Georgette Nelson was just ten years old when the D.C. riots began just hours after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. The riots raged on for four days, leaving loss after loss in its wake. Thirteen people died, and scores of businesses and homes were vandalized, burned, and looted. It took the city nearly 30 years to recover completely.
Even though the city came back, the D.C. riots had a lasting effect on everyone involved. The riots forced Nelson and her little brother, Wayne Cook, apart, and they didn’t see each other for 50 years. Not every family had a happy ending. From surviving Junior Village, to disappearances under questionable circumstances and the aftermath of the riots, these are their stories.
The Riots Begin
Nelson had to stand on top of the toilet to peer out the window at the mayhem down below. Across the street, D.C. rioters had already flipped over a car and set it on fire. Then, the ten-year-old watched as they dragged a driver from his moving delivery truck. Minutes later, a group of people with makeshift torches gathered on the sidewalk, just steps from Nelson’s front door.
“Burn it from the ground! They can’t get out that way,” Nelson recalled hearing someone shout before her mother yanked her to the floor. Her little brother Wayne Cook looked at his sister with sadness and fear. “Georgette, are we going to die?” the 8-year-old asked.
“We Were All Poor”
The children’s parents separated when Nelson was four and Cook was two. Their father went on to live in a men’s boarding house, while their mother struggled to keep custody of her three children. Nelson and Cook lived in the basement of a three-story brick home on Euclid Street, where they all slept together in one double bed.
Nelson and Cook were just a few white children in their largely Black neighborhood. But as children, they thought nothing of their racial differences. “The only thing we knew is that we were all poor,” Nelson told The Washington Post. In fact, they were so poor that Nelson and her little brother frequently resorted to begging in the street for food.
The Infamous Junior Village
Then, one day, a worried neighbor made a call to social services. Within days, the agency came and whisked Nelson away and sent her to live at the infamous Junior Village. Cook, however, stayed behind with the siblings’ mother. The village was a thirteen-cottage compound meant to home needy children.
It was also a must-stop destination for powerful people like Jacqueline Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. However, the cheerful newspaper clippings and holiday celebrations were a far cry from what life on the compound was really like. Opened in 1958, Junior Village jammed over 900 children, from as young as six months old to 18 years old, in a facility meant for only 320.
From Home to Home
Food was short, and abuse ran rampant in Junior Village. Luckily for Nelson, the social services found her a foster home after a couple of months. She was a nice, elderly woman who always made Nelson’s bed for her and played Bach on the record player.
Nelson missed her family, but the lady made her feel at home. After a few short weeks, the little girl’s foster mother passed away, and Nelson was sent to her second foster home. This time, Cook was sent with her. But this second foster home was nothing like Nelson’s first. The parents were mean and cruel, and to this day, Nelson suffers from PTSD from her time spent there.
Going Back to Mama
Nelson’s father, who was only permitted to speak with his kids on the phone, sensed the fear in his daughter’s voice. While he was barred from seeing his children, Nelson’s father still managed to help from afar. After getting off the phone with Nelson one night, he put in a call to social services.
A few days later, a worker arrived at the home and returned Nelson and Cook back to their mother, who was still suffering from alcoholism. By now, the family had moved from the basement into a cramped room in the attic of the three-story home on Euclid Street.
Where Are We Going?
Nelson and Cook shared a twin-sized bed, sleeping with their heads on opposite sides of the mattress. After school, the siblings played with their landlord’s zoo-like collection of pets—including a monkey in a diaper named Ringo and a German shepherd named Lady.
Everything seemed to be going fine until one morning when the children’s mother asked them to wear their Sunday best. She then piled Nelson and Cook into their landlord’s car. Nelson and her little brother repeatedly asked where they were headed, but their mother refused to answer.
Ready for Round Two
“It’s for the best, Dorothy,” Nelson remembers the landlord saying as she sat crying uncontrollably in the passenger seat. Then Nelson felt her heart drop—she knew where they were headed. This was now Nelson’s second time being sent to Junior Village and Cook’s first.
After arriving at the compound, the siblings were told to change into ragged cotton clothes before being separated into boys’ and girls’ dormitories. The rooms were crowded with rows of steel bunk beds, while warmth and affection were virtually nonexistent. “I cried myself to sleep every night,” Nelson told The Washington Post in 2020.
