Home / Politics / Black History Month: Gloria Hayes Richardson led a movement

Black History Month: Gloria Hayes Richardson led a movement

Gloria Richardson stopped bayonets with the flip of her hand and a famous sidelong glance, which was immortalized by photographer Fred Ward in 1963. But her activism ran much deeper than the iconic moment in that photograph. Richardson led civil rights battles in her hometown of Cambridge, Maryland for years, pushing for desegregation but also for economic equality. She was in favor of tactics like armed self-defense and was therefore out of favor with the NAACP at the time. Though she wasn’t in Cambridge in 1967 when riots broke out, she had been the one to invite Black Power activist H. Rap Brown to give the speech that sparked the riot.

Richardson does not use the term riot for the fires that took place in Cambridge, Maryland:

Though Richardson Dandridge was not living in Cambridge at the time of the fire on Pine Street, she said she feels that the boycott and involvement of the black businessmen is what caused the fire company to let businesses burn.

“I really think that during the Rap Brown, they say riots, the incident with Rap Brown, I think they let that place burn down because they knew the black businessmen in Cambridge were also supporting the boycott,” she said. “They were glad to see the stores and restaurants and motels and such, that the black people had built up, were burnt down.

“I think also why they let that place (Pine Street) burn down, is that the black businessmen hired and paid for buses, the gasoline, and the drivers to take people out to Salisbury and Easton to shop.”

Mrs. Richardson will be 97 years young this May.

Gloria Hayes Richardson was born on May 6, 1922 in Baltimore, Maryland to parents John and Mabel Hayes.  During the Great Depression her parents moved the family to Cambridge, Maryland, the home of Mabel Hayes.  Young Gloria grew up in a privileged environment.  Her grandfather, Herbert M. St. Clair, was one of the town’s wealthiest citizens.  He owned numerous properties in the city’s Second Ward which included a funeral parlor, grocery store and butcher shop.  He was also the sole African American member of the Cambridge City Council through most of the early 20th Century.

Gloria attended Howard University in Washington at the age of 16 and graduated in 1942 with a degree in sociology. After Howard, she worked as a civil servant for the federal government in World War II-era Washington, D.C. but returned to Cambridge after the war.  Despite her grandfather’s political and economic influence, the Maryland Department of Social Services, for example, refused to hire Gloria or any other black social workers.  Gloria Hayes married local school teacher Harry Richardson in 1948 and raised a family for the next thirteen years.

When the civil rights movement came to Cambridge in 1961 in the form of Freedom Riders, the town was thoroughly segregated and the African American unemployment rate was 40%.  Gloria Richardson’s teenage daughter, Donna, became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) effort to desegregate public accommodations.  Gloria, however, refused to commit herself to non-violence as a protest tactic. When the SNCC-led protests faltered in 1962, Gloria and other parents created the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC) which became the only adult-led SNCC affiliate in the civil rights organization’s history.  CNAC enlarged the scope of grievances to include housing and employment discrimination and inadequate health care.  Richardson was selected to lead CNAC.

It wasn’t until 2018 that a full biography of Richardson detailing her contributions to the struggle for freedom was published. 

The Struggle Is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century), by Joseph R. Fitzgerald.

Many prominent and well-known figures greatly impacted the civil rights movement, but one of the most influential and unsung leaders of that period was Gloria Richardson. As the leader of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC), a multifaceted liberation campaign formed to target segregation and racial inequality in Cambridge, Maryland, Richardson advocated for economic justice and tactics beyond nonviolent demonstrations. Her philosophies and strategies — including her belief that black people had a right to self–defense — were adopted, often without credit, by a number of civil rights and black power leaders and activists.

The Struggle Is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation explores the largely forgotten but deeply significant life of this central figure and her determination to improve the lives of black people. Using a wide range of source materials, including interviews with Richardson and her personal papers, as well as interviews with dozens of her friends, relatives, and civil rights colleagues, Joseph R. Fitzgerald presents an all-encompassing narrative. From Richardson’s childhood, when her parents taught her the importance of racial pride, through the next eight decades, Fitzgerald relates a detailed and compelling story of her life. He reveals how Richardson’s human rights activism extended far beyond Cambridge and how her leadership style and vision for liberation were embraced by the younger activists of the black power movement, who would carry the struggle on throughout the late 1960s and into the 1970s.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

When Gloria Richardson was asked how she would like to be remembered, she replied: “I guess I would like for them to say I was true to my belief in black people as a race.” Her answer reveals a deep commitment to the struggle for black liberation, grounded in an understanding that since colonial times, millions of black people have been forced to sacrifice life and limb in the building and enriching of this nation. Because of this, white America should dismantle its racial hierarchy. Richardson believes so strongly in black people’s entitlement to real and meaningful freedom that she never thought twice about risking her life during the civil rights movement. Still, she knew that bravery alone would not be enough to bring about societal change, so she used her leadership abilities and sociological training to further the cause of human rights, and in doing so, she carried on her family’s tradition of race service. Richardson’s activist work was so important to her that, when asked if she could live at any time in American history, when that would be, she chose the mid-1960s because “there was a lot of ferment and ideas and struggles to finish freeing black people in the progression from slavery . . . a lot of ground was covered at that time.”

