Beirut From “Paris” to “Bombed Out”

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Beirut, Lebanon, c.1960s

The HistoryMakers

Beirut, Lebanon has made headlines again this week as word of its August 4th horrific explosion quickly spread worldwide. This tragedy came as Lebanon is experiencing its worst economic crisis since its civil war which spanned from 1975 until 1990. As officials attempt to determine the exact cause of the warehouse explosion, more than 300,000 people—over 12% of the city’s population—are left with no place to go.[1] In the midst of turmoil Lebanon has experienced in past decades, it is notable that several of our HistoryMakers have had a front row seat to the Lebanon of old and of present day.

Rally during the Palestinian insurgency, Beirut, Lebanon, 1979

In the 1960s, civil rights lawyer and former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Elaine Jones (1944 – ) visited Lebanon and its capital Beirut, and described it as “a beautiful city… It was the Paris of Asia… I mean it was just beautiful. And the sidewalks were so clean, you could eat off the street. This is Beirut in 1966 [or] 1965.”[2] But, just a few years later, there was an influx of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon that included militiamen who had recently fought in the Jordanian civil war. The militia regrouped and pursued further attacks against Israel, bringing violence to Lebanon’s doorstep. Newspaper reporter Karen DeWitt (1944 – ), who lived in various places in the Middle East from 1969 to 1973, including Lebanon while working for the Beirut Daily Star, remembered the ensuing conflicts: “The Palestinians had been settled on the airport road, so from to time, the Palestinians would erupt and put burning tires and isolate the airport. But that was the big issue, was the Palestinians. And I remember trying to sell stories to American papers on the situation about the Palestinians, and there was absolutely no interest at all.”[3]

Rescue operation following the bombing of U.S. Marine barracks, Beirut, Lebanon, October 23, 1983

The subsequent civil war would claim over 100,000 lives and displace nearly one million people. In 1980, historian Janette Hoston Harris (1939 – 2018) visited and saw the destruction first hand:  “I went to Lebanon… it was about eight of us–black women–through [U.S.] congressman [Reverend] Walter Fauntroy, who went to Lebanon and saw the conditions of the children and what was happening there. How that country was being torn up by strife. And we went over there for a week. And that was really an eye opener… the strife and the way the country had been torn up in war was just unbelievable.”[4] The United States did intervene in this war before pulling out of Lebanon in the mid-1980s after a series of serious attacks. Maj. Gen. Clifford Stanley (1947 – ), the first African American to command a U.S. Marine Corps Infantry Regiment, recalled the attack that was made on U.S. Marine Corps barracks: “The Beirut bombing took place… October of 1983… and they… put me up to be one of the people to give a [U.S.] Marine Corps perspective on what happened, the bombing. I lost a couple of good friends in the bombing. So, they put me on the camera along with somebody else… I talked a little bit. And it was on… the national news.”[5] Lt. Gen. Ronald S. Coleman (1948 – ), the second African American in the Marine Corps to reach the 3-star rank, reiterated how “Beirut… was, devastating. I was at headquarters Marine Corps and, and you hear on the news about it… that was a tough time for the Marine Corps. That was an unbelievable blow.”[6]

Security forces during the Civil War in Beirut, Lebanon

A week after the attack on the Marine barracks, news producer Marquita Pool-Eckert (1945 – ) traveled to Beirut to cover the war: “I went to Beirut… I think for five weeks…I didn’t want to go to war, I wanted a foreign assignment. And, this was just before the holidays and nobody wanted to go there, and it was dangerous, and the [U.S.] Marines had been killed… but, I wanted to go. And, in fact the person who sent me there, I think it was Howard Stringer… They thought I was gonna say, no, I think. I thought I was gonna say, no (…But, I didn’t. So, I went there. Oh, my God. That was wild. I had no idea what I was in for.”[7] Pool-Eckert then received a 1983 Emmy for her role in the production of “The Bombing of Beirut.” The experience for her had a profound impact like it did on television producer June Cross (1954 – ) who, while working as a reporter at the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, had been in “Lebanon earlier that year… And that was like one of the worst days of my life. It is actually worst for me than the World Trade Center attacks, and in many ways, the PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] sort of came back after the World Trade Center attack. But that was a really bad day.”[8]

