Students flowing into Hazelwood’s Gladstone High School on a chilly Tuesday morning — Feb. 18, 1969 knew this would be no normal day.
On Monday, fights in the hallway had created what police called a “panic situation.” Classes resumed after school officials and police calmed things down, but teachers stood before rooms of empty desks. Approximately 75 percent of students in attendance had fled the school. Uniformed police continued to roam the hallways and grounds.
First period on Tuesday was relatively calm. Near its end, however, knives flashed in a stairway near the school entrance. Two teenage boys who lived a half-mile apart dueled with blades. Blood spattered on the tile floor. Both students were hauled away to local hospitals. Overwhelmed, one female student fainted.
Once again, police armed with billy clubs arrived at the school. This time, they made arrests. Students were told to stay in their classrooms. Officials hoped to prevent a mass exodus.
At one point, police escorting two girls from the building were pelted with bottles and other debris hurled from a second-floor window.
Outside, things were heating up. Police received calls that gangs of students were roaming Hazelwood’s streets. Fights broke out. By 10:45, two groups of teens had gathered at opposite corners of the intersection at Hazelwood and Sylvan avenues. One group was white; the other black. The groups shouted racial insults and cursed at each other. Bottles, bricks and stones were hurled in anger.
It’s easy to forget how shocked and enraged we were in 1969. The previous year had been a nightmare. We’d gasped at the bloody, prostrate forms of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. We watched riots rock Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and our own Hill District. The Tet Offensive shattered the optimistic lies we’d been told about Vietnam. Where was the hope? The Democratic National Convention in Chicago blossomed into a bloody disaster. Republicans emerged from Miami with Richard Nixon leading the law-and-order charge.
Violence erupted at a number of Pittsburgh area schools. Trouble came to Oliver and Gladstone in 1969. In 1970, racial unrest in Aliquippa moved officials to close schools. Events then moved to the streets, where sniper fire echoed through the city’s streets. Fights were reported at Clairton, North Braddock, East Allegheny, Carrick and McKeesport.
“Outbreaks Carry Racial Overtones,” blared a headline in The Pittsburgh Press.
In the Post-Gazette archives, a file labeled “School Riots, 1969-73” overflows with stories of two Pittsburghs, each lurching toward a future that seemed at once frightening and bewildering and desperately in need of change. We all seemed lost, and perhaps we were.