Upon arriving on the campus of Morgan State University in Baltimore in the fall of 1977 as a freshman, there was no expectation on my part that I would become attached to the city’s Black leadership. Yet, in a matter of four years I would have the benefit of advice and counsel from the likes of NAACP legend Clarence Mitchell, noted criminal defense attorney William “Billy” Murphy, Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, a Morgan State alumni and the Maryland’s first African-American member of Congress, and professors such as Augustus Adair, C. Vernon Gray and Alvin Thornton; Black business icon William “Little Willie” Adams and many Black state legislators such as fellow alumni Delegate Clarence “Tiger” Davis. I also benefited from contact with community icons such as Rev. Wendell H. Phillips, Rev. Vernon Dobson and Delegate Hattie Harrison, the latter two giants who passed away over the last several days.
Having grown up immersed in politics and committed to civil rights, the city of Baltimore was my political laboratory and I was blessed with the opportunity to be guided by a contingent of serious minded and committed African-American leaders. My fervor for justice was nurtured and cultivated by Baltimore’s Black leadership. What impressed me most was they were leading meaningful lives; intent on serving their community and changing not only their city, but the nation. As much as Atlanta is regarded as an epicenter of civil rights leadership, the city of Baltimore has its own rich history that rivals its southern cousin and receives too little attention in the historical narrative of our country.
Rev. Vernon Dobson and Delegate Hattie Harrison were giants who stood tall in the fight for equal rights for African-Americans. Rev. Dobson was a theological force who refused to confine his leadership to the pulpit. As pastor of the city’s Union Baptist Church, Dobson understood that faith was only relevant if people saw it working in their daily lives and he actively engaged on behalf of the community before the city’s power brokers. Rev. Dobson was one of a group who helped integrate the city’s Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, a destination that I would visit and enjoy just a few years later during one of my many childhood visits to see my relatives in the city. Upon my arrival in Baltimore in 1977, Dobson took part in the founding of the community group, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD). He was part of the formidable Black leadership circle known as the “Goon Squad” that began altering the political landscape in the city. He was also a co-host of a local community affairs television show “Look at it This Way” that was part of a national trend of a bygone era of local television giving voice to the concerns of the Black community. He was among the few pastors who I recall willing to engage me as a student leader when we were protesting conditions on campus and calling for the resignation of the university president. I always considered Rev. Dobson a pastor’s pastor.
Delegate Hattie Harrison was one of two Black women in the Maryland legislature who impressed me with their tenacity and boldness. The other was state Senator Verda Welcome, a Morgan State alumni and the first African-American woman to serve in the Maryland Senate. Delegate Harrison was a legislative institution in her own right. First elected in 1973, she was the first Black woman to chair a legislative committee and held onto that post overseeing the House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee for 33 years. She stood tall in the community and was determined in her demeanor and drive to break down barriers. Delegate Harrison was a true public servant, who saw her only purpose for holding office was to serve her community. In a day and age where we see elected officials using public office for personal gain, Delegate Harrison is a model of civic virtue and true leadership. Her accomplishments and leadership are all the more impressive when viewed in the context of a southern state and white male dominated political structures.
The passing of Rev. Dobson and Delegate Hattie Harrison reminds me again that we have a choice in how we use our time on earth; that we have an opportunity to lead meaningful lives and to be of service. It is a reminder that I wish I did not have to receive in this manner because I am well aware of what we have truly lost. Still, I consider myself privileged and blessed to have been exposed to such great warriors and have tried my best to be meaningful and purposeful in my own life as payment for the blessing. We need not look for another Rev. Vernon Dobson or Hattie Harrison – God gives us these unique individuals and it is up to us to recognize the greatness among us. My hope is that up and coming Black youth will be reminded of the legacies of Dobson and Harrison, and honor them by continuing their work and breaking new ground in the ongoing fight for justice and equality.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.