Del. Hattie Harrison fondly remembered at funeral service

Family, friends and a host of elected officials celebrated the life of East Baltimore Del. Hattie N. Harrison at the West Baltimore United House of Prayer for All People, in a ceremony borne on the spirited rasps of trombones and rhythmic clattering of tambourines.

"Today there's a lot of powerful emotion in this place," said Gov. Martin O'Malley. "There's also a lot of powerful music."

The funeral service struck a joyful tone as politicians from Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland remembered the delegate who had represented her community since August 1973, making her the longest-serving African-American female legislator in the United States.

Harrison, 84, died of complications from heart disease at the Johns Hopkins Hospital on Jan. 28. The funeral was held just two days before what would have been her 85th birthday.

"Today we come not to mourn at all, but to celebrate," said Baltimore Councilman Carl Stokes, "not to weep, but to cheer."

Harrison, who was the first African-American woman to serve as chair of a major General Assembly committee, lay in a casket draped with the state flag, and the Maryland State Police presented the colors at the opening of the three-and-a-half-hour service.

Known for her ability to get things done, Md. House Speaker Michael E. Busch said, Harrison kept the boys in line, while Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she lit the way for other female politicians.

"She was a woman in charge, make no mistake about it," Busch said.

He recalled receiving anxious calls one lunchtime from then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who was worried about a piece of legislation. The calls kept coming until Busch mentioned that he was dining with Harrison, at which point they stopped, and the governor sent a message apologizing for interrupting.

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young also described running up against Harrison when he was a newly-elected councilman, full of ideas and determined to tackle problems head-on. Harrison — famous for her home cooking — called Young over for dinner, which, he said, he took as a good sign.

She told him squarely that anything he wanted to do in East Baltimore would have to go through her first.

But if Harrison was a force to be reckoned with, colleagues also described her as big-hearted and a fighter for her community.

"She was a role model without ego, without ceremony," Rawlings-Blake said. "She had the strength you can only have fighting for right."

Harrison kept up her work even as she became ill later in life, and Busch said her death will leave a big role to fill in Annapolis.

"Someone will come there and sit in her seat, but no one will ever take her place," Busch said.

Starting his eulogy, the Rev. C.M. Gibbs of the East Baltimore United House of Prayer joked to O'Malley that he might be the person to try.

"Maybe her pastor could be appointed to her seat to keep her spirit alive," he said, to howls of laughter.

In a rousing address, Gibbs worked up to the theme that had dominated the ceremony — Harrison's life of service — and drew on the words of the hymn "If I Can Help Somebody" which Gretchen Starks belted out.

"Rest well, my friend, for the battle is over," O'Malley said. "Your life was not in vain."

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