In “Black Women Freedom Fighters: An Interview with Keith Gilyard and Joseph R. Fitzgerald,” Fitzgerald comments:

I wrote this biography of Gloria Richardson as a guidebook of sorts for today’s activists to show them that they should consider replicating the type of grassroots, group-centered, and non-ideological approach to human rights work that Richardson used. Foremost among this is the expectation that all successful human rights work arises from local, grassroots struggles consisting of people who know better than anyone else what their issues are and how they should be addressed. The grassroots people should be the ones driving their freedom campaigns and no one—be they a politician, business person, entertainer, religious leader, or media “anointed” or self-appointed spokesperson—should expect local people to subordinate their goals to those of outside people or organizations.

The timeless lesson here is that in the Twenty-First Century, activists in local struggles will have to continue to focus on their own problems that, incidentally, may not be present across the entire nation. What is an issue for people in Albany, New York may not be so for people in Albany, Georgia. Therefore, it is critically important that as people struggle for justice, they do not apply a one-size-fits-all approach to their work. Richardson’s story shows today’s activists the value of knowing this important fact.

I was elated when the book was published. I added a tiny bit to the research when Fitzgerald was tracking down Richardson’s genealogy.

Mrs. Richardson has a wonderful ability to talk to young people and stress the contributions of youth in the movement. The event in the video below was covered by the Dorchester Star in an article titled “Civil Rights Leader Gloria Richardson Dandridge Gives Oral History.”

Robert Kennedy and the Treaty of Cambridge

Richardson Dandridge said she and others on the executive committee of CNAC spent weeks in Washington, D.C., negotiating the terms of the so-called Treaty of Cambridge.

“People actually think that maybe I just did the whole negotiation myself, but that was not true,” she said. “The executive committee of CNAC, they all went back and forth before that day we made the arrangements with Robert Kennedy.”

She elicited laughs from the crowd when she shared that the first time she went to meet with Kennedy, she thought he was the janitor because of his plain clothes, and nearly walked right by him.

The treaty was one of the pieces that made the situation in Cambridge stand out. In many places, the uprising of the Civil Rights Movement was quelled by verbal agreements and promises. For Richardson Dandridge and her fellows in Cambridge, that would not be enough.

“I told him, ‘They’re treating us just like they treated you all as Irish, when you came to this country,’” she said. “That made him stop. Then we gave him the (CNAC) survey report, and it went on from there. We thought that he would be the proper person because, when his brother was running for president, they said he could really get nasty and push people around.”

(See photos of the Cambridge Treaty meetings in Robert F. Kennedy’s Education on Race)

Civil rights leader Gloria Richardson talks about her time in Cambridge Maryland in the early 1960s. She is interviewed by Kisha Petticolas of the Eastern Shore Network for Change. Charismatic and outspoken Ms Richardson was the first woman outside of the deep south to lead a grass roots civil right campaign. Recorded on Thursday July 20, 2017 at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge Md.

There is a wealth of first-person civil rights narrative material available online thanks to The Civil Rights History Project of the Library of Congress.

On May 12, 2009, the U. S. Congress authorized a national initiative by passing The Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-19). The law directs the Library of Congress (LOC) and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) to conduct a survey of existing oral history collections with relevance to the Civil Rights movement to obtain justice, freedom and equality for African Americans and to record new interviews with people who participated in the struggle, over a five year period beginning in 2010.

The activists interviewed for this project belong to a wide range of occupations, including lawyers, judges, doctors, farmers, journalists, professors, and musicians, among others. The video recordings of their recollections cover a wide variety of topics within the civil rights movement, such as the influence of the labor movement, nonviolence and self-defense, religious faith, music, and the experiences of young activists. Actions and events discussed in the interviews include the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963), the Albany Movement (1961), the Freedom Rides (1961), the Selma to Montgomery Rights March (1965), the Orangeburg Massacre (1968), sit-ins, voter registration drives in the South, and the murder of fourteen year old Emmett Till in 1955, a horrific event that galvanized many young people into joining the freedom movement.

