Blount, `conscience of the Senate,' dies at 81

Ex-educator blazed trail as 1st black majority leader and helped promote city

Clarence W. Blount : 1921 - 2003

April 13, 2003|By Sarah Koenig and Stephanie Hanes | Sarah Koenig and Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Clarence W. Blount, the son of a North Carolina sharecropper who became a beloved Baltimore educator and then one of the most influential members of the Maryland Senate, died yesterday. He was 81.

Mr. Blount, who chose not to run for re-election last year after 31 years in the Senate, died about 1:30 p.m. in Kernan Hospital of complications from a stroke, relatives said. His wife, Gordine, and other relatives were by his side.

Mr. Blount entered the Senate in 1971 and became the Senate's first African-American majority leader in 1983. From that time until his retirement, his liquid basso voice proclaimed "sine die" at the end of each General Assembly session.

In 1987, he became the first black chairman of a Senate committee - the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.

"Senator Blount was a pioneer among black politicians in Baltimore City and the state of Maryland," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who started his political career when he joined Mr. Blount in West Baltimore's Five in Five Democratic Club.

"He set such a high standard of achievement. He showed that politics actually worked. He didn't have the kind of sordid image that some politicians have. He came very well accomplished in his civilian life and was able to do great things later on," Mr. Rawlings said.

Mr. Blount's bearing and background - educator, decorated war veteran - led his colleagues to dub him "the conscience of the Senate." And while he was not known as a charismatic leader, his stature, aided by a lean, 6-foot-3-inch frame, rarely failed to soothe nerves and tamp down incivility in the sometimes fractious chamber.

"He had a very calming influence on the Senate," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "He was a very gentle man who would not get angry, would not raise his voice - and would not stop talking on occasion. ... He had as much if not more influence on my life than anybody other than my parents."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said through a spokesman that Blount "Was always a gentleman, a class act, and will be missed by everyone in Maryland."

Mr. Blount's political strength lay in his ability to make, and keep, friends in high places, including the governor's office. That loyalty resulted in money for the causes he cared about - mostly education - and vital votes for bills he sponsored.

"He was connected to everyone and always in a positive long-standing way," said Mary Pat Clarke, a former City Council president. "He had a lot of roots in a lot of the community and was able to promote Baltimore for a long tenure. He's unique. He carried us on his back for 30 years."

While some in the black community criticized him over the years for playing too nice within the white power structure of Annapolis, Mr. Blount refused to change course.

"I just happen to believe that I can help the people I represent more by being a member of the club, in the inner office, sitting at the table of power," he said in a 1981 interview with the Evening Sun. "I'm an upstanding, dues-paying member of the club, and I'm damn successful at it."

Mr. Blount was born April 20, 1921, in South Creek, N.C., one of four children of Lottie and Charles Johnson Blount Sr. His father worked on a tobacco plantation there.

As a child, Mr. Blount helped his father on the farm, feeding chickens and working in the fields. Because he had no shoes, he couldn't attend school.

Into his 80s, Mr. Blount spoke reverently of the lessons his father taught him.

"My daddy was a tower of strength," he said in a WYPR radio interview last year. "He didn't take any foolishness. We were taught from the cradle up to obey. ... And he established pride in the family and in the name."

Mr. Blount's mother died when he was 5 years old. A few years later the family moved to Baltimore. He was a tall, gangly 10-year-old when he first went to school, unable to read or count on his fingers. He credited dedicated teachers with helping him catch up. At 21, he graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, hiding his age from his peers.

A month after entering what was then Morgan State College, Mr. Blount was drafted into a segregated Army to fight in World War II. He saw action in Italy as a member of the 92nd Infantry in the all-black Buffalo Division, earning a battlefield commission for removing mines from a river passage.

But the indignities suffered by black recruits gave Mr. Blount further reason to do battle. In his radio interview last year, Mr. Blount described how white officers tried to enforce Jim Crow overseas.

"Some of the great fights of my life were in the service," he said. "While we were fighting supposedly the Germans, I fight Americans just to go into a restaurant in Italy and sit down and eat. Because we couldn't do that in the United States, so they carried the same thing over there. Well, if I was going to die, I'm going to die in this restaurant."

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