Welcome to The Baltimore Sun’s 25 Black Marylanders to Watch. To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve assembled a group of people whose fortitude, leadership, artistry and efforts to uplift Baltimore and the state of Maryland make them worth watching.
A tireless advocate of ceasefires and a organizer of volunteers make their cases.
49, cofounder, Baltimore Ceasefire 365
When Erricka Bridgeford woke up the Saturday morning of Baltimore’s first Ceasefire weekend in 2017, she could feel something shifting.
There were posts on social media saying the air felt different. Folks were celebrating the lack of ambulance sirens through the night.
“That’s when I realized, like, ‘Oh, this is something bigger than I thought,’” Bridgeford, 49, a cofounder of Baltimore Ceasefire 365, recalled in a recent interview.
The Ceasefire movement hasn’t stopped growing since.
From that first weekend — a 72-hour truce that began with the message, “Nobody kill anybody” — it has expanded to four weekends per year, featuring community events, marches and workshops. It’s added on an ambassador program, plus a way for schools and organizations to become partners. And researchers have found a measurable effect: a 52% drop in fatal and nonfatal shootings on Ceasefire weekends with no subsequent increase.
The movement has become a way of “injecting joy” into the city, choosing to send “love and light” into Baltimore, Bridgeford said.
“We don’t feel it in our chest when somebody gets killed that we don’t know. This movement asks people to notice,” she said.
And Bridgeford, who also serves as executive director for the Baltimore Community Mediation Center, isn’t done yet.
Baltimore Ceasefire 365 is starting a “Reclaim Baltimore” initiative for volunteers to visit the scene of each of the city’s homicides from 2021 and 2022.
Bridgeford has, for years, conducted “sacred space rituals” at as many of the sites as she can. But she realized in late 2021 there were 220 left unvisited from that year. Now, she’ll get some extra assistance.
She said the idea is to not let murder be the last memory in a space — a concept spawned by the blood left on the sidewalk after her brother’s killing in early 2007.
“Where blood is spilled, that should be sacred ground,” she said. “And it can only be so if people show up.”
The Ceasefire weekends, ambassador program and sacred space rituals are all part of redefining the city’s relationship to its stubbornly high homicide rate, Bridgeford said.
Rather than continuing the narrative of “Bmore, Murderland,” she said, the city is showing this is a place where, “We look murder dead in the face and we let it know: As long as you are showing up, we are going to keep showing up.”
— Darcy Costello
34, president and CEO, Baltimore Corps
Fagan Harris, president and CEO of the nonprofit Baltimore Corps, was honored by the White House last June when President Joe Biden appointed him to the board of directors of Americorps, the national program aimed at promoting service and equity.
The wins for Harris’ Baltimore Corps, formed “to enlist talent to accelerate social innovation in Baltimore,” continued this year, when in January it joined in a multi-year $30 million effort with Baltimore City and several other philanthropic groups to create more full-time service opportunities.
“Baltimore Corps has been a steadfast partner in operationalizing our shared vision for a better, more equitable, and thriving city,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said in announcing the program.
Success is nothing new for Harris or his organization. He graduated from Stanford University in 2009 and won a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, allowing him to study in Oxford, England.
After college he went to work in the administration of President Barack Obama, serving as a staffer on the White House Council for Community Solutions.
But Baltimore has served as the base for much of his community work, even as he has won fellowships and served on national foundations such as the Aspen Institute.
“Baltimore Corps is a tremendous example of an organization that lives into its values of equity and opportunity for Baltimore,” City Councilman Zeke Cohen said in a statement when the $30 million partnership was announced.
— John Holland
Meet an artist whose work will hang in the U.S. Capitol and the chairman of one of the country’s top music schools.
33, artist, Baltimore
2021 was a stellar year for the artist Jerrell Gibbs, culminating with his commission to create the portrait of former U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings that will hang in the U.S. Capitol later this year.
Barely one month into the new year, 2022 is shaping up to be even better.
“A lot of opportunities are coming my way,” said Gibbs, 33, of Pikesville.
Though Gibbs just graduated with a master’s degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2020, his art is already in the permanent collections of two museums in China, as well as institutions in Baltimore, Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio.
The Cummings commission generated a flurry of interest in Gibbs’ work from other museums and national media outlets, though he can’t yet discuss specifics. Now, he’s working on canvasses for his September solo show in the art-mad city of Paris.
Unlike his depiction of Cummings, Gibbs specializes in realistic portraits of imaginary people. A photo of a stranger is usually the springboard for inspiration.
“I’m not painting the actual person,” he said. “Instead, I put myself into that person and that space. We almost merge and become one.”
— Mary Carole McCauley
43, chairman, Peabody Institute Jazz Department
The Peabody Institute is surrounded by iron gates delicate in appearance but up to the task of dividing people on the inside from those who don’t belong.
Sean Jones is determined to push those portals wide open.
“One of the hardest things for the folks who are learning to play jazz now is that they don’t have anyone to look up to,” Jones, 43, said.
“Anyone who is studying jazz or American informed-music at a classical conservatory falls into a silo. Without any shade on Peabody, the institution is surrounded by gates. That alone could create a sense of isolation.”
Jones became head of the jazz department at the conservatory in 2018, following the ouster of the department’s founder, jazz superstar Gary Thomas, amid allegations of racial discrimination.
Eighteen months after Jones arrived, the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools nationwide.
“Remote learning is almost impossible for music-making students,” Jones said. “You have to be physically near a human being to empathize with them. You have to literally hear their breath as they’re playing a piano or striking an instrument.”
