>The Riot at the 1023 Club

>The night in Anacostia in August 1966 has become legend among music historians and has been told by both Eddie Dean in the City Paper and Mark Opsasnick in his book “Capitol Rock”. On a hot night in August 1966, a rough bar called the 1023 Restaurant at 1023 Wahler Place, SE blared with the blistering rock and roll of Link Wray while rowdy bikers drank, danced and fought inside the club. The 1023 was a holdover of when Anacostia was a white hillbilly neighborhood resembling more of a backwater southern town than a part of the nation’s capital. The neighborhoods surrounding the 1023 had rapidly flipped in the early sixties turning Anacostia into a majority black neighborhood overnight. However, white bikers continued to gather at the bar snubbing the new residents of the neighborhood. A series of events led to an angry mob of black teenagers gathering outside the club and throwing rocks through the windows. One patron was stabbed outside and the teenagers stoned the ambulance as it came to take him away. Link Wray and many of the bikers at the bar that night had to fight their way out of the area and received no mercy from the angry local youths who pelted them with bottles and stones.  

The story is certainly the stuff of legend, but it is much more complicated than the previous versions have let on. To understand the incident fully we have to look at the events surrounding it and put the 1023 in context. Looking back forties years later, there were a variety of factors that made violence in the neighborhood inevitable. The neighborhood had rapidly flipped from majority white to majority black in about a year, the police officers of the 11th Precinct were notoriously racist, and civil rights organizers had begun agitating for improved services to the neighborhood. These elements came together in front of the 1023 and changed Southeast forever.

According to Mark Opsasnick, author of Capitol Rock, the 1023 opened sometime in 1959 hosting country music singer/accordionist Stoney Rigsby into the early sixties. In 1964 the club switched to rock and roll featuring a Beatles-cover band called the Creatures. Link Wray started playing the 1023 in early 1965 and remained until the riot of August 1966. Link Wray had moved to the 1023 after playing for a time at Vinnie’s at 10th and H, NW and the gang members and bikers from Vinnie’s followed him to the 1023.

The Washington Highlands neighborhood around the 1023 changed rapidly and dramatically from almost totally white to totally black as the DC government converted a large number of local apartment buildings into public housing. Whites were already abandoning Washington Highlands and other parts of Anacostia partially because of white flight, but primarily because Bolling AFB and the Navy Yard scaled back operations significantly in the early sixties. This left a large number of vacant apartments to house black residents displaced by the clearing of alley dwellings and the construction of Interstate 295. In 1964, the DC government began converting the apartments into public housing moving large numbers of blacks into the neighborhood overnight. By early 1966, Washington Highlands was almost entirely black as the public housing sent more whites to Prince George’s.

Looking back, Washington Highlands was a terrible choice for public housing, but the DC government was desperately short of public housing so they had little choice. However, Washington Highlands was (and is) one of the most isolated neighborhoods in DC. Anacostia on the whole is isolated because of the river and  295, but Washington Highlands is surrounded on three sides by a swath of undeveloped land around Oxon Run. Prior to becoming Oxon Run Parkway, this area of land was a military training area called Camp Simms. There are very few ways out of Washington Highlands with the primary one being Wheeler Road. Add poverty to the geographic barriers, and you’ve got a real sense of alienation and isolation among residents.

In February 1966, a group of youths started an organization called Rebels with a Cause with the intention of organizing youth in the projects in Congress Heights and Washington Highlands to improve housing, schools, and recreation. At the same time a group of young married couples started a group called Band of Angels to win improvements in the public housing units. The two groups confronted the United Planning Organization (UPO), which is the DC human services organization, seeking funds to hire staff and work with youths in these neighborhoods. Eventually, the UPO relented and helped the Rebels hire 13 organizers to work in the neighborhood. Their primary focus was getting recreational facilities and they seemed to be on their way to gaining improvements, but trouble was brewing.

The officers of the 11th Precinct provided the spark that kids needed for the neighborhood to explode into violence. Some of the officers were accused by blacks of excessive force and a Washington Post reporter took pictures of white power carvings by officers in the 11th Precinct. Clearly, some of the officers were not happy with the changes to the neighborhood and the tension was rising. In May 1966 an African American named James McKnight was arrested as he left the 1023 for drunkenness. McKnight claimed that the police officer arrested him for dancing with a white girl inside the 1023. McKnight claimed Officer Tester said, “Nigger, don’t you know better than to dance with a white girl”. McKnight told the officer that he can’t arrest him for dancing with a white girl, but Officer Tester told him that he could arrest him for drunkenness. The tension with police was rising rapidly among black youths.

As an aside, this is a curious incident for the 1023 because legend tells us that it was a rough whites-only club and it makes me wonder if McKnight was a biker himself, and therefore accepted by the other bikers in the club. If the 1023 had lived up to its reputation McKnight would’ve left the club on a stretcher instead of his legs for dancing with a white girl. Clearly the club was integrated to some degree, but we can’t be certain to what extent. Six witnesses testified at McKnight’s trial that he appeared sober in the club. The judge threw out the charge.

