Mayor of Two Cities
Jim Baker wants everyone in Wilmington to believe in its—in their—greatness. There’s just one small problem remaining to be solved…
(page 3 of 10)
“I was once a very bashful person,” Baker says. “As for getting involved with people, I never did. I was always thinking about things and writing them down in diaries.
“I read a lot of geography and science, but I was truly fascinated by history,” he says. “I read about Lincoln and the Roosevelts, and I always thought it was grand that they rose above their lot in life to become what they did. I thought what a great idea it would be to eventually become president, but I soon realized that it probably wouldn’t ever happen to a man of color.”
Baker came to Wilmington as a 24-year-old VISTA volunteer in 1966. Fresh out of the Air Force. “I really wanted to volunteer in Pittsburgh, Cleveland or New York,” Baker says, cities with solid African-American communities already in place. “All I knew about Delaware was that Dover was the capital and that it still had the whipping post. I didn’t even really know where Wilmington was, but I knew it was near Philadelphia, so it couldn’t be that bad.”
A young black person in Wilmington, back then would see few people with his or her skin color speaking up for African-Americans. There were juggernauts such as Louis L. Redding and Judge Leonard Williams, but they were the rare voices in a city that had become deeply divided by class and race. Baker was relegated to renting a room at the YMCA on 11th and Walnut because his skin color prevented him from leasing an apartment.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, hours after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Baker saw smoke rising from West Center City. He immediately left the YMCA and ran toward the plumes. Bottles thrown by angry protesters were flashed in the streetlights, but flying bricks were invisible. Molotov cocktails flew at fire trucks.
“I had staff pinned down by snipers between Market and Washington,” says former city councilman Richard Pryor, then a social worker for Catholic Charities. “There was madness going on, but in all of that heat, it was the youth workers who were the only ones trying to calm things down. Jim was part of that group. Things were so polarized, but Jim remained cool and collected.”
It has been well documented that what saved Wilmington from destruction was the effort of groups such as the Wilmington Youth Emergency Action Council and Catholic Charities, dialogue between black and white community leaders, and street workers like Baker. He met regularly with angry youth who called for radical change by any means necessary.
Page 4: Mayor of Two Cities, continues...