Still, Jones forged ahead. He made community performances a mandatory part of the jazz curriculum. He hopes to launch a tuition-free master’s program for 6 to 7 students, providing a career path for talented young performers with little money. (Peabody is part of Johns Hopkins University.)
And, drawing on his contacts at the NYO Jazz youth orchestra, where he is artistic director, and at the Jazz Education Network, where he is president, Jones nearly quadrupled the size of the jazz department from 12 students in January 2018 to the mid-40s now.
“Our program has grown tremendously, and it’s mainly because of Sean,” said Warren Wolf, a renowned vibraphonist and Peabody lecturer. “The jazz department was at a real turning point when he arrived.”
A trumpet player, Jones has performed with such legendary musicians as Herbie Hancock, Nancy Wilson and Jimmy Heath. In 2019, he founded the Baltimore Jazz Collective.
Jones will never forget how he felt the first time he listened to a recording of the pioneering trumpeter Miles Davis. It’s a feeling he wants to pass on to his students.
“That music was warm,” he said. “It was sophisticated. It made me see colors differently. I was a young kid, a nerd from a blended family and I never fit in anywhere. When I put on Miles’ records, I knew I fit into music.”
— Mary Carole McCauley
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of students Sean Jones said will be part of the tuition-free master’s program. The program will include 6 to 7 students. The Sun regrets the error.
Meet the founder of a group focused on helping Black women build homes, a bank president who works with the underserved and downtown Baltimore’s chief marketer.
52, founder and executive director, Black Women Build
Despite not being “from here,” as she was reminded repeatedly after moving to Baltimore in 2015, Shelley Halstead has made a home for herself and others.
The founder and executive director of Black Women Build - Baltimore has led the renovation of seven vacant and abandoned houses on the 1900 block of Etting Street in Druid Heights. The nonprofit, founded in 2017, trains Black women to rehab houses, and teaches them the financial steps to buy and live in the completed homes.
“We’re building community,” Halstead, 52, said. “On New Year’s Eve, we had a Kwanzaa celebration. We get together once a month, just to hang out.”
Halstead, who has lived everywhere from Iowa to India, working jobs as varied as carpenter, firefighter and University of Washington-trained lawyer, was drawn to Baltimore “for its potential for rebuilding.”
The city also benefits with the group purchasing materials and hiring locally, she said.
“The money,” Halstead said, “stays in Baltimore.”
— Jean Marbella
John D. Lewis
44, president and chief operating officer, Harbor Bank
When John D. Lewis moved to Baltimore about 12 years ago and started a financial technology company, he met and talked to people “to learn the lay of the land.” One company stood out.
“Harbor Bank was by far the most helpful,” Lewis said. “Harbor is a community bank, and there aren’t many community banks anymore. It’s deeply engaged in Baltimore.”
That “resonated” with Lewis, 44. Eventually, he joined the Black-owned bank as senior vice president heading the company’s Community Development Corp., and rose to become its president and chief operating officer.
The coming year promises to be an important one for all banks, he said, as they continue to address the business disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Founded to help provide financing to residents and businesses that were underserved by existing ones, Harbor Bank celebrates its 40th birthday this year. In that span, its assets have grown from $2.1 million to well over $300 million.
“We touch every group in the city,” he said.
— Jean Marbella
49, president and CEO, Downtown Partnership of Baltimore
Shelonda Stokes’ career has come full circle since her days as an East Baltimore teen who cleaned pavilions in Baltimore’s Harborplace for minimum wage.
In her first job at 14, Stokes played a small part keeping the Inner Harbor attraction welcoming for visitors, workers and residents.
Decades later, as head of the non profit Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, Stokes has a similar mission, though in a leadership role and well beyond Harborplace. She took over the reins in 2020 amid upheaval of the pandemic and social justice movement.
“For downtown, it was huge on both fronts,” Stokes said, a time, she argues, when the group’s work is needed more than ever. “We had a number of businesses and residents who were like, ‘How do we navigate all of this? We’ve never been here before.’”
As president, she markets downtown, defined as everything within a one-mile radius of Pratt and Light streets, as a place to live and work, helps attract and retain business, and plans events. And as CEO, she oversees keeping the 106-block Downtown Management Authority district clean and safe.
During the pandemic, she launched a series of live webinars with City Councilman Eric Costello to help guide downtown businesses and groups through recovery and started BOOST, a program that enables small, minority owned businesses to open and grow in vacant downtown space.
She helped create the #CurbsideBaltimore gift card program to offer local restaurants and retailers an infusion of cash. To tackle crime and safety concerns, the partnership hired city school police and off-duty Maryland state troopers to supplement the group’s private security guards.
Stokes grew up in Baltimore and understands the city’s pluses and its minuses — too well. Her brother was shot to death Jan. 25 outside a home he was renovating in Northeast Baltimore.
Stokes, 49, had been chairman of the partnership’s board when former president Kirby Fowler left to head the Maryland Zoo at the end of 2019. Stokes stepped in as interim president in March 2020 and soon realized she was right for the role.
With a degree in electrical engineering from Morgan State University, Stokes had spent much of her professional life seeking creative ways to solve problems, including as president and CEO of GreiBO Media, a Baltimore-based marketing and production studio she co-founded in 2001. The agency produced marketing videos for Hewlett Packard, Under Armour, Coca-Cola and others.
“Once I came into the organization, I think that’s where I could see the culmination of my experience, passion, just ways that we could really ... do not only a service and benefit for downtown but for our city and for our citizens overall,” Stokes said.
After taking the partnership job, Stokes moved downtown to fulfill a city residency requirement.
“What I wanted to do beyond that was live downtown so that I could understand better what people are experiencing, what they’re getting or not, what they’re seeing, so that I became just as engaged,” she said.