Arial view of the Detroit riots, July 1967

Though the civil war in Lebanon concluded in 1990 and several peaceful elections were held, violent conflicts continued, making the name Beirut synonymous with conflict or war. Harris Bank executive Michael W. Lewis (1949 – ) likened the 1967 Detroit riots to Beirut: “We actually went and toured some of the riot sites just to see what was going on there, and it almost seemed surreal… you felt like you were in Beirut as opposed to Detroit… National Guard riflemen, you know, kind of standing on the side of the street and policemen basically having barricades and blockades… it was almost like I felt like I was in some kind of an alternate world.”[9] Similarly, in the 1980s Chicago, Illinois was dubbed “Beirut-on-the-lake” by the Wall Street Journal amidst the racially polarized City Council conflicts or Council Wars that occurred during the administration of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Mayor Harold Washington. Chicago’s Dori Wilson (1943 – ) also described parts of Chicago’s south and west sides as  “look[ing] like bombed out Beirut… people coming into this bombed out Beirut area… too many vacant lots, many, too many children that are on the street, and the violence.”[10]

Beirut residents cleaning up a damaged mosque, August 5, 2020

This week’s devastating Beirut explosion could be heard up to 150 miles away, and Rupert Colville, a spokesman from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, called it a “triple tragedy of the socio-economic crisis, COVID-19 and the ammonium nitrate explosion.”[11] This crisis highlights a need for the world to support each other during a time when tragedy and uncertainty has become all too common. In the weeks to come, we will all learn the true cause.

The Women’s Forum of New York Features The HistoryMakers

Julieanna Richardson, Paula DiPerna, Joan Haffenreffer, The Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton and Susan Davenport Austin

Julieanna Richardson, The HistoryMakers Founder and Executive Director, was interviewed by HistoryMakers board and Forum member Paula DiPerna, who moderated the panel “Digital Black History: The HistoryMakers Archive and Answers for Today.” Introduced by Forum President Joan Haffenreffer, the panel included HistoryMakers: U.S. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, one of the founders of the Women’s Forum of New York, as well as Forum member Susan Davenport Austin, chief financial officer of Grace Church School. They discussed how timely and important The HistoryMakers is, as well as its Digital Archive as a resource for today’s leaders.

[1] “Lebanon president: Beirut explosion either due to negligence or missile, bomb,” USA Today, August 7, 2020.

[2] Elaine Jones (The HistoryMakers A2006.151), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 6, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 4, story 10, Elaine Jones recalls her travels in the Middle East.

[3]Karen DeWitt (The HistoryMakers A2012.120), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 16, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 13, Karen DeWitt talks about living in the Middle East from 1969 to 1973.

[4] Janette Hoston Harris (The HistoryMakers A2004.122), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, August 10, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 14, Janette Hoston Harris recalls her teaching experiences at Federal City College in Washington, D.C.

[5] Maj. Gen. Clifford Stanley (The HistoryMakers A2013.178), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 6, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 7, Clifford Stanley discusses his experience at Marine Corps Command and Staff College at Quantico, Virginia and talks about the Beirut bombing of 1983.

[6] Lt. Gen. Ronald S. Coleman (The HistoryMakers A2013.050), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 16, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 6, Ronald S. Coleman remembers the bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps headquarters in Beirut and the invasion of Grenada.

[7]Marquita Pool-Eckert (The HistoryMakers A2005.211), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, August 29, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 7, Marquita Pool-Eckert describes her Emmy-award winning segments on CBS.

[8] June Cross (The HistoryMakers A2012.159), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 30, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 8, June Cross talks about her promotion to producer.

[9]Michael W. Lewis (The HistoryMakers A2010.028), interviewed by Thomas Jefferson, May 26, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 8, Michael W. Lewis remembers the riots of 1967 in Detroit, Michigan.

[10]Dori Wilson (The HistoryMakers A2010.029), interviewed by Gwendolyn Quinn, July 16, 2017, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 11, story 4, Dori Wilson describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community in Chicago, Illinois.

[11] “Lebanon president: Beirut explosion either due to negligence or missile, bomb,” USA Today.

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Master Gunnery Sgt. Joe Geeter, III

Former President, Montford Point Marine Association

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