Quintessential hostess, superlative volunteer and socialite extraordinaire, to name a few of her descriptors, James Henry Amos LaForest was affectionately known as “Jimmie” to those who admired and loved her. She was given that peculiar name, in spite of her gender, to honor a promise her mother made to her uncle, who was serving in WWI. During those days, women didn’t know beforehand whether they would give birth to a boy or a girl, but for Edna Amos it didn’t matter; a promise was a promise.

LaForest’s education began at what was then, Morgan College, where she met her first husband, Dr. James Finney. She continued her studies at Fisk University in Tennessee and New York University. Her life learning was enhanced with travel throughout the world, including Tokyo, Paris, Cairo and Athens during her second marriage of 28 years to Dr. Albert LaForest, a Baltimore surgeon.

Because of her desire to champion the rights of the underdog and with tireless energy to expend, LaForest left her job as a social worker and began involving herself in volunteer work. She had an “amazing joy of living; was always looking out for the underdog,” said her daughter, Dr. Jacqueline Brown. She was “one absolutely social woman, with a heart for service.” Some of volunteer activities included: the American Cancer Society, the Maryland Committee on Day Care of Children; Job Corps for Women and Board of Directors for the YWCA, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the United Fund. Brown said she also “loved her people and her church.” One of her most faithful involvements in the life of her church, St James Episcopal, was with the St. Martha’s Guild, up until a few years ago.

Jimmie was an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the Links and the Me-De-So wives (wives of medical and dental doctors), long-time member of the NAACP and more. And no one can forget how she loved to host dinner parties in her home on Hilton Street, only to fill people up on her homemade dinner rolls, scrumptious pie, and crab soufflé, to name a few favorites. These parties were “legendary,” remembers her granddaughter, Whitney Montague of Kansas. “She taught me to cook.”

Brown also remembers a home where people were welcomed and made to feel at ease. Her mother was on a network of African Americans who opened their homes to the celebrities and entertainers passing through, who could not stay in hotels due to segregation during Baltimore’s heyday of Jazz on Pennsylvania Avenue. One memory of particular importance to her was when she heard someone playing the piano in the “club cellar” and upon coming downstairs, she would see it was none other than Duke Ellington… He proceeded to “sit me upon his lap and continue playing.” Brown says there are photos on display in the Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History, highlighting Baltimore’s entertainment spots in its heyday and how her mother welcomed the likes of Leslie Uggams and Fashion Fair models into her home.

LaForest’s death on July 31 left a tremendous void in the life of her family and friends.
“Grandma, as I call her and ‘Gee-gee Ma’ to her grandchildren, was a classy lady,” Montague said. She remembers going to Europe with her grandmother and being sent there on her own by her grandmother after high school. How could she forget when all of the grandchildren came from “Kansas, Atlanta and Little Rock to do a road trip with Grandma on her 90th birthday!”

Brown laughed while talking about what a good card player her mother was. Whether it was bridge, poker or whatever, “She could beat you at a card game, in her 90’s, then talk about you!” She was known as a serious dancer and beautiful lady – “she was my Lena Horne.”

A memorial service will be held 9 a.m., Sept. 17, at the church she loved, St. James Episcopal Church in Baltimore. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that memorial contributions be made to the church’s Capital Building Fund Campaign.

Felecia Diggs

Special to the AFRO