By J. K. Schmid, Special to the AFRO
Gloria Richardson might be better known by her photograph than by her name.
A sequence of photographs captured her in Cambridge, 1963, forcing a bayonet out of her face while giving a White National Guardsman the most contemptuous of looks.
Cambridge was under martial law at the time, and tensions were at their peak. Jim Crow was strong in Cambridge. Schools, hospitals and churches were segregated and Black unemployment was quadruple White unemployment.
Richardson nee St. Clair, an heiress of the Baltimore Black elite, was born and raised on Stricker Street until moving to Cambridge at six years old. She attended St. James Episcopal Church and Public School No. 119. She played in Lafayette Park.
“Her family was not middle class, they were actually above middle class,” said Joseph R. Fitzgerald, assistant professor at Cabrini University. “Her family was so wealthy that when Ms. Richardson’s maternal grandfather died, he was a city councilman in Cambridge, Ms. Richardson’s family, they found IOUs where he was lending White politicians money.”
Fitzgerald’s latest work of scholarship is “The Struggle is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation,” what Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver called “the first book to fully examine the Cambridge movement and its leader.”
Cleaver goes on in her critique to describe the now 96-year-old Richardson as a leader “whom the authorities considered almost as dangerous as Martin Luther King Jr.”
And there was real danger. While spokesperson of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, Richardson nevertheless found herself at the fore of an armed uprising of disenfranchised Blacks, facing off against police, soldiers and White rioters.
The danger was so acute, that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was forced to intervene lest neighboring violence spread to the nation’s capital.
Kennedy, representatives of the Department of Justice, the State of Maryland, and local leadership all signed “The Treaty of Cambridge,” a guarantee of civil, economic and human rights for the people of Cambridge. The Civil Rights Act would not be signed into law until the next year.
Businesses, schools and hospitals desegregated over the summer of 1963.
Richardson has told a story of how her uncle died from a White hospital’s neglect when they refused to admit him and save his life.
Cambridge finally elected its first Black and first woman mayor, Victoria Jackson-Stanley, in 2008.
Dion Banks worked on Jackson-Stanley’s 2012 reelection campaign.
“When I talk about reclaiming our narrative, telling our story, one of the things I wanted to do was to make sure that Gloria Richardson was honored,” Banks said at a Red Emma’s book forum and signing with Fitzgerald. “In the state of Maryland you have to be dead in order to get a day declared for you.” Banks and other activists persuaded the Governor’s office to change the rule, but didn’t stop there. “February 11 in the state of Maryland is Gloria Richardson Day, which was the platform that we used to launch what we call Reflections on Pine to tell our story all across the world about Gloria and the Civil Rights Movement in Cambridge.”
Reflections on Pine is a walking tour of Cambridge, a city that historians have described as another-if not the second-Black Wall Street.
“She’s one of the icons who’s not recognized in my opinion, just like Robert Williams, another overlooked figure in the Black liberation movement,” Dr. Ken Morgan, assistant professor Interdisciplinary and Urban Studies at Coppin State University, offered during the forum’s question and answer period. “I just wanted to say that hopefully that, in Maryland at least she should be able to be recognized in the Hall of Fame as a great person who led a great struggle in Maryland.”
“Cambridge, we look at it as a second Black Wall Street, but Cambridge has problems, just like Baltimore City,” Morgan continued, recalling her example and conversations between her and his students. “As well as Salisbury, as well as Prince George’s County, as well as Montgomery County, as well as Frederick County, Hagerstown, other places. It’s going to be really significantly important for Black folks to get together in Maryland to make things happen.