`Fight for freedom' recalled

NAACP: The Anne Arundel County chapter marks its 60th birthday today.

July 14, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Like many of his generation, Samuel Gilmer was awakened to the civil rights movement in the 1940s, when he returned home after military service in World War II to find himself and other former black soldiers treated as second-class citizens in segregated states such as Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.

"That's what made me get involved in the fight for freedom," said Gilmer, 82, a former Annapolis alderman who helped organize Anne Arundel County's NAACP chapter, which turns 60 today. "We marched to get restaurants and hotels on the highways opened, to enjoy the same things as everybody else."

As the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People holds its national convention in Philadelphia this week, Gilmer and other longtime members of the Anne Arundel chapter reflected on the group's past and future.

Hannah Chambers, 72, has served on the NAACP branch board since 1971 and is married to former Annapolis Mayor John T. Chambers, Jr. A veteran of many sit-ins around Annapolis in the 1960s -- including one at Antoinette's restaurant, then at West and Calvert streets -- she said younger generations of African-Americans might be taking too much for granted.

"You have to keep moving to keep things moving on or otherwise things get stagnant," Chambers said. "We need someone to take our place."

Memories

At the Mount Olive African Methodist Church yesterday, Chambers and Gilmer looked at old photographs and documents in a familiar place where countless NAACP meetings have been held over the years.

The Rev. John T. Chambers, Sr., co-founded the local NAACP branch with a fellow community leader, Walter Mills, and often preached in the Mount Olive pulpit. A formal black-and-white group photo shows Hannah Chambers as a girl with her grandmother standing shoulder-to-shoulder at an NAACP national convention in Chicago in 1944.

"There's Thurgood Marshall, there's Cab Calloway, there's Dr. Charles Drew," she said, pointing to the young future Supreme Court justice, the bandleader and the eminent physician in the front row.

"I shook hands with Thurgood Marshall at that conference," she said, looking back on the gathering as a time when her life's work was set.

Nineteen summers later, she and Gilmer rode a crowded bus to take part in the 1963 March on Washington, where they were among the millions nationally who were stirred by Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. It helped give them heart to face the water hoses turned against protesters and to endure other obstacles to achieving equality.

Segregation could chip away at one's pride piece by piece, the two seasoned civil rights marchers said.

"You could not eat at the Greyhound station," Gilmer recounted. "At the sandwich shops on West Street, you went to the side or the back to order, but you could not sit down and eat."

Injustice remembered

For Chambers, the most vivid injustice was that pregnant black women once were barred from the main Annapolis hospital as patients to give birth. Choices were limited to traveling to Baltimore or Washington, or risking a home delivery, she said.

In recent years, the local NAACP has successfully challenged an anti-loitering ordinance in U.S. District Court and pressed for a redistricting of the Annapolis city council that, for the first time, created three seats for majority black districts.

The county branch has 1,500 to 1,600 active members, said Gerald Stansbury, president of the branch. In a telephone interview from Philadelphia, Stansbury said voter registration is the top priority for every NAACP branch in the nation.

Also on its agenda is a federal discrimination claim against the Anne Arundel County school system that alleges systematic unequal treatment of black and white students.

Loyal white members

The national organization was founded in 1909 by a coalition of white and black Americans when racial tensions were high and lynchings were common. Over the years, the Anne Arundel County branch has had its share of white members, notably Annapolis resident Morris H. Blum, 95.

A more recent arrival in the ranks, William F. Chaney, 58, refers to himself as an "unreconstructed Southerner."

Chaney, a retired businessman, says he doesn't agree with the NAACP platform on every point. For example, he said, "I have a problem with their problem with the Confederate flag."

Still, he said, he agrees with most of the group's principles and admires Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP president and former Maryland congressman.

Because Stansbury, the president, and other core members of the local branch are in Philadelphia this week, its birthday will be celebrated later this summer, Chambers said.

All-night sessions

Contemplating the changes over the years, Gilmer said he and others worked, sometimes all night after long meetings, to put out bulletins and deliver leaflets to local churches. A sense of urgency is what the elder members would most like to pass down to the younger set.

"It's waning compared to what it was in the past," Chambers said. "I wonder if it's because everyone's at home playing with their computer."

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