— Lorraine Mirabella
The president of Coppin State University, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and an award-winning teacher have experienced trying times, revelations and supporting the next generation.
49, president, Coppin State University
Coppin State University’s new president, Anthony Jenkins, arrived in June 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic was rapidly altering student needs in higher education. The university went hybrid with a combination of online and in-person classes that allowed students to remain connected to faculty, technology and food on campus. “One of the proudest moments was our ability to operate within a global pandemic,” Jenkins said. The president is now turning his focus to driving down the cost of education at Coppin State, where tuition for an in-state student living on campus is about $2,370 per semester. The university awarded students a $1,200 tuition grant during the pandemic and has set record highs in alumni giving, corporate fundraising and grant awards this fiscal year. “Location and size will never dictate our level of success,” Jenkins said. Lillian Reed
Martha S. Jones
63, professor, Johns Hopkins University
Martha S. Jones, who joined Johns Hopkins University in 2017, is a professor of history. In 2020, she led research that concluded the Johns Hopkins University’s namesake enslaved people. She recently signed a four-year book deal with the New York-based publishing company Basic Books for “A Jagged Color Line,” which will examine the history of slavery and sexual violence and be published in 2023.
Hopkins had been known as a business owner, a philanthropist and an abolitionist who opposed racism. Jones’ research found otherwise, citing the census, which shows at least four male slaves in his household, The Baltimore Sun reported. Her findings came as multiple other schools examined how they benefited from slavery, such as Columbia, Brown and Georgetown.
Amid the report, the university offered opportunities for the community to address the findings, including a virtual town hall, The Sun reported. While researchers challenged Jones’ findings, she told The Sun in June that she has not seen anything disproving her results.
Jones is an award-winning author whose portfolio includes “Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America,” released in 2018, and “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All,” released in 2020.
Additionally, she’s a historian of Baltimore and has contributed an essay to the book version of the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of slavery.
“Any book I begin, I begin it because I want to answer questions. So, one of the great satisfactions is doing the research, the writing and the analysis,” Jones said.
Her upbringing influenced her career, she said. Raised in Long Island, New York, Jones, 63, lives in Mount Vernon. She’s the daughter of activists, Suzanne and Paul Jones, who were involved in affordable housing and civil rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s.
Before coming to Hopkins, she earned a law degree from City University of New York School of Law, and worked as a lawyer in New York, representing women with HIV and AIDS. She later earned a doctorate in history at Columbia University in New York and taught at the University of Michigan.
“I was raised in a family that understood history to be an essential component of how we make sense of who we are and how we make sense of the world which we live in,” Jones said.
—Billy Jean Louis
42, educator, Prince George’s County
Last year, International High School at Langley Park educator Keishia Thorpe won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize for her work with 12th grade English language learners. Thorpe draws from her experiences as an immigrant from Jamaica in mentoring students to prepare for college or find success as a student-athlete. She cofounded a nonprofit organization helping ‘at risk’ student-athletes across the globe earn college scholarships. Thorpe also founded the Hope Beyond Distance Foundation and Food4Change, which support immigrant families. “Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never ever give up on them, who insists that they can become the best they can possibly be,” she said when accepting the award.
— Lillian Reed
An indefatigable baker and cookbook author with an eye toward history reflects on showing up and helping the next generation of cooks.
34, owner, Crust by Mack
As a teenager, Amanda Mack sold doughnuts to classmates at Baltimore City College to pay for her graduation gown and class ring. Years later, she’s on her way to Baltimore foodie fame, but still has the grit and determination she showed as a young woman.
In 2020, Mack opened her pastry shop, Crust by Mack, at Hampden’s Whitehall Mill, incorporating family recipes learned at her grandma’s side and inspiration from her own children. Almost instantly, the shop attracted long lines and sellouts became the rule.
Word has traveled well beyond Charm City. Mack was featured on “Good Morning America” and recently graced the cover of Cherry Bombe magazine. Southern Living named her Cook of the Year in 2021. Today, customers come from Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia, and Atlanta to try Mack’s crab pies and other treats.
Customers will find even more to enjoy in a larger space Mack plans to open this summer in Midtown-Belvedere. The location will offer catering, a cafe with seating and brunch.
Mack, 34, attributes her success to being who she is. “We are authentic with who we are and how we show up in the space,” she said. Customers see her with her family — including husband, Jarrod; grandma, Yvonne Roy; and her children, and say, “I can do that.”
She advises aspiring business owners to follow her lead. “Show up in your business as yourself first. You are the story.”
— Christina Tkacik
62, cookbook author, editor and historian
Baltimore resident and author Toni Tipton-Martin is steeped in history, whether the city’s or the origins of Black cooking. “My life’s work is historic preservation,” she said.
Inside the library of her historic home in Charles Village, she’s collected over 450 cookbooks by African American authors. She’s used them to help write her James Beard Award-winning books: “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks” and “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.”
Some of the recipes come from Maryland, once regarded as a cuisine capital of the United States. Black cooks and caterers were behind much of the area’s finest dishes, but their role has often been erased from history. In “Jubilee,” recipes include Maryland stuffed ham, which originated in St. Mary’s County, and deviled crab, prepared and sold by Black women.
Part of Tipton-Martin’s work involves reclaiming the accomplishments of Black cooks while disentangling them from the racist tropes they were cast in. She points to a stunningly offensive column that ran in The Baltimore Sun from the 1920s through the 1940s called “Aunt Priscilla’s Kitchen,” written in broken Southern dialect and accompanied by a drawing of a mammy-type figure wearing a bandanna. Its author was a white woman.
