Howard B. Silverberg, a former merchant mariner and labor organizer who later became a Southeast Baltimore neighborhood activist, died Tuesday from complications of pneumonia at University of Maryland Medical Center. The Washington Hill resident was 86.
A board member and officer of the Southeast Community Association for nearly 30 years, he doggedly fought expansion plans for Johns Hopkins Hospital, hazardous waste at the now-closed Monument Street Landfill and a 1970s proposal for a prison ship to be anchored in the harbor. He also marched in peace demonstrations and protested for racial equality.
Born in Winston-Salem, N.C., he moved with his parents to Brooklyn, N.Y. In 1942, he joined the merchant marine and sailed on 24 voyages while a member of the National Maritime Union. He also joined New York's Young Communist League, a membership that got him blacklisted from the merchant marine in the late 1940s. He moved to Baltimore and became a Bethlehem Steel Corp. laborer and labor organizer.
In 1946, he married Regina H. Rosen. The couple was present at Druid Hill Park on July 11, 1948, for an interracial tennis match planned to test city parks' regulations regarding racial segregation. Mrs. Silverberg was arrested that day while Mr. Silverberg participated in the protest during the tennis game.
"He was a kind, gentle soul," said Mitzi Swan, who was also arrested there. "I'd see him on picket lines and civil rights and open housing events."
Because of his membership in the Communist Party, he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Asked to give names of people associated with the Communist movement, Mr. Silverberg invoked his Fifth Amendment right and declined to answer. He remained a member of the Communist Party USA.
He lost his job at Sparrows Point -- he was also kicked out of a bowling league -- and became a Singer sewing machine salesman. He later sold insurance. Mr. Silverberg in recent years was a messenger for Attorney Services Inc., driving between law firms in the Baltimore area.
In a City Paper article published last year, he looked back on his experiences in the McCarthy era of the 1950s, saying, "I lost a couple jobs. ... I just kept myself going."
Mr. Silverberg moved to East Baltimore Street about 25 years ago and joined the neighborhood's Washington Hill Cooperative Housing Board and Citizens for Washington Hill, as well as the Southeast Community Organization, where he was a former president.
"Howard was involved in most every aspect of redevelopment in Southeast Baltimore," said Betty Hyatt, a longtime Southeast activist. "He was a wonderful speaker and would talk eloquently without written notes. He always wanted the little man to be heard."
In 1983, he spent $900 in a run for the City Council. In a Sun article, he said he was "raising issues instead of dollars." He listed as his targets then-Councilman Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro, President Ronald Reagan's economics and the Monument Street landfill. He ran ninth in the race among a dozen candidates for the 1st District's three seats.
"He was an inspirational individual. He was passionately involved in working in the community and with a concern for social justice," said Stan Markowitz, a SECO board officer. "He never quit. He was dogged in the best sense. He loved life and never got cynical."
"He was a thoughtful man who gave consideration to issues," said Mary Roby, an Upper Fells Point resident. "At SECO, when a discussion got out of hand, he had the ability to ... bring people back to basics."
After nearly 60 years of protests, his final appearance was at a peace demonstration in March at War Memorial Plaza.
"He was humble and committed to the poor and working-class people. He organized hard in the peace movement. He never wanted recognition," said Tina Wheeler, the Communist Party's district organizer for Maryland.
Family members said Mr. Silverberg solved several crossword puzzles daily. He also read five books a week, usually novels and works of history and politics. He was also a Center Stage usher and wrote columns for community newspapers, including "Hard to Port" for the Fells Point Gazette and The Guide.
Mr. Silverberg's first wife died in 1983.
By his wish, no funeral is planned. A memorial gathering will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow at the Captain James Landing restaurant, 2127 Boston St.
He is survived by his wife of 18 years, the former Jeanne Dresser.