Bertha Newton Rhodes, who was an early operator of tours around Baltimore that featured African-American historic and cultural sites, died in her sleep Nov. 30 at Shangri-La Assisted Living in Ellicott City. No cause of death was determined.
She was 95.
Born in Harlem in New York City, she was the daughter of Wallace Newton, a chauffeur, and Theresa Woodward, a seamstress. She moved to Baltimore as a child and lived on Madison Avenue. She was a 1942 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School.
“Bert’s life was a testament to the Harlem Renaissance spirit,” said her son, Medford J. Campbell Jr. “She loved African-American history, art, music, and culture, and made sure her children and grandchildren had opportunities to explore their own talents in art, music and dance. She would pick up the violin she purchased in her early 20s and play a song or two. She also loved to paint.”
As a young woman, she joined the Glenn L. Martin aircraft company in Middle River, where she was a riveter. She told her family it was one of her favorite jobs because it assisted the United States’ effort in World War II. She then moved with her husband to Memphis, Tenn., where she worked for the Universal Life Insurance Co.
She returned to Baltimore and lived on Shellbanks Road in Cherry Hill, where she sold the World Book Encyclopedia.
“My mom socialized a lot and was a member of the neighborhood association,” said her son. “She saw a need for the children to have a better education and thought the encyclopedia was a way to do that.”
She joined the Social Security Administration in 1949 and worked in the Candler Building on Pratt Street before moving with the agency to Woodlawn in the 1960s. She retired in 1979 while she was in her 50s and decided to pursue her lifelong interest in African-American history and culture.
“My mother loved driving around in her sporty Ford Mustang, but she decided to sell it and buy a 15-passenger Ford van. She then began the part of her career journey she was most passionate about,” said her son. “She launched Bert’s Tours.”
He said that for 10 years she conducted tours of Baltimore that included stops at places of historic and cultural interest.
“Most importantly, she lifted up sites that demonstrated the depth of historical and contemporary influence of African-Americans in the Baltimore area,” her son said.
Mrs. Rhodes was a frequent patron at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where she conducted her research.
“She was independent and outspoken,” said Eva Slezak, the Pratt’s assistant manager for social science and history. “”She shared her information, especially with young people. She did not hold it just to herself.
“She was interested in local and national African-American history. She didn’t wait around for someone else to fund her. She used her own money to print pamphlets and booklets. She was also very particular in the way she documented things. She made sure that what she had to say was correct.”
Ms. Slezak compared Mrs. Rhodes to the African-American genealogist Agnes Kane Callum.
“They were both my mentors,” said Ms. Slezak.
Her son recalled his mother giving a tour.
“It was a sight to behold Bert guiding her tours, sometimes on a large bus, around Baltimore City,” he said. “Her passengers loved the tour and they loved her. She collected books, manuscripts, newspaper and magazine articles, artifacts and memorabilia about African-Americans. She published four editions of her ‘Guide to African-American Museums and Galleries in the United States,’ all typed on a manual typewriter.”
He said the introduction to the 1984 guide began with a quote from the poet Langston Hughes: “If anyone’s going to tell my story, I guess it’ll be me myself.”
In the late 1990s she began researching the genealogy of her Newton family and contacted numerous cousins.
A Roman Catholic, she had been a member of the St. Veronica, St. Matthew and New All Saints parishes.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at Chatman-Harris Funeral Home West, 5240 Reisterstown Road.
In addition to her son, survivors include another son, Patrick S. Campbell of Baltimore; a daughter, Maria T. Casey of Oakland, Calif.; six grandchildren; numerous great-grandchildren; and a great-great-grandson. Her marriages to Medford John Campbell and Thurman Rhodes ended in divorce.