Revisiting Up Pine Street and Civil War on Race Street

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper David “Nicky” Henry, author of the two-volume Up Pine Street books, portrayed the Africa-American community in Cambridge as it was before the fires of 1967. With a story told mostly in pictures, the books are a fascinating look at Pine Street in its prime.

CAMBRIDGE — The Friday morning presentations, a highlight of the packed schedule of “Reflections on Pine,” provided a look back on Pine Street from two totally different but complementary perspectives. David “Nicky” Henry, author of the two-volume Up Pine Street portrayed the Africa-American community as it was before the fires of 1967. The volumes are titled Up Pine Street, an expression that was new to many at the lecture on Friday. But there were plenty of older people at the lecture who remembered saying “I’m going up Pine Street,” the way that in other cities you might have said, ”I’m going downtown.”
The second presenter, Dr. Peter Levy, has researched the Cambridge upheaval and published a book, presenting a different narrative than what was reported in the newspapers and accepted by the white community at the time.
Mr. Henry’s talk, accompanied by wonderful photographs of the once-vibrant area, is the story of a once flourishing community with employment and money to spend. Women were employed in canning tomatoes and they made good money. Phillips Canning was the main source of a million dollars in wages in the African-American community.
Businesses on Pine Street ranged from a shoe store, a drugstore, a dancehall, a poolroom, a bus company, a political club, and more.

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
In his book, Civil War on Race Street, Dr. Peter Levy presented the controversy between the black and white communities that led up to the civil unrest of the ‘60s, and a long festering discontent with segregation and its lingering effects in Cambridge.

Clubs and associations filled the social schedule of both men and women. Celebrities like Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis and many others came to Pine Street to entertain, finding a friendly reception and people who could pay. As he lectured, Mr. Henry projected old photos he’d collected in his books. Some elderly women in the audience added an extra touch of reality. They recognized the people in the photos, and with nostalgic laughter contributed, “That’s me” and “That’s my brother.”
But the fire that started at the historic Pine Street Elementary School on July 24, 1967 at 1 a.m. spread to two square blocks, erasing those community buildings and the traditions people lived by. Forty homes were burned as well while the firemen watched and were not sent in to fight the flames.

Kisha Petticolas and Dion Banks

Dr. Peter Levy’s lecture presented a different set of facts from what has been the accepted account of the fire to write his book, He gleaned his material in a lengthy and exhaustive search. Dr. Levy’s book, Civil War on Race Street, is based on police records, government manuscripts, timetables, oral histories, and court records. He names the officials involved in the arrests he considers unfair, and he lays the blame for the extensive destruction on respected and appointed city and county personnel. No firefighters went into the neighborhood, waiting on the periphery, presumably because of fear; but utility workers went in and did their jobs unharmed. In the lecture, Dr. Levy presented the controversy between the black and white communities, a long festering discontent with segregation and its lingering effects in Cambridge. His views will appear controversial to some readers of his book, but he documents his sources.
Revisiting what was lost and how it was lost is the beginning of a process of healing from the hurt of those times, according to ESNC.
Dion Banks and Kisha Petticolas agree that talking about the history of the fire of 50 years ago is a prerequisite to the process of healing. The four-day Reflections on Pine Street has started the conversation. “Now,” says Mr. Banks, “it’s time to move forward.”

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