After around six months, Nelson and Cook finally returned to their mother in her attic apartment. After moving home, Nelson recalls wandering into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when she was approached by a woman who, she says, was dressed like Cinderella.
The woman, Sharon Stromberg, could sense that Nelson was going through a difficult time and she wanted to help in any way she could. So, she and her husband Kirk would invite Nelson over to their home for the weekend. This gave Nelson a safe space to really be a kid—even if it was just for a few days a week.
“Burn, Baby, Burn”
By now, Nelson was ten years old, and Cook was eight. The siblings were playing with toy soldiers on the floor when they heard their mother drop a frying pan in the sink. She immediately ran to her children and herded them into the bathroom.
“A mob with burning torches made from clothes wrapped around wooden boards had just set fire to a store. They were coming to our building yelling, ‘Burn, baby, burn,’” Nelson wrote in The History of the Washington, D.C. LDS Ward by Lee H. Burke.
Who’s at the Door?
The family’s telephone line went dead. As they huddled on the floor, Nelson taught her brother how to pray. After what seemed like forever, they heard a loud pounding on the top of the attic’s stairs. Did the rioters make it inside their home?
The children froze as they watched their mother answer the door. Standing in full riot gear and gas masks were members of the National Guard. They urged the family to follow them out on the street. Apparently, the Strombergs had made a few phone calls, alerting the Guard about Nelson and her family living in the attic.
Going Their Separate Ways
The Stromberg couple brought Nelson to live with them, while Cook was taken to a different foster home. The brother and sister, who had been each other’s source of strength, immediately lost touch. Nelson went on to get married when she was 20 years old.
She took her first husband’s name before becoming a stay-at-home mother to five kids in the Salt Lake City suburbs. Cook, on the other hand, had a harder time. He was sent from foster home to foster home before becoming homeless in California for several years.
It’s Been 50 years
Cook worked odd jobs around California before marrying and fathering four children. With their parents long gone, Nelson and Cook began to give up hope of ever finding each other again. Then in 2019, Nelson’s daughter, Ashley, decided to make her mother a Facebook profile. She hoped that it would somehow connect Nelson with her little brother.
It didn’t take long before Cook’s stepdaughter came across Nelson and Ashley’s profiles. She sent Ashley a message to see if Cook and Nelson were related. The 62-year-old took one look at her younger’s brother photo and began to weep. She had finally found her brother after five decades.
“I Love You”
In March 2020, the two siblings reunited at a rehabilitation facility in California. 60-year-old Cook was staying there as he recovered from a staph infection that turned into sepsis. Nelson arrived at the facility in a pink dress and sweater. When she entered the facility, Nelson immediately spotted her brother at the end of the hallway and began to run towards him.
Cook held a bouquet of daisies while he hugged his older sister for the first time in over 50 years. “I love you, Wayne,” Nelson said, as tears streamed down her cheeks. “I love you, too, Georgette,” Cook replied.
“You’re My Sister!”
After a long embrace, Cook asked his older sister to lean in. He then grabbed her face to inspect her chin. Yep, Nelson’s old scar was still there from that time she fell down the stairs as a kid. “You’re my sister,” Cook teased.
They hugged each other again before starting an hours-long session of catching up and reminiscing. Day turned into night, and the siblings were still caught up in conversation. Nelson had put together a book and handed it to Cook. Inside were the few childhood photos that she had held on to over the years.
Not So Lucky
Some of those pictures included Ringo, the monkey, and Lady, the dog. “That monkey bit me,” Cook said as he saw the picture, and the two siblings began to laugh. At around 10 p.m., it was finally time for Nelson to go home.
As she walked towards the door, she turned around to get one last look at her brother. While Nelson and the rest of her family made it out of the riots alive, not everyone was as lucky. Amid the unrest that engulfed D.C. in April 1968, 15-year-old Vincent Lawson vanished.
Several Unanswered Questions
The high school freshman was visiting his grandma around the corner from H Street, where blocks of stores were being looted and burned. Vincent called home to his mother, who begged him to stay inside until it was safe to come out again.
However, the fifteen-year-old and his older brother Glen slipped out. Glen managed to make it home, while Vincent was never heard from again. Over 50 years later, Vincent’s younger sister Vanessa Dixon says she still has several unanswered questions. So, what exactly happened all those years ago?
