Forty years after the D.C. riot

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Washington Jewish Week

March 27, 2008 | Rosen, Larry

The 40th anniversary of the 1968 riot, triggered by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., occurs on April 4. During the riot, my drugstore, Smith Pharmacy, 2518 14th St., N.W, which I had owned and operated for nine years, was burned down, becoming one of the 1,634 District businesses damaged or destroyed, resulting in some $24 million damage (a lot of money back then).

According to the most informative book on the ’68 riot, Ten Blocks From the White House, by Ben Gilbert and The Washington Post staff, “It was generally the white businessmen – in many cases the Jewish merchants – who suffered the most.

“Nearly half of the city’s 383 liquor dealers suffered damage and theft during the riot – 37 stores burned, 52 were partially looted, 82 looted of most of their stock.

“Store shelves were loaded when the riot occurred. In addition to their usual heavy first-of-the-month merchandise, the dealers had added to their supplies in anticipation of Easter and Passover.”

Like myself, my brother, Sam, decided not to reopen his neighborhood 5 and 10 on Georgia Avenue – which he had operated for the previous 20 years after it was looted. My brother Phil’s almost new building, which was leased to a liquor dealer, also burned down.

At the time of this riot, D.C. officials should have been aware that more than 300 riots had occurred throughout the entire country between 1965 and 1968, resulting in 200 deaths and the destruction of several thousand businesses (“Burn, Baby, Burn,” Jonathan Bean, associate professor of history at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale). Yet, the D.C. officials summoned the National Guard late Friday afternoon (from gas station pay phones), a day after the riot began, indicating that no concrete preparations in case of a similar destruction in the nation’s capital had ever been made. The Guard arrived Friday evening to a city already in flames.

Many of my friends always asked the same question: “How did you make out on insurance?” My response has always been the same: “Not enough reimbursement to cover my total loss. There was some coverage for loss of inventory, fixture, and business interruption, but there was no insurance for good will,” the livelihood value attributed to a business.

“Good will” is normally listed on a business sales contract as an asset.

Apparently, the D.C. council was aware of insurance reimbursement policies when its president, John Hechinger, suggested to then-D.C. Mayor Walter Washington in May 1968 that “merchants be reimbursed for all losses not covered by insurance such as good will.” The suggestion was ignored.

Although I was not a pharmacist, I managed to operate a profitable drugstore and luncheonette, having received experience from working for nine years in a local wholesale drug firm that sold pharmaceuticals, patent medicines and other merchandise normally sold in drugstores. I enjoyed my job and got used to working more than the customary 40-hour work week. After the riot, I owned and operated some newsstands and gift shops, but enjoyed operating Smith Pharmacy most of all.

A new Target and other nationally known businesses have opened in the Columbia Heights neighborhood where I operated my pharmacy.

All the structures that housed the businesses on the 2500 block of 14th Street in Northwest have been demolished. The sole occupant on the block today is a Boys-Girls Club.

In the same way that our national security officials have taken measures to protect us from terror attacks, our federal and state authorities should also be prepared to restrain any group that threatens the businesses and properties of hard-working Americans.

[Author Affiliation]

Larry Rosen is a Rockville resident.

Rosen, Larry

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