The 10-year-old stood on a toilet to peer out the top-floor window of the towering house in Washington, her eyes riveted on the mayhem below. Rioters had already flipped a car and set it ablaze across the street, and Georgette Nelson watched as they dragged a man from his moving delivery truck and beat him. Soon, a throng had gathered on the sidewalks just steps from their front door, waving makeshift wooden torches.
“Burn it from the ground! They can’t get out that way,” Nelson recalled someone shouting before her mother yanked her to the floor.
Her younger brother looked at her with fear and sadness. “Georgette, are we going to die?” the 8-year-old asked.
The riots that raged across the nation’s capital for four days in April 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination left loss upon loss in their wake: 13 people dead, scores of homes and businesses burned, vandalized and looted. And amid it all – after clinging together through their mother’s alcoholism and stretches in abusive foster homes and the notorious city facility for destitute children known as Junior Village – Georgette Nelson and Wayne Cook lost each other.
On Friday, after decades apart, the two siblings – now 62 and 60 – were reunited in Monrovia, California, at a rehabilitation facility where Cook has been recuperating from sepsis after a staph infection. Nelson, in a soft pink dress and sweater, spotted her brother in a wheelchair at the end of the linoleum corridor, quickening her pace and beginning to wave as nurses and residents gathered to watch their reunion. Cook, a thin man with soft blue eyes and graying light brown hair, held out a bouquet of daisies and mums for his sister.
“I love you, Wayne,” Nelson said, eyes shiny with tears.
“I love you, too, Georgette,” Cook said.
He asked her to lean in and then grabbed her face, tilting it up to inspect her chin. He nodded with satisfaction; the old scar was still there from her childhood fall down the stairs.
“Yep, you’re my sister,” Cook teased her, and they hugged each other tight before beginning an hours-long session of reminiscing and catching up.
The siblings’ parents had separated when Nelson was 4 and Cook was 2, Nelson said. Their father went to live in a men’s boardinghouse while their mother struggled to hold on to her children in the sprawling three-story brick and clapboard home on Euclid Street. The family first rented the basement, sleeping together in one double bed and bathing in a rusty pink bathtub.
They were among just a few white children in their largely African American neighborhood, and Nelson’s classmates affectionately nicknamed her “Snow White” because of her dark bobbed hair and red lips. But the children thought little of racial differences, Nelson recalled: “The only thing we knew is that we were all poor.”
So poor that Nelson and Cook frequently resorted to begging a neighbor for food, Nelson recalled, until one day that neighbor contacted social services and she was whisked off to her first stay in Junior Village, leaving her mother and brother behind.
She remembers trying to touch Jacqueline Kennedy in 1962 as the first lady handed out lollipops to the throng of children at the overcrowded facility in Southwest Washington. Kennedy’s was among a stream of celebrity visits that masked the reality of Junior Village, where children were routinely raped and drugged before the 13-cottage compound closed in 1973.
After a couple months, social services quickly found Nelson a foster parent, an elderly woman who put soft, clean sheets on Nelson’s bed and soothed her by playing Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on the record player.
But before long, the woman was carted away on a stretcher, and a social worker showed up to take her to meet her new foster parents. Cook joined his sister after their mother succumbed to her alcoholism again, and it was in that home that the siblings endured their first episodes of abuse.
Nelson recalled eagerly stuffing her mouth with too much ice cream, her first experience of the frosty treat, when her foster mother knocked her hard on the head. Another time, the woman pulled Nelson into the bathroom by the hair and banged her head on the sink pipes, Nelson recalled, taunting the girl as she tried to escape through the fenced backyard.
Her father, who was allowed to talk to her on the phone but not to visit, sensed his daughter’s trauma and soon a worker arrived from social services to return them to their mother.