At a time when the food world has been waking up to its long-held prejudices, Tipton-Martin’s work has even greater resonance. In 2020, Cook’s Country, a division of America’s Test Kitchen, named her editor-in-chief, making her the first Black woman to lead one of the nation’s top food and recipe magazines.
Last year, Tipton-Martin received the seventh annual Julia Child Award, a $50,000 grant from a foundation named for the famed cook and PBS host. With the grant, she is helping mentor the next generation of female food writers.
— Christina Tkacik
Meet the social media maven who went viral for his pro-vaccine tweets and a doctor determined to stamp out health inequities.
31, deputy director of state affairs, Baltimore mayor’s office of government relations
Nearing his breaking point last April as conspiracies about COVID-19 vaccines ran rampant around Baltimore and elsewhere, Adam Abadir designed his first viral meme.
It’s a stock image of a woman pouting while being chastised by a man. “Mimosas with the girls? You still aren’t vaxxed, Debra!” it reads. Underneath, there’s a city health department logo and the words “Get Vaxxed.”
Abadir, who started as the Baltimore City Health Department’s spokesman just weeks before the coronavirus swept into Maryland in March 2020, had hoped to focus his work on raising awareness about the power of public health in communities.
Instead, Abadir said, he and his colleagues raced to communicate the threats of a novel virus to a diverse population of residents, many of who had been fed falsehoods about COVID-19 by people they trusted.
“The frustrating part was people with no medical background, no public health background in any way, arguing with us on social media,” said Abadir, 31, who has since left the position for a job in the mayor’s office of government relations. “You want to help everybody that asks you a question, but when you have so much misinformation and disinformation, and you have people questioning public health guidance, they are then increasing the spread of a dangerous disease. It’s the proliferation of misinformation and the death of expertise.”
Memes were a central part of Abadir’s plan to take back social media from the health department’s “trolls.” Later ones dispelled myths that healthy eating and at-home remedies could prevent and treat the coronavirus, inspired by interactions with his relatives: “Green tea can’t cure COVID, Trina!”
He also ramped up the department’s Twitter presence with colorful graphics and feisty “clap backs,” or responses to leveled insults.
“It was, ‘How do we actually go deeper than just the internet?’” Abadir said of his online ventures. “I wanted people to share this in real life, text them to their friends and on WhatsApp.”
Abadir said social media enabled him to react quickly — and on a budget — to the trends that appeared in the city’s data and the fast-moving discourse on the web. It also gave him an outlet to reach more people.
A former community organizer who dove into local politics after reading former President Barack Obama’s “Dreams of My Father,” Abadir, a Prince George’s County native, said effective communicators need to reach people where they are.
“Once you establish that people care and tell people their health department cares about them, it’s a little easier,” he said. “There are ways to reach hearts and minds. But first, you have to show you care.”
— Hallie Miller
Dr. Michelle A. Gourdine
59, senior vice president of population health and primary care, University of Maryland Medical System
As the coronavirus pandemic surged through Maryland, Dr. Michelle Gourdine was ready to tackle the thorniest issue: ensuring equal access to information, vaccines and therapeutics outside hospital walls.
The mission was part of her job heading population health initiatives at the University of Maryland Medical System, but also part of her intellectual and emotional core, forged in Mississippi in the racially polarized 1960s as the child of a civil rights attorney and fourth grade teacher.
They didn’t sit by, Gourdine said.
While the pandemic tasks remain, she says she hopes to return to a few personal passions such as singing in her church choir, reading and writing a second book to follow her first, which was about African American wellness.
But she’ll also keep her eyes focused in the coming year on the broader health inequities that persist.
“What my parents experienced taught me empathy,” she said, “that I need to approach my work through a lens of equity and empathy.”
— Meredith Cohn
Here’s why the U.S. attorney for Maryland, who oversees high-profile public corruption cases; the deputy commissioner for the Baltimore Police Department, who’s dealing with the recent racial reckoning, and the senior commander for the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground are worth watching.
47, U.S. attorney for the district of Maryland
Appointed last year by President Joe Biden, Erek L. Barron is the first Black head of the Maryland U.S. attorney’s office in its 230-year history. Barron, 47, is a former state House delegate from Prince George’s County who previously worked as a trial prosecutor in Baltimore and in his home county.
Now, he is in charge of 98 federal prosecutors, overseeing an office that brings high-profile corruption cases and pieces together sophisticated takedowns of violent organizations. It’s a prized position, having earned a special place in history for famously bringing down Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1973.
Barron is a Democrat who worked on police reform and criminal justice legislation while in the General Assembly. He has begun shaping the Maryland prosecutor’s office in his vision by appointing Phil Selden, a career prosecutor known for his public corruption work, as his top deputy.
Barron has already shown he is not afraid to make difficult decisions with his first high-profile case: criminal charges against Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who is fighting what she calls “false allegations.”
— Justin Fenton
49, deputy commissioner, operations bureau, Baltimore Police Department
Baltimore Police Deputy Commissioner Sheree Briscoe, the highest-ranking African American woman in the department, didn’t envision a long career for herself in law enforcement. But Briscoe, who rose through the ranks to become the first Black woman to serve as deputy commissioner, responsible for overseeing the department’s day-to-day operations, said she was driven by her commitment to make her hometown a better place.
“My work has always drawn me back to the community, back to the people that we serve. I love that about policing — that I could do something that could make a difference,” Briscoe said.
Briscoe, who was promoted last June, took the position at a particularly challenging time. Violent crime remains persistently high, and the department and other law enforcement agencies across the country are grappling with changes after a series of high-profile deaths of African American men in custody.