A Great Kid
The Lawson family ordeal began when Vincent and Glen left their family home to visit their grandmother near H Street, despite the fact that there were riots going on in the streets. Vincent was the youngest of the three Lawson boys. He was small for his age, and everyone remembers him as a really great kid.
Vanessa, who was the youngest of the Lawson kids, remembers always wanting to play with her older brothers. She was especially close to Vincent, who was only two years older than her. She was 13 years old when Vincent disappeared.
Two Peas in a Pod
“He was my best friend. We grew up together, like two peas in a pod,” Vanessa told reporters at WTOP news in 2018. “He and I were like twins.” Vanessa and Vincent were always working around the neighborhood.
They raked their neighbors’ leaves, shoveled snow, and even carried people’s groceries home in their little red wagon. Eventually, the siblings earned enough money to buy a new pair of sneakers from the store down the street. As time went on, Vanessa and Vincent got more jobs and were able to buy shoes every other week.
Helping His Mom Out
The Lawson parents divorced a few years before the D.C. riots, and the children lived with their mother, Ida, in “the projects.” Ida worked as a housekeeper, while their father, Prentiss, was a Postal Service supervisor.
When the rioting began in the Northeast of D.C., crowds broke into stores, and Vincent was among them. “Oh my God, it brings chills to me now to think about,” Vanessa continued. “He told [our mother] he got her three boxes of stockings, and she wasn’t going to have to worry about that anymore.”
Any Day Now
Ida, however, was furious and scared. She told her mother not to let Vincent out of the house again until the riots were over. But then, one morning, Vincent’s grandmother noticed that Vincent was gone. The family tried everything they could to find him.
Prentiss filed a missing person report with the police (he was number 275 in the D.C. police files), and he also paid a private investigator to track his son down. As time went on, the Lawson family held out hope. “He’s going to be home any day now,” Vanessa recalls saying to herself every day.
Is That Vincent?
According to Vanessa, both the police department and the private investigator were certain that the department store (the last place he had been seen with his friends) had been thoroughly checked. Vincent just hadn’t been found. For years, Vanessa was haunted by phantom sightings of her older brother.
She would repeatedly jump off the bus, thinking she spotted her older brother walking across the street. “I thought, ‘There he is!’ Excitement, adrenaline, heart about to come out of my chest,” Vanessa recalled in 2018. “Within 10 seconds, I’m like, ‘I’m gonna be the one to bring him home!’”
He Just Vanished
But it was always someone else that looked like Vincent. “You want something so bad that you think you see it,” the youngest Lawson sibling said. “You make it be what you want it to be.” For years, Vanessa says she held in her feelings of sadness and despair.
“I didn’t know what I was supposed to cry about, because he was just missing.” The police department says they did everything they could, but they just couldn’t find him. Scores of people were missing, and the department either didn’t have the resources, or they just didn’t care. Then, in 1971, the Lawson family received a phone call.
That Dreaded Phone Call
Sadly, it was the conversation that the Lawsons hoped they’d never have to have. On a Saturday morning in July 1971, three years after the riots, construction workers were preparing to demolish a department store warehouse.
The warehouse was less than a block away from Vincent’s grandmother’s home and right next door to the department store where Vincent had been last seen. Both buildings had been heavily damaged by fire and smoke from the disturbances that ravaged the neighborhood in 1968. Both buildings had been boarded up ever since.
They Found Vincent
That morning, the construction workers were preparing to take off the boarded-up building’s roof when they lifted up a skylight and saw a disturbing view down below. There, lying on the ground, were bones. For the Lawson family, the discovery of Vincent’s remains answered some questions, but not all of them.
And as time’s gone by, Vanessa says that she is tormented with the nagging what-ifs, the unknown, and the small details that don’t seem to make any sense. In addition to dental records, Vincent was identified by his clothing: a maroon and grey striped sweater and overalls. However, there were some questionable details.
But Was That Him?
Since the clothing was still intact, the authorities believed that Vincent had likely passed away from smoke inhalation. However, the exact cause of death remains unknown. But for Vanessa, some of the details don’t just add up.
For starters, Vincent was missing his two front teeth, according to newspaper articles. However, Vanessa says that her brother wasn’t missing any teeth when she last saw him. And the shoes he was found in (low-top sneakers) weren’t the kind that he always wore. In fact, Vanessa says that he didn’t own a pair of those shoes.
