February 23, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF
For her efforts as the charismatic head of the Cambridge Non-Violent Action Committee during the battle for civil rights in the early 1960s, Gloria Richardson Dandridge was called “Glorious Gloria.” Others said she was like a second Harriet Tubman.
The strong-willed housewife, who fearlessly pushed aside the bayonets of the National Guardsmen sent to maintain law and order, rose to national prominence as a civil rights leader who led marches and was arrested as she sought to promote civil rights for Eastern Shore blacks.
Born in Baltimore, she moved to Cambridge as a 6-year-old and (( grew up in the place where her grandfather, H. Maynadier St. Clair, had been the city’s first black city councilman.
After graduating from high school there, she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1942 from Howard University and returned to Cambridge, where she married and began raising a family.
In those days, Cambridge had one black policeman, and he wasn’t allowed to patrol in white neighborhoods or arrest whites, even though white policemen could arrest anyone.
“There was inadequate representation of blacks in the legal system unless one was ‘a respected Negro, as they said of them,’ ” said Dandridge in a 1987 interview in The Evening Sun.
“You could go in stores and buy, I guess for economic reasons. You could go in restaurants and order food, but you could not eat there,” she said.
“[She] saw the fundamental problems facing blacks in Cambridge as a lack of adequate housing, discrimination in the educational process, lack of equal job opportunity and poor health,” wrote Annette K. Brock in “Notable Black American Women.”
“The attack was on the entire system of segregation with demands for equal treatment on all scores, including employment, police protection and schools.
“Then, in addition to segregation itself, the economic and social systems that segregation defended were attacked — housing, TTC unemployment, working conditions and education,” wrote Brock.
During the spring of 1963, Gloria Richardson (as she was then known) and the CNC brought its demands to the city council and later began demonstrations that lasted for seven weeks.
In May, a committee appointed by Judge W. Laird Henry broke mounting tensions when it agreed to desegregate public schools and public places.
This uneasy compromise was broken May 25 when 12 black juveniles were arrested for creating a disturbance while picketing the Board of Education office.
Demonstrations and an economic boycott continued after two of the students who were expelled from school were sentenced to indeterminate terms in correctional schools.
“On May 31, 1963, Richardson appealed to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for a federal investigation of violations of constitutional rights in Cambridge.
“Compounding the restlessness was action on the state level by segregationist groups to block the June 2, 1963, application of the Public Accommodation Law by securing petitions to put the statute to a referendum vote in 1964,” wrote Brock.
“Many Negroes don’t want to vote on something that is already their right,” she told The Evening Sun. “Public accommodations are a right that cannot be given or taken away by a vote.”
In June, after rioting broke out, Gov. J. Millard Tawes imposed martial law on Cambridge and sent in the National Guard.
Robert F. Kennedy and other Justice Department and housing officials successfully concluded a five-point Treaty of Cambridge that was signed in July in the attorney general’s office in Washington by both blacks and Cambridge officials.
By the autumn of 1963, black children were entering previously all-white schools, bus transportation was desegregated, the library and hospital were desegregated and a black policeman was promoted. Urban renewal began.
A flare-up occurred in May 1964, when Richardson led a march protesting an appearance by Gov. George C. Wallace at the Fireman’s Arena, an ice-skating rink that had been the target of many of the protests.
In July 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act, and the National Guard finally withdrew from Cambridge.
A month later, she left Cambridge and the civil rights movement when she married Frank Dandridge, a photographer she had become acquainted with during the demonstrations, and settled New York.
In 1987, she said, “I don’t think we’re free. I think it would have been much better if every president after Kennedy had had a moral obligation to see that racial problems were solved.”
Last week in an interview from her New York office, Dandridge, now 74, said, “I think it was something that had to be done, and our work is far from finished if you look around and see what is going on today.”
Unity in a troubled time
Reflecting on those days three decades ago, she said, “Those were certainly troubled times, but the unity that came out of that was magnificent. People were ready and willing to fight City Hall.”
She recalled that at first Robert F. Kennedy was somewhat skeptical about the situation in Cambridge and the CNC’s efforts to expose it.
“Once he found out about the extreme poverty and segregation that existed in Cambridge, his attitudes began to change, and he opened various government agencies and programs to us,” said Dandridge, who is still working and is a program officer in the city’s Department of the Aging.
She still recalls with a trace of fear in her voice what it was like during those long, hot summers.
“There were threats that my house would be bombed, and I later found out that I was No. 2 on the Klan’s list after Martin Luther King,” she said.
She still has family in Cambridge and visits the city at least once a year.
She remains outspoken on the subject of Cambridge, and while conceding that the situation and opportunities have vastly improved there for blacks, she feels there is still some residual prejudice.
“I’m not so sure it’s so different from what it was. You see, Cambridge hasn’t gotten away really from being an isolated place, and it’s still the old rubric: ‘If you’re not born here, we really don’t want your business.’ ”
Of her participation in the civil rights movement, she says she gets excited about it “all over again whenever I talk about it.”
“It was a pivotal moment in my life, and I don’t think there has been anything quite like it for me since, because it involved life and death situations. The bonds to those days and people are still there and still strong,” she said.
Pub Date: 2/23/97