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Adelaide C.V. Bentley, the unofficial mayor of East Towson’s African American neighborhood, dies

Adelaide C.V. Bentley was president of the North East Towson Improvement Association.
Adelaide C.V. Bentley was president of the North East Towson Improvement Association. (Steve Ruark / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Adelaide C.V. Bentley, who as the unofficial mayor of East Towson spent decades fighting to preserve the historic African American community from the encroachment of development and Towson’s sprawl, died Thursday of lung cancer at her lifelong home there. She was 91.

“She was a Baltimore County icon,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. in a statement. “Her passage is a devastating loss for East Towson and all of Baltimore County.”

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Said 5th District Councilman David S. Marks, who lives in Perry Hall: “She championed saving East Towson in the 1970s when many thought it should be cleared. Through Baltimore County, loans and grants, she saved East Towson and today it’s a thriving community."

“Adelaide may have been small in size, but she’s a towering figure in Towson and Baltimore County," Mr. Marks said. “She was feisty and fearless, and her dedication to the community never stopped.”

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Mike Ertel, a community activist and vice president of the Towson Communites Alliance, is a West Towson resident.

“My first thought when I heard that Adelaide had passed was that it was definitely the end of an era,” Mr. Ertel said. “She was a force to be reckoned with. She was like a general in the field. If something came up, we’d say, ‘Better run it by Adelaide.’ Her death is a great loss.”

“Mrs. Bentley and East Towson are one and the same,” said former Baltimore County Councilman Wayne Skinner, who worked closely with her in his days as a community activist and later as a council member from 1998 to 2002.

“I depended upon her. She was a great lady, and her heart was always in the right place,” he said. “She was very motherly in a way, congenial and forthright. She had a good rapport with the county people and she was very effective.”

Said Barbara L. Hopkins, executive director of NeighborSpace: “She wanted to take care of the people who lived in the community and spent her time fighting off those who wanted to develop it. She was tough, she was tireless when it came to protecting the character of historic East Towson.”

The former Adelaide Catherina Veronica Williams, the daughter of the Rev. William C. Williams, pastor of Isaiah Baptist Church in Monkton, and his wife, Catherine Williams, was born at her family’s home on Railroad Avenue in East Towson and raised in their second home on Virginia Avenue.

Mrs. Bentley attended Baltimore public schools and St. Frances Academy. After high school, she worked for 21 years for Kirsh-Taylor Cleaners at York Road and Chesapeake Avenue and subsequently for 15 years at Black & Decker in Towson as an invoice clerk, retiring in 1983.

She spent her entire life in the East Towson community of small wood-frame homes.

The community was settled by freed slaves in 1790 after the death of Capt. Charles C. Ridgely, the owner of Hampton House and Maryland governor. One freed slave, Daniel Harris, was the first African American to purchase a plot of land in East Towson, paying $187.50 for 1¼ acres near what is today Hillen Road, wrote historian Louis Diggs, who has documented the histories of Baltimore County African American communities.

East Towson grew to include 160 single-family, owner-occupied homes by the 1960s, a number that has fallen to 70 today.

“We were one big knit, you know?” Mrs. Bentley told The Jeffersonian in a 2019 interview. “Everybody was connected, everybody knew each other,” she said. “Your parents could correct me; my parents could correct you. It was that kind of relationship. Everybody looked out for each other.”

Mrs. Bentley, who later moved to Pennsylvania Avenue, recalled when East Towson was nearly crime-free, with little vehicular traffic, about three cars a day, and “when a stranger came into town, everybody knew it,” she explained in the interview.

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“It was fine as far as we were concerned,” she said. “They didn’t bother us, and we didn’t bother them. White folks lived out in West Towson, the blacks lived in East Towson. That’s the way it was — until later years, they found out it was pretty nice over here.”

Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, the community began to feel the pressure of commercialization and suburbanization. The county planned a road to bypass downtown Towson that would have cut the community in half. While largely built with completion planned by 1989, community pressure forced the county to reconsider the road.