By then, the family had moved from the basement into the cramped attic room at 1425 Euclid, where brother and sister slept with their heads at opposite ends of a twin-size bed. The siblings played indoors after school, communing with their landlord’s menagerie of pets, among them a spider monkey in diapers named Ringo and a German shepherd named Lady.
One morning, their mother asked Nelson to wear her loveliest dress, a dark frock with a flounce at the bottom, and then piled her and Cook into the landlord’s car while he drove. She did not answer her children’s questions about where they were going.
“It’s for the best, Dorothy,” Nelson recalled the landlord saying as her mother sobbed uncontrollably in the passenger seat.
When they arrived at Junior Village, an employee brought the children to a big, empty room with a desk and chair and instructed Nelson to remove her clothing. They handed her a frayed cotton shift to wear and kept her dress.
“Someone less fortunate than you is going to get that,” she recalled being told.
She had been holding Wayne’s hand tightly when a worker came to take him to the boys’ dorm and she was then shown her spot among the crowded rows of steel bunk beds. Warmth and affection were nonexistent.
“I cried myself to sleep every night,” Nelson said.
After about six months, Nelson and Cook were returned to their mother in the attic apartment. One day, Nelson wandered into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on nearby 16th Street, where she was approached by an immaculately dressed woman who reminded her of Cinderella.
The kind woman, Sharon Stromberg, and her husband, Kirk, took an interest in Nelson, inviting her to stay with them sometimes on the weekends.
Nelson and Cook were playing toy soldiers in the floor of the house on Euclid Street as dusk fell on that late April afternoon in 1968 when they heard their mother drop a cast iron skillet in the sink. She rushed over and herded them into the bathroom.
“A mob with burning torches made from clothes wrapped around wooden boards had just set fire to a store. They were coming to our building yelling, ‘Burn, baby, Burn,'” Nelson wrote, in an account of what she witnessed published in “The History of the Washington, D.C. LDS Ward,” by Lee H. Burke.
Inside, the family’s telephone line had gone dead. As they huddled on the floor, Nelson turned to her brother and taught him how to pray, she recounted in the book. Just then they heard footsteps in the hall, she wrote, and then a loud pounding on the door at the top of the attic’s linoleum stairs.
The children froze while their mother went to answer the door. There in full riot gear, gas masks obscuring their faces, were several members of the National Guard urging the family to follow them out. The Strombergs had called the Guard to tell them about the siblings living on Euclid Street, Nelson later learned.
The couple brought Nelson to live with them in their Chevy Chase home, while her brother was taken to another home. The siblings who had been each other’s mainstays immediately lost track of each other.
Nelson married at 20, abandoning her maiden name to take her first husband’s name before settling into a life as a stay-at-home mother of five and later a model in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, Wayne Cook drifted into homelessness for many years in California, working odd jobs, before marrying and fathering four children, divorcing and meeting his current partner. Their parents now gone and with fewer years ahead of them than behind, sister and brother despaired of ever finding each other again.
Then about a year ago, Nelson’s daughter, Ashley Witkamp, made a Facebook page for her mother, hoping it would connect Nelson with her brother. Not long after, Cook’s stepdaughter contacted Ashley on the social media platform to see whether Cook and her mother were related. Ashley excitedly shared the news with Nelson, who immediately noted that this Wayne Cook shared her father’s middle name, Demetra. It must be him, she knew then, and began to weep.
On Friday evening as they shared news of their lives, Nelson handed Cook a book she had made. “You Are My Sunshine,” it read on the cover. Inside were the few photos she possessed of the siblings as children, and of Ringo and Lady.
“That monkey bit me,” Cook exclaimed, and they laughed at the memory. They talked about the abuse and hunger they survived together and that terrible night in 1968 in the Euclid Street attic before the National Guard came to the rescue.
As Nelson walked down the corridor to leave the rehab facility about 10 p.m., she turned around to see her brother again. Cook’s chest was heaving, his face caught in a tearful grimace, she said.
“You’re coming back again tomorrow, right?” he asked.