Thomas Saunders, rumor control head who led African American history tours in Baltimore, dies

Thomas Lawrence Saunders, who headed Baltimore city’s rumor control program and later founded a tour business focused on African-American history, died of cancer Thursday at Howard County General Hospital. He was 60 and lived on Dukeland Street in West Baltimore.

Born in Baltimore and raised in Rosemont, he was the son of Bobbie Saunders and his wife, Julia.

He was a 1975 graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where he belonged to the history club. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in health and in African studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

A 1999 Baltimore Sun profile of Mr. Saunders noted his ability to draw an audience: “In 1975, at the age of 17, he started the Rain Barrel disco club at Belvedere and Park Heights avenues, where 300 teen-agers would dance all night.”

Mr. Saunders joined city government and became the director of the Rumor Control Center, an office within the Community Relations Commission that had been established after the 1968 riots in Baltimore. It existed until 2014.

During his time there Mr. Saunders became known as Mr. Rumor Control and fielded all manner of questions — for example, about whether live snakes were being released in movie theaters during screenings of the film “Gandhi.”

In another example, when the federal government was distributing surplus cheese, he received a call from a woman who wanted to know if the cheese delivery truck had been hijacked. He found, through the Urban Services Agency, that the truck had in fact been robbed.

A 1983 Sun article noted that “she got her cheese, although a little late.”

“We are here to dispense information. That’s our job,” Mr. Saunders said in the same article.

Mr. Saunders was also the Community Relations Commission’s director of community education and saw a need for teaching Baltimore residents about African-American history in their city. In 1990, he unveiled a research project about blacks' contributions to the horse racing industry.

“Last fall he was reading a magazine article about the history of black jockeys in Kentucky,” said a 1990 Sun article. “Saunders, a racing fan himself, started thinking about the accomplishments of Maryland’s black horsemen and decided their accomplishments should be recorded and recognized.”

He formed a committee and, within a few months, state officials and former Mayor Clarence “Du” Burns were celebrating the contributions of Maryland’s black racing community at Pimlico Race Course. A portrait of William “Willie” Simms, a jockey who won the 1898 Preakness, was unveiled that night.

In 1999 Baltimore Heritage, a preservation society, gave him its Honor Award after Mr. Saunders expanded the scope of his historic promotions. He started a two-day Black History Month February tour that drew 5,000 people, many of them schoolchildren and senior citizens, who boarded buses to visit a home owned by Frederick Douglass and the Great Blacks in Wax Museum. He owned and operated Renaissance Productions and Tours.

"I am the type of man who can find history out of anything," Mr. Saunders said in a 1999 Sun article.

“These days, Saunders is irked by urban decline and believes that many of the sites on his tour should be treated better by the city and residents,” said the article.

“Look at that trash," Saunders said in the article as he stood outside St. Frances Academy, a school begun by the first black Roman Catholic order of nuns. “If you go to other cities, it's clean around historical areas.”

Mr. Saunders often gave his tours in conjunction with local museums. He had partnerships with the Arch Social Club on Pennsylvania Avenue and was among the founders of Baltimore’s Martin Luther King Jr. parade. He also worked to honor Mother Mary Lange, who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829, and singer Billie Holiday.

“On his bus tours, Tom transformed the city using authentic period props, costumes and re-enactors,” said Yvonne J. Medley, a cousin with whom he worked. “Sightseers learned about the little-known historic contributions of Baltimore’s African-American trailblazers, while they ate what he dubbed as a shoe-box lunch.”

She said lunch consisted of fried chicken, rolls, fruit and a slice of homemade pound cake, carefully wrapped in wax paper.

“The meal, packed in a shoe box, served as a vivid reenactment of how his own grandmother wrapped up love, protection and nourishment whenever his parents and older brother took to the highways — especially heading South in the days of segregation when African-Americans could not be served at most restaurants,” she said. “He insisted that the wax paper be used. He used it to teach. It was a part of the tour.”

“He was vivacious and passionate about history,” she said. “He was a lively and charismatic personality.”

In the 1983 Evening Sun article, Mr. Saunders described one of his roles at Rumor Control: “There are a lot of lonely people in Baltimore who just want to talk,” he said.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Trinity Baptist Church on 1601 Druid Hill Avenue. A wake will be held at 10 a.m.

In addition to Ms. Medley, survivors include a nephew, Kenya H. Saunders of Baltimore, and other cousins.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
54°