In 1964, County Executive Spiro T. Agnew proposed a slum clearance program that would have purchased the land, razed substandard homes, relocated the families that lived there and sold the land to private developers.

The next threat came in the 1970s when zoning was changed to encourage more commercial development.

“She was one of those people who saw that development was coming and she decided, with her friends, of course, to put a stop to it,” said Nancy W. Horst, a Ruxton resident and longtime friend who was director of the nonprofit Towson partnership. “She was, I would say, the heart and soul of East Towson.”

Mrs. Bentley became president of the North East Towson Improvement Association, a position she retained until her death.

In a subsequent email, Ms. Horst wrote, “She was a real force in the struggle to save and revitalize this historic African American community. She knew how to navigate the labyrinth of Baltimore County government which she did to great effect in gaining amenities and historic designation for East Towson, saving much of the old settlement from urban development.”

Said Mr. Ertel, “I liked the fact that county government was a little afraid of her.”

When C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger was serving as county executive from 1994 to 2002, Mrs. Bentley and the community association worked closely with him in turning the old Carver School, built in 1939 as a segregated school for African Americans, into a community center. Before that, like Mrs. Bentley, students had to travel to Baltimore City for an education beyond the sixth grade.

After the center on Lennox Avenue was renovated, it became a home for community meetings, computer, karate, knitting and crocheting classes, with Mrs. Bentley serving as its director until her death.

The site also became home after its restoration to a cabin that was hand-built between 1850 and 1880 by an emancipated slave and is known as the Jacob House.

In 2017, the Adelaide Bentley Park at the east end of Pennsylvania Avenue was dedicated in honor of her tireless efforts on behalf of her neighborhood and its residents.

“She was easygoing but feisty and really personable,” said former Baltimore County delegate Steve Lafferty. “She was committed to her family and the community and always had a willingness to challenge those she thought weren’t treating her fairly. I always said that you didn’t mess with Miss Adelaide."

In 2013, a half-acre park in East Towson was dedicated to Adelaide Bentley, seen here, a longtime advocate of the neighborhood. Design plans for the park, which was purchased by NeighborSpace in 2009, have been finalized and work is expected to begin in September.
In 2013, a half-acre park in East Towson was dedicated to Adelaide Bentley, seen here, a longtime advocate of the neighborhood. Design plans for the park, which was purchased by NeighborSpace in 2009, have been finalized and work is expected to begin in September. (File photo)

She was always a great person to work with, and it was a pleasure having the opportunity to work with her," Mr. Ertel said.

Her husband of 36 years, Luther David Bentley, a postal worker, died in 1990. An earlier marriage to Isaac Thomas ended in divorce.

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She was an active member of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Towson, which was co-founded by her grandfather. She was also a member of the Towson Esther Progressive Temple No. 586, and the ADAH chapter No. 8 of the Order of the Eastern Star.

Mrs. Bentley, who enjoyed cooking and entertaining family and friends, was known for her macaroni and cheese, and stews. She liked watching classic Hollywood westerns, collecting coins, tending to her houseplants and shopping.

“She was a competitive tenpin bowler until last October,” said a granddaughter, Nancy Goldring of East Towson.

Family and friends may visit the Chapman Harris Funeral Home, 5240 Reisterstown Road, Baltimore, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, only 10 visitors on a rotating visitation will be allowed into the funeral home. Plans for a memorial service to be held at her church are incomplete.

In addition to her granddaughter, she is survived by three daughters, Acquannetta Johnson of Idlewylde, and Andrea Jackson and Brendina Garret, both of Baltimore; a son, Luther D. Bentley Jr. of Clinton; a brother, Russell Williams of Baltimore; a sister, Nancy Frazier of Baltimore; seven other grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and five great-great grandchildren.

Baltimore Sun reporter Taylor Deville contributed reporting and librarian Paul McCardell added research.

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