What Really Happened?
At times, Vanessa is still overwhelmed with feelings of doubt. Was it possible that it wasn’t Vincent that construction workers found that morning? Could it have been someone else? One of the friends who was with Vincent the night he disappeared said that he last saw the 15-year-old being chased out of the store by police with their guns drawn.
Could he have been shot and then placed in the building? The medical examiner doubts this theory. He explained to The Post that the skeleton didn’t have any broken bones or signs of a gunshot wound.
Coming to Terms
Vanessa also says that she doesn’t think the family ever received a medical examiner’s report nor a death certificate. Her father, Prentiss, who is long gone, was a meticulous record-keeper. But even still, Vanessa hasn’t been able to find anything about her deceased brother in her father’s personal files.
Despite her waves of doubt, Vanesa says that she is able to come to terms with what the medical examiner says was the likely scenario: Vincent got caught in the warehouse and died of smoke inhalation. “I’m trying to make myself believe that he died quickly,” Vanessa said in 2018.
“They All Lied”
But one thing’s for certain: Vincent could have been found a lot sooner. For the three years that Vincent was missing, both the police and the private investigator assured the Lawsons that the department store had been thoroughly checked. “They were emphatic about it.”
“The D.C. government was emphatic about it. And they all lied,” Vanessa told WT. “They all lied, because he was found within minutes of the construction workers taking the boards off of the building and going in there.” But it’s not just the cover-up that saddens Vanessa.
Unable to Say Goodbye
Had that building actually been checked from top to bottom, they would have found a body, and the Lawsons would have been able to give Vincent the proper funeral he deserved. “Everybody could’ve had an opportunity to share their emotions and express themselves.”
“And those are things you need to do,” Vanessa tearfully continued. “But we had to hold it in for all these years, because we didn’t know.” The youngest Lawson sibling says that Vincent’s disappearance completely tore her family apart, especially because they were always dealing with the what-ifs.
Missing Her Son
Their mother Ida began to drink away her sorrows. “My mother went through something that I didn’t understand during that time,” she said. “She had other kids, but she was like a zombie. She was missing her son.” Nearly a year to the day after Vincent’s remains were found, Ida passed away.
The official cause of death was cirrhosis of the liver. But according to Vanesa, her mother passed away from a broken heart. During that year, Vanesa remembers her mother being angry that there was no gravesite or memorial where she could pay respects to her son.
Everything Changed That Day
Not even H street looks the same anymore. In the 50 years since the riots, the city has gone through complete revitalization. Boarded-up buildings and empty lots have been replaced by expensive condos and cocktail bars. Vanessa prides herself on being a “tough cookie.”
She grew up, got married, and had three kids (and grandkids). She’s worked for 39 years as the program manager for the Federal Aviation Administration. “I held my own,” she said in 2018. However, there’s no doubt in her mind that the three years she spent waiting for her brother to come home, completely changed everything.
Like a War Zone
Finding Vincent just down the street from her family’s home made everything even worse. Sadly, Vincent’s story isn’t the only one of its kind. In the four days following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, thirteen lives were lost in the fires.
A 56-year-old woman named Annie James was stuck in her bed when a fire broke out in the store below her apartment. 40-year-old William Paul Jeffers was killed in a store when the fire-damaged roof collapsed on him. “It looked like a war zone,” said Darryl Stoutamire, who lived at 15th and W streets.
Bringing in the Troops
The damage was staggering—It was nearly $175 million in today’s dollars. Over 900 businesses were damaged, including half of the city’s 383 liquor stores. Nearly 700 homes were destroyed, mostly because they were above or next to stores that had been set ablaze.
Once bustling, blocks were reduced to rubble. From the air, through the haze of smoke, the city looked like a battlefield. The day after the riots began, a convoy of soldiers from Fort Myer in Virginia began rolling into the city. Then, more were called to come in from Fort Meade in Maryland.
Their Stories Live On
Eventually, 13,000 troops arrived. It was the largest number of troops to occupy a city in America since the Civil War. It was a completely devastating situation and thousands of lives were changed forever. There were those who lost loved ones, and those who lost their homes and business (or sadly, all three).
Hundreds of people were injured, including over 40 firefighters. The city eventually recovered, but on several street corners, that recovery took nearly 30 years. It is important for the families who were affected by the riots to see their stories live on.