By Jeff Trently Stories Home Resume Contact
last storynext story Next Story Stories Page
Harlan's family


Rhonda Killingsworth holds a photograph of her brother, Harlan Joseph, who was killed in the 1968 Trenton riots. Beside her are her sister, Debra Killingsworth, and their sons, David Barnes, left, and DeVan Killingsworth-Wells.

police dog
Police dogs were used to control crowds.
More than 100 people were arrested.
Fire consumed areas of the city.

"People were angry, that's what I remember. A lot of anger among people. Lot of hostility in the air."

Kenneth Hill

friend of Harlan Joseph, the night's sole fatality

Riots paper
NJSPJThis story
was voted Second Place in Feature Writing
by the Society of Professional Journalists,
New Jersey Chapter, in 2009.

See video interviews
about the 1968 Trenton riots
on YouTube


40 years later,
riots reverberate

     TRENTON — No one knows what Harlan Joseph was thinking the night he died. No one knows his last thoughts as the police officer's bullet that struck him from behind slowly stole his life.
     Did he think of his mother, at home on Carroll Street, worrying where her 19-year-old son was?
     Did he think of his grandfather, a Baptist minister — the man the young theology student was being groomed to succeed on the pulpit?
     Did he think of his God?
     It was the night of April 9, 1968, and Harlan Joseph — amid the smoke and orange glow of a city on fire — lay dying in his own blood on the glass-spattered pavement not far from City Hall.
     Hundreds of young black rioters tore down his city's streets that night just hours after slain civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was buried in Atlanta. They burnt buildings, smashed windows, looted stores.
     Harlan was among them.
     Did he take part in the riots or try to stop them?
     No one knows that either.
     All that is certain is a bullet from Patrolman Michael Castiello's .38 Special severed Harlan's aorta, killing him within minutes.
     The city took longer to bleed.
     Some say it never recovered from that night of violence and anger, when city blacks pulled white motorists from their cars and threw bricks at police cars.
     Some say the riots scared businesses away for good.
     Some say the black protesters did nothing but destroy their own neighborhood.
     Harlan couldn't have known the stores that were burning around him would never reopen. He couldn't have known so many people would be arrested that night the Mercer County jail would swell beyond capacity.
     He couldn't have known any of this.
     As the concrete below his body turned crimson, like the flames that lit the city skyline, Harlan couldn't have known his death was a portent of the end of the city as he knew it.


     The night Harlan Joseph died began with a song.
     Kenneth Hill was there that night, out on the street with Harlan, his neighborhood friend.
     Hill left his Carroll Street house to buy a record — "The Love of My Man," by R&B singer Theola Kilgore.
     "The love of my man/Keeps me safe and warm/The love of my man protects me from all harm."
     "That's what drew me out," Hill, now 58, recalls, "but there was some excitement in the air..."
     The excitement came like a mass of human flesh — "a wave of people" is how Hill describes it.
     The "wave" shattered storefronts. Started fires. Looted. Yelled. Screamed.
     "People were angry, that's what I remember. A lot of anger among people. Lot of hostility in the air," Hill says. "We got caught up in that. We didn't have any intention of being part of a crowd like that."
     Hill met Harlan Joseph by chance on the street, two friends in a place they shouldn't have been, on a night they shouldn't have been out.
     "I honestly don't know why Harlan was there," Hill says.
     Hill knew his own reason: A clothing and jewelry store on East State Street overflowing with looters.
     "Sad to say, I joined in with them," Hill says now.
     What happened next is still disputed.
     Police — including Castiello, whose bullet would take Harlan Joseph's life — arrived and tried to scare the looters off.
     The crowd — including Hill and Joseph — scattered into the night.
     "I heard a shot ring out," Hill recalls.
     He kept running.
     Harlan Joseph did not.
     Castiello said in his police report the shooting was an accident. He was later cleared in a police investigation. Today he works for the city Department of Inspections and was unavailable to comment for this story.

Harlan's family  


Harlan Joseph's family stands outside the home on Carroll Street where Harlan once lived.


     His report from 1968 follows in part:
     "I pulled out my revolver in fear of bodily harm to myself. I then fired a warning shot in the air, and once again told the burglars to halt, at which time they continued to run north. I then fired a second shot at the legs of one of the looters. The crowd at this time began to bump me, still yelling and hampering me from performing my duties properly. As I fired the second shot, I had been jolted, after which one of the burglars fell to the ground, approximately midway between East State and Merchant streets, northeast sidewalk. After the body fell, the crowd dispersed."
     Other officers said they could not positively identify Harlan Joseph as one of the looters. Harlan's family and friends believe the rookie Castiello was scared and deliberately shot into the crowd.
     "We were all running away from him," Hill recalls. "What was his story? Somebody hit him or jostled him? I couldn't understand this."
     After a while, Hill came back to the front of City Hall.
     He saw his friend, shot in the back, dying.
     "I was over-anxious and exhausted," Hill recalls. "I was just 18. I knew the difference between right and wrong but there was something that drove me out that night. A lot of things just brought up this anger.
     "I didn't know what to tell my mother. I didn't want her to know I was out in the crowd doing what they were doing that night," he recalls. "It would have been a disappointment to her. I don't even think we would know how we got caught up in the night. Shows how fast things happen. Lives can be changed in an instant."
     Sometimes, Hill goes down East State Street and remembers.
     "I think about how it could have been me," he says. "It was a bad choice I made and he made.
     "If there was any moment I could take back that would be it. It was a terrible night."

