By Ron Cassie, Photography by Christopher Myers
Twenty years ago this month, Joel Lee, a 21-year-old Korean-American beginning his senior year at then-Towson State University, was robbed, shot in the face, and killed while heading to a classmate’s home in Northeast Baltimore. “He wanted to borrow a computer-science book because he was determined to get his grades even higher this year,” his friend, Folashayo Babalola, told The Baltimore Sun after the September 1993 murder. “Joel was very quiet, very ambitious,” Babalola continued. “This has really shaken me… . ” The brutal slaying also shook Baltimore’s Korean-American community, whose leaders still recall the tragedy. Already feeling under siege following attacks directed at Korean-American merchants in the 1980s and 1990s, the Lee case and trial was followed closely in the city. The acquittal of the accused two years later by an almost all African-African jury spurred a protest march downtown and appeared to reflect a troubled relationship between the Korean-American community and traditionally African-American neighborhoods where many of their businesses were located.
(It wasn’t only in Baltimore where relationships between Korean-American merchants and the African-American community were overheating. A year before Lee’s murder, in Los Angeles, Korean store owners were caught in the middle of rioting following the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King. In New York, there had been Korean-American store boycotts.)
In Baltimore, there was also a boycott of a Korean-American-owned store, which was eventually closed by the Health Department. And there was a contentious debate over the renovation of the Lafayette and Belair Markets, where Korean-immigrant owners felt they were being pushed out by the city.
Into this fraying backdrop, the Baltimore-based Korean-American Grocers & Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland (KAGRO) was founded in 1995. Forming a nonprofit to help Korean-Americans deal with vendors and navigate the myriad city regulations had been discussed for six months, says Jay Park, who operated a Park Heights liquor store for 25 years and was an early KAGRO president. But the group’s focus quickly expanded in the wake of the Lee trial—which was followed by a wave of four Korean-American store shootings in an eight-day period in January 1997. Immediately, KAGRO began working to build relationships in local communities—starting a scholarship fund, organizing outreach events, and attending meetings. Merchants tried to develop a better relationship with the city police, which had proved a struggle, if for no other reason than the cultural and language barriers.
“The timing [of KAGRO’s launch] wasn’t tied directly to the Lee case,” says Park, “but it concentrated our attention on the most pressing issues we had to deal with, which were not problems with the vendors.”
At his son’s memorial service, Joel Lee’s father said he didn’t “want my son’s death to have no meaning.”
A generation later, Park believes something positive can be connected to that tragedy. “Up until that time, I think we had been looked at and treated differently because of our skin color, our language,” Park says. “But after that, I think people saw us coming together and began to see us as a part of the community, too.”
But it has never been easy running a corner store in Baltimore. Crime and poverty persist in wide swaths. And now, after decades of struggle on tough corners, city officials are planning to significantly reduce the number of neighborhood liquor stores—the vast majority of which are owned by Korean-Americans. In a sense, Park says, KAGRO members “feel under attack again.”
Among the first things KAGRO did 18 years ago was start a scholarship program for local students. Since then, the association has awarded about $300,000, via annual grants to students in the neighborhoods where KAGRO-member stores are located, as well as to high-school and college-age children of store owners. Two police officers are also annually awarded “appreciation” honors at a ceremony at the Greenmount Senior Center.
The scholarships, as well as different community events and outreach forums, Park says, helped defuse tensions over time. “We tried to go around and get questions from the community, we tried to listen and get the community’s perspective as well as the merchants,” Park says. There were also meetings with former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke’s Korean liaison and municipal departments, and later with the O’Malley and Dixon administrations. By 2004, the Maryland Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights had produced a report—years in the making—that found that, while problems persisted between the African-American and Korean-American store owners, “some merchants enjoy friendly relationships in the neighborhoods where their stores are located … ” The report, however, also found that “city agencies can do more” to provide services without bias. Not that there wasn’t work needed on the store owners’ side.
“There are cultural differences between the West and East,” says Jin Wook Kang, a restaurant owner and lower Charles Village liquor-store operator. “In our home country, making eye contact is viewed as disrespectful in certain relationships, for example, between a student and a teacher; with a police officer or government official. We listen, but we look down. In our home country, we put change on the counter and push it toward a customer—it’s considered more polite than touching someone’s hand. But here, someone would tell police, ‘They’re rude, they put the change on the counter and push it toward you.’ The opposite was true. It was a misunderstanding. But things have improved a great deal.”