Baltimore leaders reflect on life of Benjamin Hooks

Hooks was instrumental in moving NAACP headquarters to city in 1986

April 15, 2010|By Brent Jones, The Baltimore Sun

The death of the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks has touched many area residents who fondly recalled the time the civil rights giant called Baltimore his home.

Hooks was instrumental in the NAACP's move from New York to Baltimore in 1986. He served as executive director of the organizations from 1977 to 1992, significantly growing membership and reducing expenses during that time. Hooks died at the age of 85 today in Nashville.

"We were probably one of the first national nonprofits to move our headquarters to Baltimore," said J. Howard Henderson, who served as Hooks' vice president of administration. "He started a trend of others coming here. When I look back on it, the move was beneficial not only for Baltimore but for the NAACP."

Henderson, now the executive director of the Maryland Urban League, said he spoke to Hooks at least once a month up until his death. Hooks, Henderson said, formed a strong bonds with former mayors William Donald Schaefer and Kurt L. Schmoke, and ingratiated himself in the city.

"His personality was one of being the voice of reason in the community," Henderson said. "That's how we connected. That's what I try to do with the Urban League. Be a leader, not a rabble-rouser and bring about solutions that face us in the community."

Schmoke spent the last decade working as a board member with Hooks in a nonprofit organization designed to help children suffering from ailments caused by lead paint and other health issues.

"He put a lot of energy, time and thought into the matter," Schmoke said. "It was quite an inspiration to work with him on that. It was an example of a man not resting on his laurels."

Schmoke first met Hooks in 1986. The decision, Schmoke said, to move the organization's headquarters was a controversial one, requiring Hooks to sell the NAACP board on the idea. Schmoke was running for mayor of Baltimore at the time.

Hooks believed a move to Baltimore, where land and rent was cheaper, would greatly reduce the organization's finances.

Years later, Schmoke said a highlight of his mayoral stint was naming a street in Hooks' honor.

"One of the many fun days of my tenure was dedicating Ben Hooks way," said Schmoke, of the road located near North Avenue. "He always said he had many keys to the city but not a street sign."

Baltimore NAACP branch president Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham said he did not know Hooks, but his work on the national level had a trickle-down effect on smaller chapters across the country.

Cheatham said Hooks introduced corporate fundraising, which helped chapter presidents raise money locally. Cheatham also praised Hooks' work with Major League Baseball.

"You saw an increase in managing, and blacks getting into more roles than just playing on the baseball field," Cheatham said.

Cheatham said he has approached city schools CEO Andres Alonso on devoting a day to teach students about the NAACP leader who called Baltimore home for a time.

"He was the impetus that brought me to the organization. I wasn't really that hyped up about the NAACP," Cheatham said. "When he came in, the membership and image had gone down. He brought both back up."

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