Hasidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. During the riots, Yankel Rosenbaum, an Orthodox Jew who was visiting Crown Heights from Australia, was murdered.
“The  riots really were just the start of the big divide,” Abramson said. “After that there was a confluence of political events and a series of outside political forces and individuals who had differing agendas and weren’t concerned about seeking out commonalities with the African-American and Jewish communities.”