Robert L. Douglass, 76, served on City Council, in state Senate

July 29, 2005|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Robert L. Douglass, a former City Council member and state senator from East Baltimore who was an advocate of linking jobs with minority political muscle, died Wednesday at Maryland General Hospital of a brain hemorrhage related to Alzheimer's disease. The Homewood Avenue resident was 76.

Nearly 40 years ago, he founded the politically influential Eastside Democratic Organization with future council President and Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns to bolster election-day turnouts in predominantly African-American neighborhoods around the Johns Hopkins medical complex.

As an officeholder, Mr. Douglass used his experience as an electronics company owner to push for minority hiring in government-related business. He was also a founder of a 1970s community-based economic development corporation.

"He was a great public servant and the political organization he founded is still on the map," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a fellow Democrat who holds the 45th District seat once occupied by Mr. Douglass. "I learned how the state Senate operates sitting down there with Robert Douglass as my mentor."

Mr. Douglass was elected to the City Council in 1967, about the time he and Mr. Burns founded the Eastside club, which held its monthly fourth-Sunday meetings at a Broadway maritime union hall.

"He brought all of East Baltimore society together. People would love getting dressed up," recalled longtime activist Lucille Gorham. "We used to have some great times at those meetings. Bob would sing `Georgia on My Mind' and he'd tell everybody to stay in school and get an education."

Mr. Douglass was the top voter-getter among the three Democratic candidates elected to the old 2nd District's council seats in 1971, and was elected in 1974 to the first of two Senate terms - serving until his 1982 defeat by Nathan C. Irby Jr.

While in Annapolis, he was Legislative Black Caucus chairman for three years.

"He was an imposing figure," former Baltimore Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III recalled yesterday. "He never lost the idea that he was always representing his neighborhood. He was a strong political ally of mine. He was a straight shooter, right down the line."

Mr. Douglass was elected to the council again in 1995 and served a four-year term.

"He was a businessman, but he never forgot the little people he worked for as a city councilman or senator," said 45th District state Del. Hattie N. Harrison who, as a PTA president, worked with Mr. Douglass in 1968 leading a rally to support construction of a new Dunbar High School. "At his electronics company, he gave a lot of local people jobs."

Born in Winnsboro, S.C., and raised in Baltimore County's Turners Station, he was a 1946 graduate of Dunbar High and served in the Army. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from what is now Morgan State University and a second bachelor's degree, in electrical engineering, from the Johns Hopkins University.

He taught at what is now Baltimore City Community College and at Carver Vocational-Technical High School. For many years, his firm, Baltimore Electronics Associates, had Defense Department contracts for electro-mechanical assemblies for headsets used in military tanks.

"We were socially motivated," Mr. Douglass told an Evening Sun reporter in 1971. "At first we hired 85 people when we had work for 15."

A 1967 Sun article noted that Mr. Douglass was the first black to hold a council seat for the 2nd District - which stretched across a midtown section of Baltimore from Charles Village to the Johns Hopkins Hospital area - and credited his ties with predominantly white organizations. He was the only winner on a Mount Royal Democratic Club ticket with the late Walter S. Orlinsky, who later became City Council president, and Thomas Ward, now an emeritus Circuit Court judge.

"Eyes turned when he walked in a room," Judge Ward said yesterday. "He was handsome and had a well-modulated voice."

"He was articulate, a wonderful talker and a force in East Baltimore," said former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides. "He was smart and formed an alliance with the Mount Royal Democratic Club and built up a very strong East Baltimore organization."

Mr. Douglass was a founder of the East Baltimore Community Corp., which, among other ventures, operated a medical center at 1000 E. Eager St. now overseen by Johns Hopkins.

"Basically, what we decided to do was use political power to deliver services to the East Baltimore community," Mr. Douglass told a Sun reporter in 1979, adding that there was a "thin line that separates the corporate effort from the political effort."

A memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. Monday at Waters African Methodist Episcopal Church, 417 N. Aisquith St., where he was a longtime member.

Survivors include three sons, Ronald K. Douglass of Edgewood, Eric Lee Douglass of White Marsh and Loren R. Douglass of Jersey City, N.J.; a daughter, Beverly Douglass of Baltimore; a sister, Ruthine Bydume of Upper Marlboro; 15 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. His marriage to the former Bernice Sales ended in divorce.

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