Fight for tribute to crusader finally won Woman's persistence gets exhibit in State House for civil rights pioneer.

April 13, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

It took a Scottish-born Presbyterian, who had never met a Jew, years of persistence to win the right for Jews to hold public office in Maryland.

And it has taken a Jewish septuagenarian from Pikesville years of almost equal persistence to win that 19th-century crusader a place of honor in the State House.

Thomas Kennedy, meet Doris Kahn.

He was a poet, balladeer and voluble orator who started fighting for Jews' civil rights in 1818 and finally won them in 1826.

She is a pianist, volunteer and inveterate baker of apple strudels who started fighting for a memorial to Kennedy 3 1/2 years ago and finally will see a brass plaque unveiled tomorrow in Annapolis.

"He did something for the Jews, and the Jews should do something for him. It's that simple," Mrs. Kahn said.

This is not the first time Maryland Jews have remembered Thomas Kennedy. In 1918, on the 100th anniversary of his introduction of what became derisively known as the "Jew bill" in the General Assembly, the Independent Order of Brith Sholom erected a granite obelisk to him at his grave in Hagerstown's Rose Hill Cemetery.

Every few years since, Brith Sholom members have made a pilgrimage to lay a wreath at his grave. It was after one such trip that Mrs. Kahn, grand matron of the order, started thinking about the need for a memorial to Thomas Kennedy in Annapolis.

"I thought why isn't this man remembered?" she said. "How many people go to Hagerstown, and how many people know about him? That irritated me."

Soon Mrs. Kahn was on a mission. And that meant that politicians, bureaucrats, friends and family would not soon hear the end of Thomas Kennedy.

Doris Kahn is a 78-year-old, hand-on-your-arm, food-on-your-plate Jewish matron of the old school. One call to her answering machine (the musical message: "Hello! Hello! Hello-o-o!!! This is Doris, you ought to know!"), and you realize she is a force to be reckoned with.

Her first love is the piano, and for playing at schools and nursing homes over the years, she was inducted into the Maryland Senior Citizen Hall of Fame in 1988.

Her second love in recent years has been Thomas Kennedy. The portly, blue-eyed Scot came to the United States at age 20 to seek his fortune, composed patriotic ballads and love sonnets during the War of 1812, made the civil rights of Maryland's few Jews his cause as a Maryland legislator, and died in a cholera epidemic 160 years ago.

Kennedy's was not the first effort to give Jews the right to hold public office (including practicing law). That came in 1797 when Baltimore merchant Solomon Etting asked the General Assembly put Jews "on the same footing with other good citizens."

But that and subsequent requests fell on deaf ears. The Maryland Constitution continued to require of officeholders a "declaration of belief in the Christian religion."

Kennedy took up the fight after he was elected to the House of Delegates in 1817.

"There are no Jews in the county from whence I come nor have I the slightest acquaintance with any Jew in the world," Kennedy told fellow legislators in one of many orations.

But as a Jeffersonian, Kennedy believed that religion is "a question which rests, or ought to rest, between man and his Creator alone." Author Harry Golden wrote that "Kennedy was a dTC man looking for a cause. He had found one. He resolved to right this wrong."

Only about 150 Jews lived in Maryland at the time, almost all in Baltimore.

But some Jews -- such as Solomon Etting and banker Jacob I. Cohen Jr., both future directors of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad -- were gaining prominence in Baltimore and chafed under Maryland's constitutional restrictions. Perhaps more important, Jews had helped defend Fort McHenry during the British bombardment of 1814, but still suffered discrimination.

Kennedy's bill became a political football kicked around between Jeffersonians and Federalists. It was rejected year after year.

By 1823, Kennedy's bill had become an emotional litmus-test issue statewide. That year support for the bill cost two dozen legislators defeat at the polls.

The chief casualty was Kennedy himself. In an ugly campaign, his slate of legislators was branded the "Jew ticket." The opposing "Christian ticket" derided him as a "Judas Iscariot" and as "one half Jew and the other half not a Christian."

Negative campaigning carried the day. Kennedy lost by nearly 2-1 .

But Kennedy persevered. He won back his seat in the House of Delegates the next year and, as Federalist power waned, finally engineered passage by one vote of a constitutional amendment in 1825 that lifted the restrictions against Jews. Many of the legislators abstained or were absent when the vote was taken.

The amendment required officeholders to declare their belief only in "a future state of rewards and punishments." (That requirement was dropped when the current Maryland Constitution was adopted in 1867.)

In 1826, the legislature ratified the amendment. That fall Etting and Cohen won City Council seats and became Maryland's first Jewish elected officials. Kennedy's battle was won.

Like Kennedy, Mrs. Kahn got an idea and persevered.

She enlisted the aid of Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, raised $500 from the Independent Order of Brith Sholom, and pestered the Maryland State Archives until officials put together an exhibit sponsored by the State House Trust honoring Kennedy.

The first in a planned series on "Maryland Legislators Who Made a Difference," the exhibit will be unveiled at noon tomorrow in the Maryland Silver Room of the State House.

Mrs. Kahn, of course, will be there.

"Perseverance will help," Mrs. Kahn said, a sentiment Thomas Kennedy could appreciate. "They got sick and tired of me, and so did my friends. I think it's wonderful that this man will finally be remembered."

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