Thomas L. Saunders, Historian, Activist

In Memoriam

by: Yvonne J. Medley Special to the AFRO
/ (Courtesy Photo) /

Thomas Lawrence Saunders, a historian and CEO of Renaissance Productions and Tours, died of cancer at the Howard County General Hospital on Jan. 11. He was 60.

Saunders was a lifelong resident of Baltimore City and his work and passion to create living history here was well documented in local media.

Thomas L. Saunders died Jan. 11, after a battle with cancer. (Courtesy Photo)

For more than 30 years, Saunders accrued and enjoyed partnerships with the National Blacks in Wax Museum, Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Maryland Women’s Heritage Museum, Enoch Pratt Free Library, B&O Railroad Museum, to celebrate the contributions of Black Americans.

Saunders was a longtime member of several organizations, including the Baltimore Tourism Association, and he served on several Boards and Commissions, such as The Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. Primary schools and universities, family reunions, government delegations and others, locally and nationally, routinely booked Saunders’ tours and events, which were specifically tailored to their interests..

Saunders was a community activist as well. Politicians dating back to the days when William Donald Schaefer was Mayor of Baltimore, to today, sought Saunders’ advice and his influence in some Baltimore communities.

His mission was to protect the historical legacy of people of color from obscurity and neglect, and to empower the disenfranchised.  “With a graveled, inquisitive voice [Saunders] was a walking, talking encyclopedia of African American history,” wrote Lionel Foster in a 2009 March issue of Urbanite Magazine.

Saunders was a 1975 graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, and a member of its Black History Club. In 1980, Saunders graduated from the University of Maryland at Baltimore County (UMBC), earning a B.A. in Health Administration and African-American Studies.

Early on, a longtime mentor and former chair of the Education Department at Morgan State University, Dr. Eugenia Collier, nurtured Saunders’ love for history. She also ignited his love for the arts: literary, performing arts, music and visual. In 1994, he merged them all when Renaissance Productions and Tours was born.

The entrepreneur worked to generate awareness for people and places like The Lexington Market, local independent bookstores, authors and artists.

He enjoyed special partnerships with the legendary Arch Social Club on Pennsylvania Avenue, founded in 1905. Saunders was a pivotal player in the creation of Baltimore’s Martin Luther King, Jr. parade. He played a key role in creating a commemorative  plaque, honoring Mother Mary Lange, the founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829, and a statue of Baltimore’s legendary songbird, Billie Holiday.

On his bus tours, Saunders transformed slices of the city using authentic period props, costumes and re-enactors; sightseers learned about the little-known historic contributions of Baltimore’s African-American trailblazers, while they ate what he dubbed a Shoebox Lunch. It symbolized a time before-and-during the civil rights era when persons of color could not travel interstate highways without fear of the possibility of racially motivated attacks.

Saunders explained those perils, while his passengers ate fried chicken, rolls, fruit and a slice of homemade pound cake. The meal, packed in a shoebox, served as a vivid reenactment of how his own grandmother wrapped up love, protection and nourishment whenever his parents and older brother took to the highways, especially heading South. Over the years, Saunders fed many.

Saunders leaves to mourn: his parents, Robert R. Saunders and Julia E. (Tomlin) Saunders, and his older brother, Stacey A. Saunders. He is survived by his nephew, Kenya H. Saunders, his children, Kayla and Dillon Saunders; a niece, Sakena Saunders, her children, NiYonna Saunders, Sanaa Perry, Aylah Perry and Ja’Lae Perry, a host of cousins, dear friends and associates.