By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
When Gloria Richardson learned that Joseph R. Fitzgerald PhD, wanted to write a biography about her, she didn’t understand and humbly felt her life was pedestrian. Her word. However, if a picture is really worth a thousand words, then the 1964 Fred Ward photo showing Richardson pushing a bayonet away and side-eyeing the White National Guardsman holding it, then the Black Liberation leader is anything but pedestrian, and more like a powerful force to be reckoned with.
“She had real political power and implied power,” said Fitzgerald, author of Richardson’s biography The Struggle is Eternal. “She leveraged her power in ways to advance Black Liberation. And as a woman, she’s a harda** and she does not suffer fools. So being a Black woman, who doesn’t suffer fools, who’s a huge advocate for Black people, she’s considered to be intimidating and threatening.”
In the famous photo the bayonet points boldly near Richardson as the White National Guardsman towered over her; yet she was the one being treated as a threat.
“White America’s never comfortable with Black people who advocate for themselves and advocate for Black people and don’t care if White people are comfortable,” Fitzgerald told the AFRO.
However, Fitzgerald, a White, cis-gendered male with a PhD in Black Studies, dove deep into Richardson’s world. From 2002- 2015, Fitzgerald interviewed Richardson, learned about her family, the “good stock” from which she comes, her indoctrination from a very young age into working for the betterment of her people and her fearless leadership that led to revolution and strides in justice for the Black people of Cambridge, Md. In his years-long journey learning about the leader’s life as a girl in Baltimore to today in her late 90s, Fitzgerald, an associate professor of history and political science at Cabrini University in Pennsylvania, has gained invaluable knowledge about researching, identifying and finding solutions to combat the pervasiveness of White supremacy.
“Richardson is radical. Being a radical means you dive deep into the problems to understand what the actual causes of the problems are. And that is the lesson that I have taken to heart, that there has to be a systems analysis,” Fitzgerald explained. “And Richardson, as a student of sociology… [felt] that you have to have a system analysis to really understand what the underlying problems are before you can develop an effective strategy and select tactics to advance Black liberation.”
Then Fitzgerald added five short words that revealed the humility it takes to be, what Richardson called, “a civil rights worker,” or what is known as a servant leader. “The lesson that I have been able to really glean from her life is her quote that ‘Nobody has all the answers.’”
While Richardson may feel she didn’t have all the answers, she was groomed for a life as a leader. She was born Gloria St. Clair Hayes, an offspring of the famous Maryland St. Clairs, who were, historically, free Blacks in Cambridge.
“The AFRO has been covering the St. Clair family since the 1890s,” Fitzgerald said.
“Her family was a part of that very elite, and extremely wealthy Black echelon of Eastern seaboard Black families,” the professor explained “She was taught by her family, her maternal family and father, who was a pharmacist and owned his own pharmacy, that their quality of life and that their standard of living was the way it was because of the Black community supporting the Black St. Clair businesses. So she owed it to them to serve her race. They groomed her for race service, or service to the Black race. Not necessarily a leader but that she was supposed to use her knowledge, skills and abilities to do what she could to assist her Black community in staying afloat or better.”
If her family and rearing was not enough to slowly form the self-described “civil rights worker,” Richardson’s education at Howard University helped to cement her activism. As a student she protested at the local Woolworths.
“Her education at Howard was problem driven, solution oriented- that’s Black studies,” Fitzgerald told the AFRO. “And that’s what her professors taught her about Black life and how to interrogate it, study it and basically use your knowledge, skills and abilities to make Black people’s lives better.”
However after her graduation in 1942 and relocation to her family’s homestead in Cambridge, the new wife to schoolteacher Harry Richardson, had trouble finding a job as a social worker, because agencies did not want to hire Black women. Though trained in sociology, the wife and now mother became a homemaker for 13 years before her formal launch into civil rights work. But when the time came, she was ready.
“Personality, family expectations and formal training at Howard- that’s the trifecta right there,” Fitzgerald said, when explaining Richardson’s call to leadership.
Richardson’s daughter Donna, who was involved in protests demanding equality in Cambridge, initially sparked her passion. Trained in sociology, and equipped with knowledge of research analysis, Richardson formed and led the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee.
“She knew she didn’t have all the answers. She knew she had one view of a particular issue and that other people came to the table… had their own perspectives and views, and this kind of collaboration, building of consensus through consultation, was going to be really the way that Cambridge’s Black community could advance its liberation struggle. It was not going to happen top down, it was going to happen bottom up,” Fitzgerald said.
Richardson advocated and demanded economic, educational, job and housing equality. She famously met with state and national leaders, including U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and negotiated, what was called, the Treaty of Cambridge.
Her success as the CNAC leader drew the attention of many other civil rights leaders and she was actually one of the six women listed as the “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom,” on the March on Washington program. However, neither she, nor the other women, was allowed to officially speak that day; a decision same said was made by her male counterparts in the struggle.
Richardson’s activism in Cambridge may have seemed to come to an abrupt halt after she married photographer Frank Dandridge and moved to New York, where she worked with the Department of Aging and National Council of Negro Women.
“She never really stopped doing the advocacy work for people of all colors,” Fitgerald told the AFRO. “Black America will always be her first concern… Because Black people are the most maligned and marginalized, [she believed] that when Blacks become free the rest of America will be free.”
“When it comes to Black people, she is a race woman,” Fitzgerald said.