Working as a photo-journalist during the turbulent 60’s and 70’s had it’s moments of terror and fear, as bombings and fires raged with anger of blacks and whites confronting each other. One such night of fear and anxiety came in Harford County as the H. Rap Brown trial was to open in a few days.
The trial never happened,….in Bel Air…after a car with two black men inside exploded along Route 1 and Toll Gate road, while the town was under ‘lock down’ because of threats the police received from supporters of Mr. Brown.
The story I wrote and the photographs taken were shared with Time-Life magazine in New York….
From Time magazine comes this account of what happened next:
“Two black militants were killed when their car was blasted to bits while they were riding on a highway south of Bel Air, Md. The dead were Ralph Featherstone, 30, and William (“Che”) Payne, 26. Featherstone, a former speech therapist, was well known as a civil rights field organizer and, more recently, as manager of the Afro-American bookstore, the Drum & Spear, in Washington. Both were friends of H. Rap Brown, whose trial on charges of arson and incitement to riot was scheduled to begin last week in Bel Air. Reconstruction of the car’s speedometer indicates it was traveling about 55 miles an hour when it blew up.
Police believed that Payne had been carrying a dynamite bomb on the floor between his legs and that it accidentally exploded. A preliminary FBI investigation supported that theory. Friends of the dead men contended that white extremists had either ambushed the pair or booby-trapped their car, perhaps trying to kill Brown. But police pointed out that Featherstone and Payne had driven in from Washington without notice, cruised around Bel Air briefly and seemed to be headed back. That assassins could plot and move so quickly defies belief.
Although Featherstone had not been known as an extremist, friends said that he had grown markedly more bitter in the past year. Police cited a crudely spelled typewritten statement found on his body: “To Amerika:* I’m playing heads-up murder. When the deal goes down I’m gon be standing on your chest screaming like Tarzan. Dynamite is my response to your justice.” Brown, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found.”
For me that night will forever remind me of fear of the unknown. Like the fears we all share today, in 1970, fears of racial unrest and upheaval were on everyone’s minds. I had worked that night along the roads leading into Bel Air, the county seat….and had stopped by the Armory in town for a coffee with some troopers. Nothing was going on, the town was quiet, which was good, so I headed home.
As I drove my VW bug past Saint Margaret church I heard a blast that scared the life out of me and yet, I turned around in the roadway and followed my senses onto Bond street and southbound on Route 1. The smell of death was in the air as I came on the scene…body parts hanging in trees along the side of the road, fuel and car parts strewn along the highway…police and fire crews arriving one after the other.
Life as it was would never be the same in this sleepy little town…and racial outsiders, agitating even had the black population of Bel Air upset and afraid of what would happen next. Most of my friends in the black community were confused by all the outsiders picketing and demanding the things many of the locals already had….jobs, respect and homes here in town.
It was a job of a life-time for me, fresh out of college with an English literature and history degree, and given the chance to write for the biggest newspaper in Harford County…beyond my wildest dreams. Plans were to teach in the county, and the pay for me would have been $5000 a year. The editor of the Aegis was John D. Worthington, III, a goodly man, a bit of a rounder, rough around the edges…so we got along fine.
The only thing he said to me when he hired me on was, “Write it the way you see it…just put down what you know as fact and we’ll never have a problem.”…That was it…no sermon, no booklet on the ‘whys and wherefores’ of the Aegis….just get out on the scene, tell it like it is, and play it right down the middle.
There’s more to the story, but seeing the photo of the ‘Featherstone’ car was enough to conjure up some memories of the long, strange trip to where things are today in my life.
And sometimes, when I come across some things from the past days, I feel they should be shared, to better understand one another…and myself.
My Diary From Those Days
March 9,1970 Monday
9:30 Judge Harry Dyer, Jr.s courtroom…William Kunstler , Brogue Barrett pic in front of courthouse…
1:30 Court adjourned, then reconvened…another pic of Kunstler and Clarence Davis, arm in arm coming out of courthouse. Good pic.
5 p/m check w/all police, barracks, town, sher.dept.
