A lady from West Baltimore

Monday Book Review

February 24, 1992|By Peter Kumpa

MY LIFE AND TIMES. By Verda F. Welcome as told to James M. Abraham. Henry House Publishers, Englewood, N.J. 310 pages, $19.95. ON A snowy and blustery day, Sen. Verda Freeman Welcome steered her sedan north from Baltimore to Harrisburg, slipping bTC and sliding all the way, terrifying her companion, Del. Lena K. Lee. They were headed for a regional strategy session of black state legislators.

The trouble was that when they arrived, shaken but secure, no other out-of-state lawmakers had risked the treacherous trip. Mrs. Welcome never never considered the risk. She had made a commitPeterKumpament, and she would keep it.

It was typical of the lady from West Baltimore. Always keep your promises, Mrs. Welcome would advise ambitious would-be politicians. Keep faithful to the cause, she would tell them. And she helped spawn a new generation of African-American political leaders in Maryland -- from Mayor Kurt Schmoke to Rep. Kweisi Mfume.

Many of them followed her soft-spoken style, the secret of her legislative success in a quarter-century in the General Assembly. Though she was forever persistent, she was able to win the friendship of those who disagreed with her.

James M. Abraham, who began his newspaper career on the Baltimore Afro-American, elicited from Mrs. Welcome the account of a remarkable life. It runs from her birth in 1907 in the hills of North Carolina, one of 16 children, through a long career in education, politics and the legislature, to her death in 1990 in Baltimore.

The Welcome story is a tale of triumph over adversity that should be an inspiration to any African-American youngster who sees only obstacles ahead rather than opportunities. But it is also a story of Baltimore, a side of it that we forget all too easily. Mrs. Welcome introduces the reader to segregated Baltimore, to personal humiliation and to civic neglect.

She did not scream in rage against a stacked system. She simply set to work to change it. And change it she did through hard-nosed political struggle that won her a singular prize: She became the first black woman to serve in a state senate anywhere in the United States. But she took far greater pride in her long battle for civil rights that broke down barriers in public facilities for all Maryland citizens.

Mrs. Welcome's list of legislative accomplishments was long. She worked for women's rights as well as for the rights of blacks.

She worked to ban smoking in public places. She promoted higher education. (She said she was most proud of the bill that elevated Morgan State College to university status.) She supported legislation that struck down laws against miscegenation.

Those who relish political battling will be rewarded with her accounts of the personalities on the Baltimore scene in the tumultuous '50s, '60s and '70s. One of her regrets, she said, was that she did not enter politics earlier.

Once Mrs. Welcome was asked what she wanted for an epitaph. "When it's all said and done," she said, "the thing I want people to remember is that Sen. Verda Welcome gave all that she had to getting the job done."

Peter Kumpa, former political columnist for The Evening Sun, is historian of the Maryland State Senate.

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