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Collision – People and Events that Shaped the Vietnam era in Maryland

Welcome to the inaugural post of what will be a monthly series highlighting interviews and other recorded materials from the Maryland Historical Society’s collection of over 1200 oral histories. The collection ranges from interviews with Maryland politicians such as Theodore R. McKeldin, mayor of Baltimore (1943-1947, 1963-1967) and governor of Maryland (1951-1959), to interviews with more anonymous figures, such as Baltimore screen painter Richard Oktavec. MdHS’s earliest oral history is a 1948 Library of Congress recording of an interview with Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken; the most recent addition is a 2012 interview with Esther McCready, the first African-American undergraduate accepted at the University of Maryland in 1950.

Anti-war demonstrator, University of Maryland College Park, 1971, OH 9918. Interviewee Jordan Goodman took this photograph of a demonstrator confronting National Guard troops in front of the Administration Building at the University of Maryland, College Park during the antiwar protests that occurred on the campus in the spring of 1971.(Photograph is not part of the MdHS’s collection)

This month we’ll be spotlighting an oral history project conducted in 2008 and just recently made available to the public: Collision: People and Events that Shaped the Vietnam era in Maryland. The project, a joint endeavor between MdHS and the now defunct Doris M.Johnson High School in Baltimore, consists of eight interviews with anti-war activists and Vietnam veterans.

Maryland was host to a number of significant anti-war activities during the Vietnam War era. One of the more famous incidents occurred on May 17, 1968 when a group of Catholic activists, including brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, set hundreds of draft records ablaze outside of the Catonsville Selective Service office. In October of 1968, the group, which came to be known as the Catonsville Nine, was found guilty in federal court of destruction of U.S. property and interference with the Selective Service Act of 1967. Sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to three and a half years, some of the group chose to go underground; in 1978, Mary Moylan, the last remaining at large member surrendered to the FBI. The Catonsville Nine action and subsequent trial were a major influence on future anti-war and peace actions.

A larger, but less well known series of protests occurred on the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park in May of 1970. On May 1, in response to President Nixon’s announcement of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia the previous day, over 1000 anti-war protesters occupied Route One, ransacked the ROTC armory on campus, and engaged state and local police in often violent confrontations. The thirteen hour long episode marked the beginning of a three week series of violent protests that eventually saw the National Guard called in.  Although overshadowed by the deaths of four students at the hands of National Guardsmen on May 4 at Kent State University, the demonstrations were some of the largest and most violent of those that swept college campuses during that month. The National Guard also returned to the campus in the spring of 1971 and 1972 in response to student protest.

Interviewees in this project include activist and former nun, Elizabeth McAlister, widow of Catonsville Nine member Philip Berrigan (1923-2002).  McAlister discusses the Catonsville Nine action and subsequent trial and her own involvement in the anti-war movement, as well as providing insights into Philip Berrigan’s faith and philosophy. Activist David Eberhardt, in a separate interview, speaks about his involvement in the civil rights and peace movements, including his role as a member of the Baltimore Four. The group, which included Phillip Berrigan, was arrested for pouring blood on draft records at the Baltimore Custom House on October 27, 1967.

The project also contains one of the last interviews with historian and activist Howard Zinn before he passed away in January of 2010. Zinn, best known for his book A People’s History of the Unites States, discusses his anti-war activism during the Vietnam War as well as his experiences as a bombardier during World War II.  Below is a clip from the interview with Zinn speaking about the impact of Baltimore Quaker Norman Morrison’s November 2, 1965 self-immolation in front of the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War.


Photograph: Interviewee Jordan Goodman took this photograph of anti-war demonstrators gathering on College Avenue at the University of Maryland, College Park on May 5, 1971. (Photograph is not part of the MdHS’s collection)

For more information on this oral history project, including an inventory of the interviews, please visit the project page. (Damon Talbot)