Baltimore remains under a consent decree that requires sweeping changes to how officers make arrests and other basic functions after a U.S. Department of Justice report in 2016 found officers regularly violated residents constitutional rights, especially in Black communities.
Briscoe is faced with the additional challenges of staffing during a pandemic, when many officers have been forced to quarantine in a department already struggling to hire enough officers for critical functions.
“All of those things are happening in tandem and there has been no change in expectation of service,” she said.
But Briscoe said she is strengthened by remaining close to those in the communities where she started her career, and her ability to overcome challenges early in life. She was a teen mom who had to quickly learn to find her voice and learn to advocate for herself, and went on to raise four kids. She said she has endured racism and sexism over the course of her career, but found strength from supporters.
Briscoe started in the Western District, then moved to the Eastern, and later to a Police Athletic League center, where she got to work directly with the community and see the impact of her work. Though she would later move to other positions, she said that she keeps in contact with residents she met while on patrol.
In 2015, after the city erupted in rioting after the death of Freddie Gray in custody, Briscoe took command of the Western District, where he was arrested. Though some of her family members encouraged her to leave policing, she said she felt a stronger need to help the city.
“I said, ‘No, you don’t leave when it’s bad. You don’t leave your team when your team members are looking for leadership. You stay and you do it because you love it and you’re committed to it.’”
Briscoe said her contributions pale in comparison to the work of people in the community who often get no recognition for their efforts to improve the city.
“Is it not that we are contributing every day? Why just one month? Black history is America’s history. We should be embracing people that are making sacrifices, regardless of their hue and gender, every day of the week.”
— Jessica Anderson
Maj. Gen. Robert L. Edmonson II
55, senior commander, Aberdeen Proving Ground
“I stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Maj. Gen. Robert L. Edmonson II, a nod to the decorated African American military leaders of yore. Now, as senior commander at Aberdeen Proving Ground, he’s a role model for other soldiers of color — a major general in the Army who rose through the ranks to his current post last year and earned a Bronze Star to boot.
“I am humbled and honored to be [an example] for those who want to use me as one,” said Edmonson, 55, who was adopted in infancy and later became the first known college graduate in his family, after attending Frostburg State University.
His mantra? “You belong.”
“I may find myself in a meeting where I am the only person who looks like me,” he said. “However, the reality is that, due to blessings and opportunities through the years, I belong in that executive boardroom.
“There are people out there who question how good they are. But [the truth is] where your passion takes you is where you belong.”
— Mike Klingaman
Here’s why the chairwoman of the Maryland State Arts Council, a Tony-winning Broadway actor, ‘civil rights superhero,’ the president of the University of Baltimore and an iconic author are living legends.
46, author and National Book Award winner
The Baltimore-born writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has spent the past few years shaping the stories of four mythic superheroes. Three are Black, including one he invented himself. All grapple with entrenched power structures gripping their homelands.
Coates, 46, might not have superpowers, but he’s already a legend. Even before 2015, when he won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and picked up a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (commonly known as a “genius grant”), he was recognized as one of America’s premiere intellectuals.
The author’s parents modeled the art of asking fearless questions. His father, W. Paul Coates, is a publisher and former member of The Black Panther Party; his mother, Cheryl Lynn Coates, was a teacher.
Coates was in his mid-30s when he burst into the national consciousness writing for The Atlantic magazine. His 2012 cover story “Fear of a Black President” and 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations,” established him as a relentless interrogator of America’s racist underpinnings.
Unsurprisingly, Coates’ strong opinions and willingness to express them have frequently been controversial.
Last month, “Between the World and Me” was among 414 books pulled from school library shelves in Texas. Educators feared these titles violated a new state law that prohibits teaching critical race theory, which holds that institutions such as the justice system can be inherently racist.
“It’s unfortunate, but I’m not surprised,” said Coates, who lives in New York. “What I’m saying runs counter to the standard American narrative, so some people think it shouldn’t be taught.”
Shortly after winning the National Book Award, Coates startled some fans by shifting gears to graphic novels. The self-described “comics nerd” just finished a six-year stint writing the “Black Panther” series and three years writing “Captain America” for Marvel.
In 2019, Coates published his first novel, “The Water Dancer.” His main character was enslaved on a Virginia plantation but discovers he has superpowers.
Coates is writing a film adaptation of “Water Dancer” for MGM; Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt have signed on as producers. He’s also working on a screenplay tackling Superman’s origin story. In his telling, the Man of Steel will be Black.
Coates’ novels include nearly as much political commentary as his nonfiction. His mythic heroes face tyranny and rampant nationalism. They occasionally wind up on the wrong side of the criminal justice system. Their superpowers are often a mixed blessing, and Coates’ heroes struggle with the responsibilities that accompany privilege.
The author, who says he “wants to give back” to the university that helped mold him, will return this summer to his alma mater, Howard University, to teach creative writing.
Coates spent his undergraduate years in the university library but left without completing his studies. He thinks that when he’s back on campus, he might finally finish his bachelor’s degree. His mother would like that.
“I never graduated,” he said, a hint of laughter in his voice. “I wonder if she’s over it by now.”
— Mary Carole McCauley
Jacqueline “Jackie” Copeland
74, chairwoman, Maryland State Arts Council
It’s no coincidence that, in one of its first moves with Jacqueline “Jackie” Copeland at the helm, the Maryland State Arts Council announced a new program aimed at equitably distributing funding to cultural organizations run by minorities.
“We’ve leveled the playing field [to provide grants] to smaller institutions that could be led by people of color and which, historically, haven’t had that funding,” said Copeland.
A fierce and lifelong advocate for the arts, the Pikesville resident became chairwoman of the MSAC last summer following a stint as head of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.