That summer, the heat was intense and August 1966 saw a long string of sweltering days. Pools across the city were only allowing kids to swim in shifts because of the overwhelming demand, but Anacostia did not have enough pools for their kids. For many, all they could do was hang around outside and cook in the stifling air. Shortly before the riot, there were power outages in Anacostia from the amount of air conditioning being used.

In August 1966, racial tension exploded in Anacostia. Trouble started when a group of black “pick pockets” attacked Kennard Harford, a 65 year old white man, in the Wheeler Liquors parking lot on Wheeler Rd. Police arrested John G. Ford for the attack, but something about the arrest angered the youths gathering around the police. The officers dispersed the crowd, but apparently only momentarily. Seven hours later a small crowd attacked Wallace Poole as he left the 1023 Club and stabbed him several times. As the ambulance arrived a larger crowd gathered and began stoning the ambulance and the club smashing windows and cutting off power. The club’s bouncer, Carl Simpson, told the Daily News “There were about 100 of them…I was inside the restaurant and I heard the glass crash…they were throwing rocks, bottles, and paint cans through the windows.” Police broke up the crowd, which dissipated only to reappear at a shopping center a block away. The crowd focused on a bar they perceived as a whites-only establishment and two other businesses breaking the windows. One store-owner complained that this was the “third time in six months they have broken my windows.” He went on to say, “this place is getting a bad reputation…people don’t want to come here and it’s hurting our business.” Of course, he seems to imply the people no longer coming were whites and he didn’t seem interested in selling his services to the newer black residents. Youths indicated to UPO staff that they had attacked the 1023 because they felt the place discriminated against blacks and they were bitter about the “white motorcyclists who hang around two bars in the Congress Heights area … which endangered the citizens.” Again, it is interesting that McKnight was in the club dancing with a white girl unfettered, but many in the neighborhood considered the 1023 to have some racist symbolism.

The next morning, UPO staff organized an outdoor meeting hoping to cool tensions, but as the kids gathered, 11th Precinct officers arrived and arrested two men for stabbing Wallace Poole outside the 1023. When a UPO staffer asked the officers the reason for the arrest, they arrested him for interfering. This angered the kids and the crowd began to turn angry. The UPO workers convinced the kids to march on the 11th Precinct station and picket outside. The picketers began to thin out and some kids continued to mill around outside the station. Someone started throwing firecrackers and the police officers decided to act. Inexplicably, a police officer asked two security guards working nearby to bring their dogs and help guard the police station. These two guards, in cowboy hats, agitated the crowd further and it began to swell again. Some youths threw fire crackers at the guards and police decided to move on the crow. At first a few officers came out and tried to break up the youths to no effect, but then 50 officers showed up in riot gear and began attacking the crowd. Kids started throwing bricks and bottles at the police injuring one officer. The police were equally brutal slashing at kids indiscriminately with nightsticks. Police gained control of the situation by 1:30 AM and in the end 10 people were arrested.

The community was shocked at the violence in Southeast and the city began a series of hearings into its causes. Meanwhile, SNCC organizers saw the moment as an opportunity to further their movement in the northern cities. SNCC was schizophrenic in 1966 because one part of the organization preached nonviolence while the other part preached black power. In DC, (future-mayor-for-life) Marion Barry was director of SNCC and he tended towards the black power wing of the movement. In the first hearing, Barry led a leafleting effort to encourage black youths to join SNCC. However, the youths were already organized and SNCC had only a peripheral effect on the events in Anacostia. Stokley Charmichael gave a speech on black power that called on people in Anacostia to take control of their lives and institutions, but officials hastily scheduled a dance at the same time to try to reduce his audience. Charmichael was too late though, the Rebels had already taken control and the speech sounded out of place in the moment. Unlike disorganized black neighborhoods across the country, the Rebels had brought black power to southeast DC years ahead of others.

The hearings went on for months and were wracked by complaints about the lack of representation of kids from the neighborhood and refusals by police officers to testify. In the end the city concluded that everyone was to blame for the riot. In classic DC form, the report was more about CYA than resolving wider community problems.

Meanwhile, legend has it that the Pagans returned to the site of the 1023 and exacted some kind of revenge on black residents. However, I couldn’t find any concrete evidence that this actually occurred. As for the 1023 Club, it closed shortly after the riot and reopened in 1967 as a black nightclub called the Salt and Pepper Lounge before closing in 1968 and being replaced by another black nightclub called the Harlequin Lounge, which operated in 1969-70. The building was vacant until 1977 when it opened as a market and was torn down in 1998. Today a 314-unit housing development called “Wheeler Creek Estates” occupies the entire site and surrounding area. The exact location of the old 1023 now hosts a house marked 1007 Wahler Place SE.


About Our Redneck Past

You'll find my name on the tail of my shirt.
This entry was posted in anacostia, Link Wray, Pagans, Southeast DC, wahler place and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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