     Anthony Cowell remembers the terrible night.
     "I was in Trenton and trouble was in Trenton, no doubt about it," he says.
     Cowell, one of the state troopers called in to calm the mayhem and fear, also had no doubt about his duty.
     "They were burning buildings," he says. "People who did the rioting were out of control. We had to stop them or there'd be a lot of death."
     Tensions between police and rioters flared in sudden physical confrontations, Cowell recalls. Troopers used nightsticks, handcuffs and guns, if need be, to stop the lawbreakers.
     The rioting began at dusk and stretched six long hours. One-hundred-and-eight people were arrested that night — 37 of them juveniles. Property damage was later estimated at between $3 million and $7 million, according to newspaper accounts.
     By the night's end, 57 fires were reported. About a quarter of those reports were false.
     Firefighters dodged rioters' rocks as they tried to put out the flames, the newspapers said. Terrified residents hid in their homes and waited. One black youth lunged at a patrolman, striking him with an iron pipe and knocking him to the ground.
     The frustration of black residents was embodied in the words of another black youth who spoke to his friends beneath the Battle Monument.
     "Whitey ain't worried about this section," he told a local newspaper. "But we'll make him look up this way. And he'll have a good light to see by from the fires."
     "Dr. King is dead and so is nonviolence," another rioter taunted.
     All along the way, the sound of broken display windows marked the rioters' movement.
     On North Warren Street, patrolmen armed with riot guns challenged several dozen rioters. The rioters shouted, "Shoot us."
     Police yielded and let the rioters pass.

Big dog  
Trenton police used dogs to enforce the curfew.

     "You can't talk to them," the late Bo Robinson, a leader in the black community, said at the time. "They're wild. They won't listen to anybody."
     This is how a Times newspaper account described the destruction:
     "Orange flames licked at a star-filled sky. Clouds of thick smoke rolled across the city. Glass shattering mixed with wailing sirens and occasional gunfire. Trenton was helpless as hundreds of Negro youths celebrated last night in an insane carnival of looting and destruction. They smashed windows. They ran from stores with stolen clothing, records, liquor, food, jewelry. They watched firemen battle flames which destroyed businesses. They taunted police, wrestled with them for possession of guns and nightsticks. And they laughed."
     "The whole situation was out of control," Cowell recalls. "Trenton police just couldn't handle it."
     John Ash was 24 years old in the Army National Guard when he was caught up in the rampage.
     "Nobody was prepared," he recalls.
     Ash was driving downtown near the courthouse when the rioting started.
     He saw a lone policeman "and for some crazy reason told him who I was and can I help him."
     For the next several hours, Ash was trapped in the frenzy. He parked his Pontiac sideways across the lane of traffic and waited.
     "I didn't get much involved in it," he recalls. "Tension lasted for a while."
     Ash didn't see violence, but did see groups of 10, 30, 40, maybe 50 people prowling around. Many were carrying items they'd taken from stores.
     "I was scared, I'll admit that," Ash says now. "Anybody involved was scared."
     But Ash had sympathy for the rioters.
     "It got people's attention on every level of government and on every level of society. It was to make a point: 'We can do this,'" he says. "This was more than about not being treated equally. Black people across the nation were upset. It could have been a lot worse than it was."


     For Barry Pitasky, it could not have been worse.
     Pitasky owned a furniture store on the corner of Brunswick Avenue and Montgomery Street that was gutted by flames that night.
     "I was hit by the riots," he says, bitterness still in his voice.
     What did he do that night?
     "My options were to go down there, which I didn't think was too smart to do, or stay home and be upset. So I was home and upset."
     The rioters destroyed his livelihood in one night. The next day, Pitasky saw the devastation.
     "I couldn't understand why. They didn't have any beef with me, my business. I just happened to be in the way of the way they were going," he says.
     "I didn't have pleasant thoughts at the time," he admits.
     Pitasky had considered moving out of the city before the riots.
     "When the riots came, it wasn't a question of should we move. We were moving," he says.
     Pitasky was disgusted, disillusioned.
     "I was born in Trenton. Spent my life in Trenton. Went to Trenton High. I was very disappointed in the people of Trenton. It was a real kick in the ass."
     The riots, he says, helped kill the city he loved.
     "It didn't achieve anything. It did the opposite, right?" he says. "It helped to destroy the city. Gave the stigma it wasn't safe. If you fear you're not safe, why stay?"