March 10 Tuesday
8:30 hit police tty’s..(teletypes on press board)
10 be at courthouse, pic of H. Rap (Brown) coming into courtroom…
10-22 pic…brown doesn’t show. Word is he’s in HdG at ‘safe house‘ on Revolution street, owned by Dr. Spry.
11 a/m benson barracks, check w/Mrs. Cooper, re: any new stuff on Brown
12 Conowingo post, dam…to NOrth East barrack…same thing, no news, quiet
4 Fallston, accidental shooting, get pic…I.B. Andrews
5 Benson barrack, check in
7 back in town, state police command post at Bel Air Armory, Otis Trost man to see, ‘it’s quiet, thank God”
Leaving town to go home…fire sirens, explosion, follow the lights, to toll gate road and Rte. 1…big explosion, stuff still in the air, smells of death…
Stay put…on scene, Col. Tom Smith MSP arrives fast…stay with it
1 a/m…write it out…Robbie’s waiting, must write out, with pic, cut lines…
March 11…film and contact of explosion
9 a/m WCBM calls me…why?
Bill Bruns, life magazine, wants two images of explosion.
10 Bob Comes, Sher.Dept.
4 p.m. Cover Bill Veeck Press Conference at Harford Community College, w/pic
6 pm…teach class at HCC, sixth week, tonight open darkroom, after lecture.
“The photo is right up front is naked, raw, in your face. Right away, in the first paragraph I recall the horror of that event…for although I was physically only a kid, a mere 15 years old at the time of the incident, I was much older than that. Having the older brothers, I had the luxury of being enlightened to the 60’s, the dissent, the questioning of authority in an age when it had to be done, and the unleashing of a new read on moral values that the 50’s had tried to suppress,” said Patrick Wallis, copy-editor for Mr. Holden
“I had always been intrigued and appalled by the civil rights movement, from the early days of the 60’s. I grew up in a lower income town, full of transients and plenty of poor folk, many black, and many of them my playmates from childhood. I recall being a voracious reader in those days and I was always hungry to hear more and see more pictures to learn as much as I could about the plight of the black man. I could never understand the inhumanity dealt to whole generations, blatant and public humiliation and hatred heaped upon them everywhere they turned. I cried out in my soul at the horror of how one whole race of people could be so subjugated, so much so that by the time the mid 60’s turned the corner and Motown came around and James Brown and the whole Black culture got on that dissent bandwagon and stood up and told White America to look out ‘cuz a change was going to come…and they didn’t exactly mean the sit down and talk it over change that the good reverend spoke of…it was revolution time and they were going to lay claim to burning down all of that ugly history. I kind of understood how they would be pissed and rooted for their victory in some naïve way, that is, until a few years into that debacle I realized we were all going to burn in hell for the way we lived unless we found a way out of the mess and calmed down. Never really happened. The hippies burned out for the most part and a few carrots of freedom were dangled in front of the Black masses to appease them, but economically, culturally, holistically, they were still the downtrodden.”
“Many years have passed since then and the poor folks stay poor and lines of what’s right and wrong get blurrier every day. The Black Man as a whole, I feel, never fully got the right message…and that’s where it stays confusing, because did they remain hookers and deadbeats and absent fathers and good for nothings because they were kept down for so long or is it simply because they rose to their Peter Principal and then stopped. Same could be said for poor White Trash, the Appalachian Waifs, the lost souls who just drift through time. Don’t know that anyone’s at fault for anything anymore except I’m sure we’re all partly to blame for the sad way we’ve treated each other and how disparate our souls have gotten.”
“But, I digress. The mystery is cleared. I had never fully understood what had happened to those two blokes in the car that blew up. I was for sure that the bomb had been planted. Perhaps I didn’t read up on it because I just wanted to believe in the mystery and maybe was pulling for a bit of anarchy from the Congo. Dunno. I’m glad it was only a bomb that went off by accident and the two fools who thought they could pull off that kind of revolution got a taste of Karma, a full course actually. This town and the country itself was certainly not the same and God forbid it would have been a lot worse if their promise of destruction had been delivered.”
“Either way, we walk in shit most of the time, mostly our own. It’s good we wear shoes and wipe our feet.”
“Thanks for the memory and the history lesson,” Wallis.