“Art and community are my passions,” said Copeland, 74, an adjunct professor at Towson University who’ll teach a class on the Harlem Renaissance this spring.
“I love engaging with students of all ages, bringing African American history to life so people [in light bulb moments] can understand the contributions of Blacks to our global culture.”
To that end, she said, “I’d like my tombstone to read: ‘She made a difference.’ "
— Mike Klingaman
André De Shields
76, Tony-winning Broadway actor and performer
Informed by The Baltimore Sun of his status as legend, actor André De Shields quipped: “Does that mean I should retire now?”
The “Hadestown” Broadway star and New York City resident is rarely at a loss for words. And, at 76, he’s nowhere near retiring.
Raised on Division Street in West Baltimore, De Shields has ascended to the heights of Broadway stardom with his trademark charisma, work ethic and great style, opening doors for generations of Black actors and theater professionals along the way.
The City College alum won his first Tony Award at age 73 for his role in “Hadestown” after being nominated twice before. In his acceptance speech he shouted out his hometown.
“Baltimore, Maryland are you in the house?” he said. “I hope you’re watching at home because I am making good on my promise that I would come to New York and become someone you’d be proud to call your native son.”
Last year, he returned to Charm City for a weekend performance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra chronicling his life, including memories of watching movies at the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue.
In a recent interview with The Sun, De Shields said “I’m happy that I am a Maryland legend.” “I am simply trying to be a beacon for Marylanders to be able to follow as each of us makes his and her way through the wilderness.”
He concluded with some words of advice for navigating our troubled times. “Empathy, compassion and concern for one another is the only way that we are going to move forward. We need to stop being nostalgic for normal. Normal is done with us. What we need to do is cultivate a nostalgia for the future where a new world is eager to be born.”
— Christina Tkacik
59, president and director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
In November, Sherrilyn Ifill announced she would be stepping down this spring as the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a role she held for eight years.
One of the things Ifill will be doing is continuing to work on her upcoming book about “America’s ongoing embrace of white supremacy” which Penguin Random House will publish in 2023. Ifill is also the author of 2007′s “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century.”
Associate director-counsel Janai Nelson will assume Ifill’s position. Ifill’s portfolio includes assistant counsel of LDF, professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and president and director-counsel of LDF since 2013. She’s the second woman to lead LDF, after Elaine Jones. The organization was founded by the NAACP in 1940, but has operated separately since 1957.
She’s a Baltimore resident, and is the cousin of the late Gwen Ifill, the first Black woman to co-anchor a national newscast. Additionally, she’s a graduate of Vassar College and the New York University of Law.
In 2020, she was named one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year, and called a “civil rights superhero.” In 2021, she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
She told The Sun in 2020 that she has spent her career fighting for equity. “My goal is always that there is fairness and fairness in the system,” she said. “It requires people who are prepared to listen with an open heart; people playing by the rules; and humanity recognized by everyone.”
— Billy Jean Louis
72, president, University of Baltimore
In December, the University of Baltimore awarded a diploma to the first graduate of its Second Chance College Program, an education initiative inside Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison for men.
The experimental program, directed by criminal justice professor Andrea Cantora, began in 2016 because the university believed “it was part of our responsibility that people coming out of the prison system would be better equipped” to reenter society, said Kurt Schmoke, the university’s president.
The program, Schmoke said, is an example of his ongoing effort — and that of others at the public university — to not only help students pursue careers, but to engage with the the community on socially relevant issues.
“We do a lot of work in the community, working with community organizations,” said Schmoke, 72.
“We are civic-minded,” he said.
Schmoke was the city’s first elected Black mayor. The former Baltimore state’s attorney was elected mayor three times beginning in 1987.
Under Schmoke’s guidance, the university ― federally designated as a “minority-serving institution” because of its diverse student body — often taps into pressing social issues.
The university’s Second Chance program came as Congress sought to minimize warehousing of prisoners and make it easier for inmates to succeed once released.
In 2020, the city’s Police Academy moved from Northwest Baltimore to the University of Baltimore’s campus downtown. “There are no walls between our campus and the dozens of neighborhoods that make up Baltimore,” the university said in a statement as the move began. “With the arrival of the BPD Education and Training Center, a new era of engagement and support are underway.”
The relocation came as law enforcement practices were being questioned nationwide following the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a Black man who died on Memorial Day after an officer pinned him down. In 2017, Baltimore entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department after a federal investigation found police officers routinely violated residents’ rights.
“That’s been kind of a significant move for us to partner with the Police Department in trying to improve the quality of those they recruit and retain,” Schmoke said. “They had been in a dilapidated middle school.”
In 2017, Schmoke announced his choice of Betsy DeVos — the U.S. education secretary under former president Donald Trump — as commencement speaker, prompting protests from some students who said DeVos’ views on public education contradicted their own.
“The university stands for freedom of speech,” Schmoke said in reply.
Schmoke is focused on “seeing students track toward careers and making sure they get experience along the way,” said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs.
As the DeVos speech illustrates, he is also “very passionate about civil public debate — and people respecting all sides,” Hartley said.
— Jeff Barker
Here’s why the president and CEO of United Way Central Maryland and the co-founder of the Jordan McNair Foundation are worth watching.
53, president and CEO of United Way Central Maryland
Since joining United Way in 2016, Franklyn Baker has been working to change the fabric of Baltimore.
One of his proudest accomplishments is growing United Way’s Strategic Targeted Eviction Prevention program that helps families stay in their homes. The need was always there, Baker said, but it became greater throughout the pandemic.
