Midcity at the Crossroads
— Shaw Heritage Trail —
The assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Thursday, April 4, 1968, changed this neighborhood forever.
When word of Dr. King's murder spread that evening, Washingtonians gathered along busy 14th and U streets, NW; H Street, NE; and here on Seventh. At first distraught residents simply demanded that businesses close to honor the life of Dr. King, but soon angry individuals began smashing storefronts and taking merchandise. Fury over Dr. King's death, combined with local Black resentment of some White businessmen who treated their patrons as second-class citizens, fueled the rage and destruction.
Stores were firebombed and looted. Firefighters could not do their jobs because rioters cut their hoses. Police were outnumbered. On Friday National Guardsmen and U.S. Army troops arrived to restore order.
When the smoke cleared, the community discovered that 10 people had died in fires. Many were elderly and disabled, living above the storefronts. Businesses, owned by Blacks and Whites alike, were ruined, never to reopen. The riots unfortunately succeeded where urban renewal planners had failed: demolishing many of the area's oldest buildings. Shaw experienced years of boarded-up windows and vacant lots. By the 1980s, affordable housing stood where stores and taverns once did business.
One building destroyed in the fires was a grand house built on this corner sometime before 1874 by fruit grower William F. Thyson. Later it served as a hotel for farmers selling goods at the O Street Market, and from 1920 to 1950 the Salvation Army used it to provide job training for African American men.
In 1950, shops and the Broadway movie house lined this side of Seventh, top
, including Thyson House, above
. At right is this corner the day after the April 1968 riots following Dr. King's assassination, with the smoking ruins of Thyson House at center. (Washingtonian Division, DC Public Library)
The morning after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Howard University students shut down the school in protest. (Washingtonian Division, DC Public Library)
Firefighters battled a blaze at Ninth and L as a police officer scanned the roof tops for snipers. (The Washington Post
Outnumbered police officers watched helplessly as looters cleared out stores on Seventh Street between L and M. (The Washington Post