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Witty, just and loved: Ora Snowden dies at 104

Foot soldiers Beryl Pierce, left of Lothian and Ora Snowden of Annapolis hold hands at the official dedication and unveiling of the Civil Rights Foot Soldiers Memorial, which is located in Whitmore Park downtown. It is the first such memorial in the country to honor everyday people who joined in the March on Washington in 1963. Snowden died May 27 at the age of 104.
Foot soldiers Beryl Pierce, left of Lothian and Ora Snowden of Annapolis hold hands at the official dedication and unveiling of the Civil Rights Foot Soldiers Memorial, which is located in Whitmore Park downtown. It is the first such memorial in the country to honor everyday people who joined in the March on Washington in 1963. Snowden died May 27 at the age of 104. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

For more than 100 years, Ora Snowden watched history repeat itself.

She was born less than a decade after the last known lynching of a black man in Annapolis, a man named Henry Davis arrested on suspicion of assaulting a white woman and later killed by a white mob without due process.

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She turned five a few months before the Tulsa race massacre where an estimated 300 black Oklahomans were killed by a white mob that destroyed an African-American community.

She grew to see unrest break out numerous times throughout her life. She witnessed Baltimore in flames in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and again in 2015 when Freddie Gray was killed in police custody.

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She died May 27 at the age of 104 — two days after George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man was killed by police and the world burst into flames again.

In all that time she said little, offering just a quip or a wise observation to those close to her. But she raised one of the loudest voices in Annapolis — Carl Snowden — a longtime civil rights activist, and one of the hundreds who marched through Annapolis in recent days to protest Floyd’s death.

“Time and time again, she would remind me of things that we thought were new that had happened before,” he said. “But one thing that has remained consistent from the day she was born until the day she died is racism. And this an ongoing struggle to eradicate racism from the society she was born into.”

Ora Brown was born in 1916 to John Brown and Daisy Pindell. Raised on a farm in Davidsonville, she later married William Snowden and moved to Annapolis. There she took care of her 11 children, a doting mother intent on making the best for her family, which in the decades since has expanded to include numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even a few great-great-grandchildren.

The Snowdens lived in various parts of the city, her son said, including downtown, Eastport and Victor Haven in Ward 5 where Carl served as Annapolis alderman.

“She was born when Annapolis was a segregated city,” he said. “She has been able to, in her more than century [of life], see all kinds of changes come to the country.”

Snowden, the convener of the Caucus of African American Leaders and former mayoral candidate, has led a long career in Annapolis. Through it all, his mother was his biggest supporter, he said, often asking, “Is it right? Then you need to do it.”

“She was the wind under my wings,” he said. “She was unrelenting in her support.”

Ora Snowden, with her son, Carl. Ora Snowden, mother of Annapolis civil rights activist Carl Snowden died May 27 at the age 104.
Ora Snowden, with her son, Carl. Ora Snowden, mother of Annapolis civil rights activist Carl Snowden died May 27 at the age 104. (Carl Snowden)

It was her dry humor that first drew Elizamae Robinson to Snowden. She was always ready with a witty retort, said Robinson, now 88.

“We became friends because I laughed at a lot of the things she had to say.”

Her quips didn’t suffer with age. With every flip of the calendar, when people would marvel at Snowden’s advanced age, she would say something like, “I’m going on 105. I’ve already been 104.”

Robinson recalled the first time she and Snowden met. Their children attended Annapolis High School together in 1970 where Carl led a class boycott to protest the school’s lack of black teachers and curriculum. He was later expelled.

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That experience helped form a friendship between Robinson and Ora Snowden that would last half a century. One thing Robinson said she admired about her friend was how close she was with her family, especially Carl.

“And not only her children but she had time for people, period," she said. "She was very easy to talk to. She had a way of making you feel good.”

While she often joked, there was much she didn’t speak of.

An introvert by nature, Snowden was never one to talk publicly about things.

“When you hit the 100-year-old mark, you don’t have a whole lot to say, but you could look at her and see the history,” said Patricia Turnage, pastor at Cecil Memorial United Methodist, where Snowden attended for many years.

Still, Snowden did her part to affect change. During her long life, there were a few things she never missed: annual Martin Luther King Jr. awards dinners, church on Sundays and an opportunity to vote.

Not only did she twice cast votes for the first black president Barack Obama, but she also saw the first woman executive of Anne Arundel County, Janet Owens, and the first woman mayor of Annapolis, Ellen Moyer, elected to office.

“She was very, very, very committed to voting. She never missed,” her son said. “It’s a right she took very seriously and voted in every election she was able to.”

That sense of civic obligation was born out of her strong conviction to take action rather than just talk about change, said Daryl Jones, former Anne Arundel County councilman.

“She was always a strong-minded woman, very principled. Not a lot of words, didn’t need a lot of words,” said Jones, the first black man elected to the County Council and a regular attendee of the annual King dinner.

He saw Snowden as the bedrock of the event.

“Dr. King’s legacy is one that people often think of as a pinpoint moment … in American history, to see advances and judge advances by Dr. King’s life. So, in celebrating his birthday, for Mrs. Snowden, it was an opportunity to remember all that she had experienced,” Jones said.

At a King dinner in 1989, Snowden was honored by her son, who conferred on her a special award for her 72nd birthday. Carl Snowden proclaimed the week of Jan. 9 that year, Ora Snowden Birthday Week.

A member of Cecil United Methodist for many years, Snowden rarely missed a Sunday. But, in 2017, when Turnage became the new pastor, she paid a visit to Snowden’s home to give her communion. She was homebound for a time recovering from health issues.

Not two months later, Snowden reappeared at First Sunday to take communion in person, a smile never far from her lips.

“Next thing I knew she found a way to come back to church. She made a point. She just kept coming back for three years,” Turnage said. “It did my heart glad to see her every Sunday.”

In the archives of The Capital, for which Carl Snowden was a paid columnist, there are numerous mentions of Ora Snowden, often in January around her birthday.

When she turned 100, Snowden paid tribute to her ahead of that year’s King dinner, highlighting the 10 decades of progress toward equality that have been made under her watchful eye. Even at that advanced age, she still was known to crack a joke. She said she was planning to get remarried to a younger man.

“Someone in his 90s,” her son said with a laugh, “that could keep up with her.”

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Ora Snowden leaves behind nine living children, and numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.

Ora Snowden, mother of Annapolis civil rights activist Carl Snowden died May 27 at the age 104.
Ora Snowden, mother of Annapolis civil rights activist Carl Snowden died May 27 at the age 104. (Carl Snowden)

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