Many interviewees were active in national organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Other interviewees were key members of specialized and local groups including the Medical Committee for Human Rights, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Cambridge (Maryland) Nonviolent Action Committee, and the Newark Community Union Project. Several interviews include men and women who were on the front lines of the struggle in places not well-known for their civil rights movement activity such as Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Saint Augustine, Florida; and Bogalusa, Louisiana. Several of the interviews were conducted with the children of local civil rights leaders including Clara Luper, Robert Hicks, and Gayle Jenkins.

(Transcript)

Gloria Hayes Richardson oral history interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier in New York, New York, 2011-07-19.

Summary: Gloria Richardson recalls growing up in Cambridge, Maryland, attending Howard University, and joining Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) with her daughter, Donna, after returning to Cambridge and running her father’s drug store. She recalls traveling to the South with her family to assist SNCC with voter registration, organizing the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, assisting E. Franklin Frazier with research on African Americans, and marching in a protest where the police used cyanogen gas.

No person in leadership, engaged in struggle, should be viewed as disconnected from the context of the times. To gain a deeper understanding of Richardson; Cambridge, Maryland; and the forces of both racist oppression and resistance, read  historian Peter B. Levy’s Civil War on Race Street: The Civil Rights Movement in Cambridge, Maryland.  

Bookcover: Civil War on Race Street: The Civil Rights Movement in Cambridge, Maryland

Civil War on Race Street, so named because Race Street was the road that divided blacks and whites in Cambridge, Maryland, is a detailed examination of one of the most vibrant locally based struggles for racial equality during the 1960s. Beginning with an overview of Cambridge, particularly its history of racial and class relations, Peter Levy traces the emergence of the modern civil rights movement in this city on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Catalyzed by the arrival of freedom in 1962, the movement in Cambridge expanded in 1963 and 1964 under the leadership of Gloria Richardson, one of the most prominent (and one of the few female) civil rights leaders in the nation.

In his detailed review of the book, historian Patrick Jones writes:

Throughout its early history, Cambridge stood at America’s racial crossroads, pulled in two directions.  Prior to the Civil War, Cambridge was both the sight of a major slave trading post and home to many free people of color.  After the war, black people enjoyed a relatively secure franchise and representation on the city council as early as 1881 but contended daily with a stultifying color line.  During the latter decades of the nineteenth century, Cambridge grew into a significant industrial center and class divisions increasingly challenged racial caste as the primary determinant of community relations. The Phillips Packing Company, one of the largest producers of canned fruit and vegetables in the United States and the biggest employer in the region, dominated Cambridge politics and economics until after the Second World War.  Even though most black workers remained in a subordinate position within the local industrial economy, white and black workers occasionally united to challenge the power of the industrial elite–as in a large 1937 strike.  Despite the potential for class-consciousness to override caste barriers at work, the black experience in Cambridge was severely circumscribed by pervasive poverty and segregation in jobs, housing, and education.  African Americans remained “excluded from virtually every social activity in town–with the exception of those held in public spaces”.  Yet, most local white people felt that they lived in a relatively progressive community compared to the Deep South, a view that persisted throughout the civil rights era despite mounting black protest.  Following the Second World War, a variety of forces–particularly the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and the collapse of the Phillips Packing Company–destabilized Cambridge and paved the way for a renegotiation of economic, social, and political relations in the community.  As local elites struggled to maintain their advantage, they found themselves vulnerable to grassroots challenges from African Americans and working-class whites.  

It was this fluid circumstance that provided the opportunity for a new, assertive African American leadership to challenge more cautious black leaders and the racial status quo.  International politics provided the immediate spark for civil rights activism in Cambridge.  In 1961, the ambassador from Chad, one of several newly independent African nations, complained to the Kennedy White House that he had been refused service at a Maryland restaurant while en route from the United Nations to Washington, D.C. Civil rights activists responded with a series of sit-ins and “Freedom Rides” along the route.  The demonstrations prompted several Cambridge residents to investigate the racial situation in their city.  In 1962, they formed the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC, pronounced “see-nack”) to target segregation in restaurants, theaters, and other public accommodations.  When sit-ins at local establishments provoked white violence and arrests but little concrete change occurred, causing many young activists to become increasingly disillusioned.  Sensing this frustration, Gloria Richardson, whose cousin and daughter had participated in the protests, took a more active role in the movement by agreeing to serve as CNAC’s adult supervisor.  Richardson was one of the few militant female civil rights leaders in the nation and she quickly expanded CNAC’s campaign into an all-out attack on racial inequality, from inadequate health care to discrimination in employment, housing, and education–a move that made many traditional black leaders uncomfortable.