     Algernon Ward Jr. stayed.
     He moved back to his old neighborhood, on the rechristened Martin Luther King Boulevard, to the house his father once owned.
     Ward was 14 years old the night of the riots.
     "I remember the turmoil," he says. "What we witnessed was the beginning of a revolution."
     Ward remembers police up and down his street, tape in the shape of an "X" on their car windows so glass wouldn't shatter from rioters' bricks.
     He remembers shotguns drawn, cars stopped, white drivers pulled out and beaten by the crowd.
     He remembers other black folks helping the injured to the hospital.
     "Heroes and villains in the same moment," he says.
     The riots were literally right outside his doorstep.
     "At 14, what would you be doing? Of course I was outside looking at this amazing scene unfolding," he says.
     That is, until his mother called her children into the house.
     Ward could hear shots in his neighborhood, the sound of glass breaking, people throwing things.
     And fires.
     "It was like burning down your own home, it had that ridiculous element to it," he says. "We watched the skyline of Trenton burn.
     "It was chaos," he says. "What it taught me is that human beings can be both noble and villains at the same time. Circumstances can change a good person into a bad person and a bad person into a good person."
     Black folks put up signs, or wrote on their glass, "SOUL BROTHER," so no rioters would break their windows.
     And Ward saw the looters — folks he knew — run down the street with their spoils, bundles of clothes, arms full of leather coats.
     "Give me $10," one looter yelled to Ward, offering him a jacket.
     It was adrenaline mixed with sweat and fear.
     "You'd have to be nuts not to be scared. Scared and thrilled," Ward says.
     "We were never so glad as we were when things calmed down. It was nothing to be proud of. It was like being in a fight. After, you feel guilty."


     Debra Killingsworth wonders if Michael Castiello feels guilty.
     She doesn't know.
     Killingsworth — the sister of Harlan Joseph, the 19-year-old theology student shot dead that night — never heard from Castiello, the man who killed her brother, not in the weeks after the riots, not in the years after.
     "He never came to ever say he was sorry to the family," Killingsworth says.
     Her mother, Dorothy Killingsworth, died in 2005, never hearing an apology, or a word of sympathy.
     The family called Harlan "Bruce," after his middle name. Bruce, they say, had been destined for good things. Certainly, better things than dying on a street corner.
     Debra was 14 years old that night when Bruce died.
     "We ran out," she recalls. "A neighbor came to the house saying, 'Bruce has been shot.'"
     By the time the family found him in the hospital, Bruce was already dead.
     "It tore the whole family apart," Killingsworth says. "It was something that never should have happened."
     Debra Killingsworth has multiple sclerosis now. She feels weak and tired and has trouble walking. Her siblings — there were six of them, counting Bruce — have mostly scattered. One sister, Janet, was shot to death by her boyfriend about 12 years after Bruce was killed.
     They have, in many ways, been a family full of pain since that night in 1968.
     None more so than Bruce's mother.
     "It's the old saying: When you lose a parent, you lose the past. When you lose a child, you lose the future. She lost her future," Debra says. "She was upset as any mom would be."
     Rhonda Killingsworth was 18 months old when Bruce died.
     She has one memory of her brother: He was on his way to college with his older brother Butch, coming down the stairs with suitcases, the future, unknown, ahead.
     It was a future that never came to be.
     Sharon Joseph was 18 when her brother Bruce, her best friend, lost that future.
     "I don't like talking about that night," she says from her home in Atlanta. "It was a very long night for the family. Took months and months for morning to come.
     "We all miss him," she says. "We still miss him. We miss who he was. What he could have become. Seeing him graduate from college. Doing his first sermon."
     Bruce was engaged to be married, she says. He was going to announce his engagement that Sunday.
     "We missed his marriage. His children he could have had. We miss what he was what he could have been."
     DeVan Killingsworth-Wells is 17 years old and heard stories all his life about the uncle he never knew.
     "He was destined to do great things..." he says.
     DeVan, a senior at Hamilton High West, plans to study music education at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach next year.
     "I'm trying to get out of Trenton, to be what I can be," he says.
     Perhaps to do what his Uncle Bruce never got to do.
     "I know up in heaven, my grandmom and him and my granddad, they're up there talking," he says. "I just know."
     "She's with him," Debra Killingsworth says. "She's happy now."

Originally printed in the Times of Trenton, Sunday, April 6, 2008.

Read next story Read next story
Stories PageNext Story Next Story Stories Page