Baker said the success of the organization’s family centers motivates him every day. The facilities help provide quality child care and equip parents with the tools to make sure they graduate and are able to further their education. More than 70% of those who complete the program go on to secondary education, Baker said.
“I’m just proud of the fact that we’re running a program there that can produce that result,” Baker said. “I just want to make sure that equity is present. Every single day there is something new to learn. There is new ground to break.”
— McKenna Oxenden
54, co-founder, Jordan McNair Foundation
In the years since Tonya Wilson-House and her husband formed a foundation in honor of their late son Jordan McNair, the effort has blossomed, Wilson-House said.
“With a foundation, it’s hard to get people to believe in what you believe in and the passion that you have, but people have really stepped up,” she said. “Our purpose has become everyone’s passion.”
McNair, a University of Maryland football player, died in the summer of 2018 after suffering heatstroke during a team workout. Later investigations determined his symptoms were not recognized in time, and that a negative culture proliferated on the team in which players feared speaking up about coaches. The investigations led to the firing of the Terrapins’ head coach, DJ Durkin, and several athletic trainers.
Now in its fourth year, the Jordan McNair Foundation has successfully pushed to have legislation passed in Baltimore City and statewide to protect student-athletes, led numerous events aimed at helping athletes and coaches recognize the signs of heatstroke and donated hundreds of cold-water immersion tubs to area schools.
As a result, these days, the foundation often gets calls from other families that have lost young athletes, asking how to begin similar organizations, Wilson-House said.
“People call us to see how we did it,” Wilson-House said. “We’ve become the spokespeople or the go-to people on how to get things like this started.”
The foundation’s legislative victories are among Wilson-House’s proudest moments. The Maryland bill, called the Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act, offered Maryland collegiate athletes the opportunity to profit from their names and likenesses. It was signed into law last year, a few months before the NCAA lifted its policy prohibiting the practice.
The law also required universities in the state to craft protocols for preventing and treating serious sports injuries like heatstroke and brain trauma.
“I thought that was big, because with that, they didn’t have a safety component,” Wilson-House said of the bill. “It’s all good, you getting paid for your likeness, but where’s the safety come in? So, that’s how we got added to that. That was really, really big.”
Now, the foundation is considering pursuing federal legislation with similar safety provisions, Wilson-House said.
Meanwhile, heading into Black History Month, Wilson-House said a reflection on Black Americans’ contribution to the country is critical.
“Black people have done a lot as far as uplifting this city, this country. This country was built on the back of Black people, and the appreciation and acknowledgment is always welcome,” she said.
— Christine Condon
A mayor with many problems to solve and the chair of a polarizing redistricting commission in Howard County look ahead.
37, mayor, City of Baltimore
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott needs little introduction.
The 37-year-old Democrat and son of Baltimore was already well known from his days on Baltimore City Council when he stepped into the spotlight as the city’s mayor a little more than a year ago.
Scott’s first year proved as challenging as almost any a Baltimore mayor has faced. The coronavirus pandemic had taken hold months before his swearing in, forcing the new executive to grapple with the implementation of widespread testing, uncomfortable decisions on whether to close businesses and the administration of a vaccination program that remains a challenge for the city.
As Baltimore faced an unfamiliar foe in COVID, the city continued to battle a familiar one: unsettling levels of crime. Brutal killings have made headlines during Scott’s tenure including the slaying of a woman inside a city house of worship and the death of a city police officer following a brutal shooting.
The year ahead for Scott looks much like the landscape of the year past. Despite his efforts to distribute the coronavirus vaccine to residents in underserved neighborhoods, disparities remain in the vaccination rates for Baltimore’s Black residents. The mayor also faces a decision on whether to implement a vaccine passport, a suggestion that he admits troubles him as he thinks about the impact to the city’s already disadvantaged minority residents.
Baltimore’s fight against violent crime, too, looks likely to be a formidable opponent for Scott. The city’s homicide rate topped 300 in the mayor’s first year in office, as it has over the six years prior. Scott introduced a lengthy crime plan, calling for a tripling of the city’s violence intervention efforts among numerous other initiatives. He’s also committed $50 million from the federal American Rescue Plan to the effort.
Thus far, Scott has proven himself as a planner and collaborator, establishing boards, authorities, councils and task forces to address long recurring city problems, such as returning the city’s police force to local control. He’s rolled out multipronged action plans with the help of those groups and is introducing data tracking programs to measure his progress.
But the true test for the young mayor will be whether he’s able to transition those plans into results and effectuate changes promised by many of his predecessors and seldom delivered.
— Emily Opilo
Donna Hill Staton
64, co-founder and principal, Decision Point Strategy Group and Decision Point Law
Donna Hill Staton, 64, of Clarksville, is using her position as co-founder and principal of Decision Point Strategy Group and Decision Point Law, a consulting firm and law firm respectively, specializing in corporate culture and climate consulting, crisis management, leadership training and policy development to raise up a new generation of lawyers.
The first African American female deputy attorney general in Maryland, the first African American woman to be appointed to the state court for Howard County and the first African American woman elected partner at Piper and Marbury, now DLA Piper in Baltimore, she has worked to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in her workplace by prioritizing diverse hiring and providing employees the support they need to be successful.
In 2021, she served as the chair of Howard County’s Councilmanic Redistricting Commission, a commission of seven members that worked to redraw council district boundaries to reflect population changes and other shifts based on the 2020 U.S. Census.
Growing up during the civil rights era, she said she wanted to become a lawyer to advocate for her community.
“I was very concerned about what I was observing in terms of the fight just to be recognized for our humanity and I wanted to be a part of the solution,” she said.
Hill Staton said Black History Month is an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate Black history as a part of American history.