Allied with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and aided by students from Swarthmore, Brown, Morgan State, Maryland State, and Goucher College, CNAC organized sit-ins, pickets, and protests that resulted in eight arrests.  After court-ordered negotiations between activists and city officials broke down, violence flared, resulting in the shootings of two white men and the arson of several white businesses.  As tensions grew, Richardson urged more demonstrations as well as federal intervention.  When a mob of whites chased a group of African-American demonstrators into the black section of town, state troopers and National Guardsmen moved in to restore order and remained for three weeks.  More violence ensued when the Guardsmen left, necessitating their redeployment for almost a year along Race Street–the physical boundary between the white and black communities in Cambridge.  During the failed negotiations, city officials agreed to an incremental desegregation program in local schools as well as in public accommodations and to form an interracial committee to work on other problems, if CNAC agreed to call off the demonstrations.  Gloria Richardson and CNAC refused to comply with this gradualist approach, stating that they would accept nothing short of full desegregation and equal opportunity in employment and housing.  Months of pleadings and warnings by Richardson finally spurred the Kennedy Administration to action.  The move came as a surprise considering the administration’s steadfast refusal to intercede in other local racial conflicts like the one in Albany, Georgia.  According to Levy, “[Cambridge] represented the most direct intervention of the Kennedy Administration in the racial affairs of a single community, paling its involvement in Birmingham, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi”. Cambridge’s proximity to Washington, D.C., the severity of the conflict there (among the worst of a bloody 1963), Kennedy’s recent public denunciation of racism in a nationally televised address, and the pending Civil Rights Bill in Congress, all accounted for this unprecedented involvement.

On July 22, 1963, Gloria Richardson, several state government representatives, and SNCC Chairman John Lewis met with Robert F. Kennedy at the Justice Department to hammer out an agreement.  Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and most prominent white liberals, Richardson bristled at compromise, in part because she did not share the same stake in the status quo that they had as office holders, ministers, and business people.  Moreover, Richardson believed the Kennedy Administration was more focused on ending violence than ensuring racial justice.  Even so, the group ultimately came to an agreement–the “Treaty of Cambridge,” as it was called–to overhaul race relations in the divided city.  The treaty established a local human rights commission, sped up the desegregation of public schools and the construction of public housing, amended the city charter to make racial discrimination in public accommodations illegal, and created an innovative job-training program.

Gloria Richardson is just one of the powerful women who did the work of fighting for freedom that we hear so little about. The voices of women from organizations like SNCC are but a memory to some, and for most others do not exist. I strongly suggest that you read this collection of herstories.

Bookcover: Hands on the Freedom Plow

Gloria Richardson Dandridge, “The Energy of the People Passing through Me,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et al. (Urbana:University of Illinois Press, 2010), 273-297

In Hands on the Freedom Plow, fifty-two women–northern and southern, young and old, urban and rural, black, white, and Latina–share their courageous personal stories of working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement.

The testimonies gathered here present a sweeping personal history of SNCC: early sit-ins, voter registration campaigns, and freedom rides; the 1963 March on Washington, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the movements in Alabama and Maryland; and Black Power and antiwar activism. Since the women spent time in the Deep South, many also describe risking their lives through beatings and arrests and witnessing unspeakable violence. These intense stories depict women, many very young, dealing with extreme fear and finding the remarkable strength to survive.

The women in SNCC acquired new skills, experienced personal growth, sustained one another, and even had fun in the midst of serious struggle. Readers are privy to their analyses of the Movement, its tactics, strategies, and underlying philosophies. The contributors revisit central debates of the struggle including the role of nonviolence and self-defense, the role of white people in a black-led movement, and the role of women within the Movement and the society at large. 

Each story reveals how the struggle for social change was formed, supported, and maintained by the women who kept their “hands on the freedom plow.” As the editors write in the introduction, “Though the voices are different, they all tell the same story–of women bursting out of constraints, leaving school, leaving their hometowns, meeting new people, talking into the night, laughing, going to jail, being afraid, teaching in Freedom Schools, working in the field, dancing at the Elks Hall, working the WATS line to relay horror story after horror story, telling the press, telling the story, telling the word. And making a difference in this world.”

Richardson’s story does not end in Cambridge. As you can see from the video interviews, she is still going strong into her 90s.

She married black photographer Frank Dandridge in 1964 and settled in New York City, where she worked with the National Council for Negro Women, Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited and Associated Community Teams (HARYOU-ACT), and the New York City Department for the Aging.

Thank you, Mrs. Gloria Richardson Dandridge.

May you continue to inspire new generations of activists.


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