No matter which Gloria you choose, Richardson, Dandridge, or St. Clair Hayes, the name she was born with on May 6, 1922 in Cambridge, Maryland, she was glorious. She was a beacon of the Civil Rights Movement and continued the breaking of the stereotype of Black women in the struggle against segregation and racism. On July 15, she made the transition to glory at 99.
In an interview with Gil Noble in 1982, 20 years after her iconic days in Cambridge, Maryland, she disclosed why she was so passionately involved in the movement. “There was something direct, something real about the way kids waged nonviolent war. This was the first time I saw a vehicle I could work with.”
And the young activists were emboldened by an elder who understood their demands, even if some of the tactics bordered on violence.
Paradoxically, Gloria, for all her concern for the less privileged, was the product of a fairly affluent family. Her parents owned a successful grocery store and funeral home. The family had a long history of freedom and members were active in politics and the legal arena. Her maternal grandfather served on the Cambridge City Council from 1912 to 1946, the first African American to hold this office.
So even before she knew it, a genetic tendency coursed through her veins and her strong sense of community was something her parents expected and encouraged. Despite their comparatively comfortable lives, the family was by no means immune to the discrimination and injustice that surrounded them. When her father died of a heart attack because of the inability to get immediate medical care, Gloria experienced a harsh reality about Black life in America.
In 1942, Gloria earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Howard University. It was here, amid a number of politically conscious students, that she began her civil rights activism, joining a crowd of protesters against a local drug store that refused to hire African Americans. This, of course, was not the first time she woke up to the restrictions imposed by a Jim Crow society. From this moment on, whether in front of Woolworth’s or elsewhere, she began to raise her voice against the segregated conditions that pervaded her existence.
Upon her return to her hometown, infused with a burning activism, she was soon a member of the CNCC (Cambridge Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Her marriage to Harry Richardson ended in divorce and that gave her even more time to devote to the growing Civil Rights Movement that radiated from other southern cities. Almost immediately upon becoming a member of the CNAC (Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee), she made the co-chair.
Her activism was not without reservations from her family, or from prominent officials who knew her background, and felt her involvement in rallies and protests, especially when she was arrested, “disgraced” the prestige of the family. The chastising and disgust only propelled Gloria, energizing her fight against lack of housing, police abuse, and economic disparity.
When the sit-ins arrived in Cambridge, Gloria’s daughter, Donna, was among those protesters, and she was soon joined by her mother and other older citizens. She was particularly excited by the young people who seemed to defy the nonviolent attitude that marked the movement at that time. But there came a time when Donna had to restrain her mother’s impulse to ignore the nonviolent rules.
It was during these protests and her membership in the CNAC, and Gloria’s questioning of nonviolence was hardly subdued. Still, she began to push for more than just civil rights but economic equality, decent housing, improved education, open accommodations and an end to police brutality.
She even conducted a survey to back her call for these changes.
These demands did not offset the increased need for voter registration, and Gloria added this to her agenda.
In the summer of 1963, the demonstrations and turmoil intensified and there were many protesters wielding armed weapons. Inevitably there were gunshots between Black and white residents, precipitating the arrival of the National Guard. One of the most memorable photos of the melee is with Gloria pushing aside a National Guardsman’s bayoneted rifle. That was symbolic of her defiance.
As the tumult and standoff continued, Gloria’s gesture morphed into words during another encounter. “A first class citizen does not beg for freedom,” she said. “A first class citizen does not plead to the white power structure to given him something that the whites have no power to give or take away. Human rights are human rights, not white rights.” It was vintage Gloria.
In July 1963, when the Treaty of Cambridge was signed, Gloria was right in the mix, and her agitation was universally recognized, so much so she was even accused of being a communist. Her resolute stance certainly did not go unnoticed by her comrades in the struggle. And during the historic March on Washington, she was among the dignitaries seated on the rostrum, though she was quickly muffled when she began her speech. She had already been roundly criticized for wearing jeans to the event.
A year later, Gloria and her husband Frank Dandridge had moved to New York City when the CNAC contacted her with hopes she could get H. Rap Brown to come to Cambridge and speak during the riot there. She knew him and invited him to speak there. On July 24, 1967, Brown addressed a crowd of several hundred people in the Black section of town.
Later, after his rousing speech and critique of white society, Brown was shot by a shotgun pellet and soon there was more gunfire. As the rage grew between Blacks and whites, Gloria called the wife of the National Guard commander to intercede and halt the uprising. Brown was charged with inciting the riot, though the charges were later dismissed. Two activists associated with Brown, Ralph Featherstone and William “Che” Payne, were killed on the outskirts of town when a bomb was exploded in their car.
In Harlem she worked at a number of civic and business jobs, including HARYOU, where she offered her rich legacy and guidance to youngsters. In 2012, at the age of 90 Gloria finally retired. Her long odyssey of standing up for civil and human rights is captured in Joseph Fitzgerald’s biography “The Struggle is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation.”