Kathleen Klein Shemer

Civil rights activist who hosted meetings for Black Panthers and Urban League later served as an art museum docent

December 29, 2008|By James Drew | James Drew,james.drew@baltsun.com

Kathleen Klein Shemer, who worked as a buyer at several Baltimore department stores before she became active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, died of complications from an illness Thursday at St. Joseph Medical Center. The longtime Pikesville resident was 91.

Born in Pittsburgh, she graduated from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. She moved to Baltimore in the 1940s and was a volunteer nursing assistant during World War II. She worked as a buyer at Hecht's, Brager-Gutman's and other department stores in the city.

She met a clothing salesman, Mannie Shemer, on a blind date, and they were married in 1949.

Their son, Dan Shemer, said his father had received a list with the names of four women from a friend.

"My mom was the first of the names. When she gave him trouble, he would tease her and say, 'I might still call one of those three.' But you knew he never would," Mr. Shemer said.

Mrs. Shemer became involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, said her daughter, Berti Shemer Glowac.

"I remember that she marched down to the office of the Urban League and said, 'I'm a middle-class Jewish woman, and I'm very frustrated about what is going on, and I want to build some bridges in any way I can,' " Mrs. Glowac said.

Mrs. Shemer hosted dozens of meetings and coffees - known then as "rap sessions" - in her Pikesville home for the Baltimore Urban League and the Baltimore Black Panther Party.

"She had a real passion for justice and the civil rights movement. She hated bigotry," her son said. "I remember being in the grocery store line as a child and somebody would make a racist remark, and she would just lay into them. She was not much of a soft touch."

Mr. Shemer said his mother helped the Black Panthers with outreach efforts in the white community.

"She always was the maverick," said Mrs. Glowac.

Mrs. Shemer pulled her family out of two swim clubs because they refused to integrate, her son said.

"She was a force of nature," said Mrs. Glowac of her mother. "She could be a horrible hurricane or an earthquake, but she also was the gentle rain and the most beautiful sunset."

After Mrs. Shemer raised her two children and worked part time with her husband at B. Barmack & Sons, a wholesaler of women's and children's clothes, she turned her attention to volunteer efforts.

She volunteered at Contact Baltimore, a mental health hot line, and in 1981 she became a docent at the Baltimore Museum of Art. She led hundreds of museum tours over 20 years.

The museum recently provided Mrs. Shemer's family with several letters she received from teachers and schoolchildren, thanking her for their tours.

"She had flashcards with information about every single painting and painter, and what was done and why. They were incredibly well-researched," Mr. Shemer said.

She enjoyed painting and sculpting, she loved animals, especially dogs, said her daughter. At the age of nearly 80, she got so angry with a neighbor who left a dog out in inclement weather that she crawled into a doghouse to determine whether it was heated - as the neighbor had told her. It wasn't, and the neighbor made sure the dog was brought inside in bad weather, Mrs. Glowac said.

About 10 years ago, Mrs. Shemer began to show signs of dementia. In recent years, she struggled with vascular dementia or Alzheimer's disease, her children said.

No funeral was planned. Mrs. Shemer donated her body to the Maryland Anatomy Board. A memorial ceremony is scheduled for Jan. 11. The time and location have not been announced.

In addition to her son and daughter, Mrs. Shemer is survived by three grandchildren and a great-grandson. Her husband died in 1987.

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