“As a young Black girl growing up, we didn’t see ourselves on television or it was rare,” she said. “To have a moment in time where there is recognition that we have our own story that is part of the American story is affirming.”
— Allana Haynes
Here’s why a determined nun and a pastor who embraces community farming are worth watching.
Sister Magdala Marie Gilbert
91, director, Mother Mary Lange Guild
Mother Mary Lange, the nun who established the first Catholic school for African American girls in America and the first successful religious order for Black Catholic sisters in the world, died 140 years ago this year, but to Sister Magdala Marie Gilbert, she could not be more of a living force.
Gilbert, 91, joined Lange’s order, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, 73 years ago and has upheld its vows of poverty and charity ever since. She has worked as a teacher, librarian and director of religious education. But her main occupation today is promoting the cause of sainthood for Lange, the Cuba-born sister who moved to the slave state of Maryland in 1813 and turned her religious faith into revolutionary doings.
Gilbert has been director of the Mother Mary Lange Guild, an organization based at the order’s Catonsville mother house, for 13 years, and it has gone national and international under her leadership.
Now with 17 board members and chapters across the country, the Guild has developed a network of donors and supporters in places as far afield as Poland, Uganda, India and Brazil.
Gilbert can be seen each day making her way to her office above the campus gym, where she knocks out as many as 40 letters — then sometimes has energy left over to add to her extensive writings.
She has published seven small volumes of poetry and two essay collections, much of it about Lange, a woman she says never let the world’s evils “keep her from doing what she had to do.”
“She went about her tasks trusting that God would help her do anything, and God did,” she says, suggesting that today’s activists for social justice might follow her example.
Gilbert might need to do the same for her cause. Canonization is a long and complex process, and Lange has only passed through the first stage, attaining the status of Servant of God.
Vatican officials would have to accept evidence of at least two miracles at some point before Lange could qualify for sainthood, and that could take years.
Gilbert is no more worried about it than Lange would have been.
“To be in the circumstances she was, living in a slave state, to create St. Frances Academy and the first order of Black women, that’s a miracle in itself,” she says. “To me, she’s a saint already. But that’s all in God’s hands.”
— Jonathan M. Pitts
The Rev. Heber Brown III
41, senior pastor, Pleasant Hope Baptist Church
The Rev. Heber Brown III has been at the forefront of social activism in Baltimore for nearly 20 years. He has led rallies, lobbied lawmakers and written editorials calling for reform in education, housing and law enforcement, systems he believes marginalize minority Americans. But there came a point where Brown, the senior pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, decided he’d achieve more building new systems than challenging old ones.
An education program he founded, the Orita’s Cross Freedom School, has taught about 1,000 African American children life skills, Africana history and community engagement. The Black Church Food Security Network, an initiative he started in 2015, helps predominantly Black congregations grow, share and market their own produce. More than 70 churches nationwide now belong.
Brown, 41, will step down as pastor this year to lead the project full time. “It’s about preparing a sustainable future,” he says.
— Jonathan M. Pitts
Here’s why Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and Baltimore Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins are worth watching as they prepare for the next big thing.
25, quarterback, Baltimore Ravens
Quarterback Lamar Jackson didn’t need long in Baltimore to show that he’s one of the NFL’s most electrifying players. This year, he could become one of the league’s highest-paid players. Even after a disappointing 2021 season, Jackson is in line for a franchise-record contract extension. After earning a salary of $1.8 million in 2021, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player and two-time Pro Bowl selection will make $23 million this year. A new deal for Jackson could be worth well over $35 million annually, by far the richest in Baltimore Ravens history.
At his season-ending news conference, Jackson said he wasn’t focused on contract negotiations. “I’ve got to worry about getting back right, right now,” he said Jan. 10, “and getting ready for this offseason.”
Jackson’s fourth year in Baltimore finished on a sour note. The Ravens missed the playoffs for the first time in his career, and over a six-game losing streak to end the season, the team lost five games by three points or fewer.
Jackson’s absence was a big reason why. After leaving a Dec. 12 loss to the Cleveland Browns with a bone bruise in his right ankle, he practiced just once over the next month. Jackson, who’d never missed a game because of injury over his first three seasons, was inactive for the Ravens’ final four games. He left plenty of room for improvement in 2022.
Jackson’s nonprofit organization, Forever Dreamers, has hosted community outreach events, youth sports tryouts and toy drives in South Florida and Baltimore. He’s also been involved with Blessings in a Backpack, a Louisville-based charity that provides food for schoolchildren across America.
If the Ravens’ defense can bounce back from a disappointing year, the pressure will be on Jackson to prove his value with a deep postseason run. The Ravens have won just one playoff game since he was drafted in 2018. “Hopefully, this offseason, we’re going to get right and get where we’re supposed to be, and we have our guys come back, and we’re going to have the season we’re supposed to have,” he said.
— Jonas Shaffer
27, center fielder, Baltimore Orioles
Heading into the 2019 season, Cedric Mullins was seen as the heir to Orioles staple Adam Jones, set to be Baltimore’s first Opening Day center fielder other than Jones in more than a decade. He earned that honor, only to find himself demoted to the minor leagues by midseason. But two years later, he reached the All-Star break not as a minor leaguer, but as an honoree.
In 2021, Mullins put together arguably the best season by an Orioles center fielder, starting the All-Star Game in Denver; recording the franchise’s first season with 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases; and being voted as Most Valuable Oriole, a Silver Slugger and a top-10 finisher in American League Most Valuable Player balloting.
Mullins enters 2022 as an Orioles fixture, a face-of-the-franchise player worth holding onto as the organization’s rebuild enters its fourth season.
— Nathan Ruiz