John Thomas Chambers Jr., Annapolis' first black mayor, dies

He helped establish rent control, advocated to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday

  • John Thomas Chambers Jr., the first African-American mayor of Annapolis. File photo by William Hotz.
John Thomas Chambers Jr., the first African-American mayor… (William Hotz, Baltimore…)
February 27, 2011|By John-John Williams IV, The Baltimore Sun

John Thomas Chambers Jr., Annapolis' first black mayor, died Friday morning of a heart attack. His death came five days before his 83rd birthday.

"He loved helping others," said Hannah Scott Chambers, his wife of 57 years. "He loved all sports, and he loved church, children and people. He was an unusual individual. I kept expecting him to change. Thank God he never did."

The second oldest of four children, Mr. Chambers was born and raised in the Parole community of Annapolis. His father, the Rev. John T. Chambers Sr., owned the popular Chambers Barber Shop, and was one of the founders of the Anne Arundel County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His mother, Ruth Hicks Chambers, was a homemaker. Mr. Chambers graduated from Wiley H. Bates High School in Annapolis, and what was the Hampton Institute in 1948 with a degree in industrial education.

Back in Annapolis, Mr. Chambers ran his father's barber shop for the next 53 years. An accomplished athlete, it was his stint with a club basketball team that led him to meet his future wife, a member of Bowie State's women's basketball team. The two met between practices in the school's gymnasium. Her roommate encouraged her to date Mr. Chambers.

"He had the most magnificent smile I had ever seen," Mrs. Chambers recalled. "He had the most magnificent legs on the court. I've been looking at him very hard since then."

Mr. Chambers began his political career in 1967 as an alderman. He filled the Ward 7 seat after the resignation of T. Norwood Brown. When the city expanded to eight wards, Mr. Chambers was elected to represent Ward 3, a district covering his childhood community of Parole and other neighborhoods on the west side of the city.

Mr. Chambers became the first black mayor of Annapolis, serving from April 12 to June 7, 1981. He was appointed by the City Council to replace then-acting Mayor Gustav Akerland, who committed suicide. Mr. Chambers declined to run for mayor on his own despite being encouraged by both community and elected officials, said his wife.

"He wanted to give a chance for the younger generation to express newer ideas," she said.

A Republican for his political career, Mr. Chambers became a Democrat after his time as mayor.

During his political career, Mr. Chambers introduced legislation to make the mayor's position full-time, helped establish rent control and advocated to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a city and state holiday. He also placed a plaque at the foot of Annapolis' Main Street in honor of Alex Haley's ancestor, Kunta Kinte.

"I can't picture him being on the council doing some of the fighting that he had to do," said Classie G. Hoyle, Annapolis' acting mayor, who serves as alderwoman of Ward 3 for the Annapolis City Council. "To get some of those things done is just amazing. He was just an incredible person."

Though Mr. Chambers had retired from political office by the time Ms. Hoyle joined the City Council, she said he continually gave her positive feedback.

"He was an adorable person," Ms. Hoyle said. "He had a calm, peaceful demeanor."

Despite being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in July 2000, Mr. Chambers' demeanor rarely changed, said his wife.

"He still remained such a pleasant, helpful person right up to the last few months," she said. "It was unbelievable."

A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2 Hicks Ave., Annapolis.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Chambers is survived by a son, John Thomas Chambers, III, of Glen Burnie; a daughter, Dr. Ursala Watson of LaPlata; a sister, Gertrude Chambers Tubaya of Annapolis; and seven grandchildren.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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