‘You can be anything you want’: How Cummings went from a segregated Baltimore childhood to halls of Congress

The late congressman Elijah Cummings often spoke of teachers and other mentors he encountered growing up in South Baltimore. But help was not a one-way street.

Ruth Elma Cummings had visions of the future. As a girl growing up in Manning, South Carolina, she heard the voice of God and preached to cattle in the fields where she worked and had dreams of the man she would marry eventually. His name was Robert Cummings; the two met on a dirt road and married in 1945.

But her visions had limits. The domestic worker, who later became a Pentecostal preacher, did not foresee that their son, Elijah, would go on to become an influential and long-serving congressman, leading a district that included their adoptive home of South Baltimore. According to a 1983 article in The Evening Sun, she once advised him to become a shoe repairman.


U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who died Thursday at age 68, often spoke of teachers and other inspirational figures who helped push the sharecroppers’ son to the halls of Congress, overcoming racial and economic barriers. But help for him was not a one-way street. His commitment to mentoring others was a crucial part of his own political career.

In a weekly column Cummings wrote for the Afro-American newspaper, the congressman reflected on how seeing black-owned businesses like the Parks Sausage Co., which opened in 1951, inspired him as a youngster. His parents often pointed to the company to tell their children, “You can be anything you want,” he wrote in 1996, when the plant closed its doors.


At age 10, growing up in a two-story rowhouse on West Cross Street, Cummings walked to the circuit courthouse to listen to cases.

“I wanted to say those big words and help people,” he recalled in 1996, after winning the primary for Maryland’s 7th District.

Not everyone was supportive. A sixth-grade counselor advised him to go to trade school instead.

Encouraging voices drowned out the naysayers. In a 2014 column, Cummings recalled the support of teachers like Hollis Posey, “who taught to my strengths and never allowed me to fall prey to the lowered expectations that some had held for me.”

Another role model was Maurice Snowden Dorsey, who taught him Spanish in the mid-1960s at Gwynns Falls Junior High, just after integration.

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“For many young African-American children, and others, to see a man of his stature in the middle school, and to know that he was demanding excellence and had high expectations of us all meant a lot,” Cummings said in 2006.

At age 11, he helped integrate Riverside Park pool, an experience that left both literal and emotional scars. The move to integrate the pool was led by Juanita Jackson Mitchell, who, Cummings recalled, informed a group of black children of a “real pool” where they could “swim to your heart’s delight,” he said in a 2014 interview with Baltimore Magazine. Mitchell did not tell the children that the pool was segregated. He would have a bottle thrown at him and a cut on his head, a memory he recounted this summer after President Donald Trump hurled racist and xenophobic insults at lawmakers of color.

Cummings also remembered the support of Dr. Albert Friedman, a Jewish pharmacist who gave him a job after he graduated from Baltimore City College and occasionally sent him a $10 bill while he was studying at Howard University.


These positive memories are what allow me to push past my doubts and work to make a difference in young lives," Cummings wrote in 2014. “So too, we all can have confidence in our competence to contribute because someone made that difference for us.”

After earning his law degree from the University of Maryland in 1976, Cummings began to offer a free tutoring course to help black students crack the state bar exam, which he had passed on his first attempt. After hearing about this course, former Baltimore Del. Lena Lee pushed him to campaign for her seat, and began fundraising on his behalf, according to an interview in Baltimore Magazine.

“I don’t expect to change the world," Cummings said after winning the seat. “I’m just ready to get to work.”

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.