Lucille Gorham, a longtime East Baltimore neighborhood activist whose "quick wits and good-natured tenacity" equipped her as the voice of poor residents who lived near Johns Hopkins Hospital, died of cancer Saturday at her Belair-Edison home. She was 81.
"What a wonderful human being she was," said former city Housing Commissioner M. Jay Brodie. "She was one of the best community leaders I ever encountered. She had a quality of leadership, a willingness to listen and a comprehension of detailed plans without the necessity of a fancy college degree."
Born Lucille Alexander in Halifax, N.C., she moved to Baltimore in 1934 and lived on Bond Street. She attended city public schools and later earned a GED. She also studied at Sojourner Douglass College.
"She lived a quiet life as a 'homemaker and a churchgoer' until 1967, when she became president of Citizens for Fair Housing 'almost by accident,'" said a 1982 Sun article.
It was the city's 1968 riots that propelled her role in neighborhood activism.
"Lucille Gorham came face-to-face with the riots in a coin-operated laundry on Gay Street," said a 2008 Sun article. " She was holding her young daughter when a man threw a gasoline bomb through the plate-glass window."
The story explained that Mrs. Gorham and her child were uninjured, but her East Baltimore neighborhood "would bear the brunt of years of bottled-up anger and inequity. ... Gorham ... could understand the rioters' anger. But she could never condone their destruction."
"It sent a message that a lot of things needed to be better," she said in 2008. "But so many people didn't need to get hurt. So many homes didn't need to be burned."
She soon led a successful community-owned and -operated housing complex that would be built on Madison Park Square between Caroline and Eden streets.
Her work running a clubhouse in the 1500 block of E. Madison St. attracted the attention of Sen. Charles McC. Mathias. On a visit to the Gay Street urban renewal area less than a year after the 1968 riots, the senator praised her efforts as "the essential ingredient in reclaiming our cities."
The home, named Our House, provided "tender, loving care," according to a 1969 Sun article, which added that it offered home-cooked meals, a place for local children to spend their Saturday evenings and a spot for senior citizens to chat.
Mrs. Gorham, who had lived on East Chase Street, emerged as a voice for impoverished East Baltimore neighborhoods. She wore many hats: director of the Madison Square Housing Association, president of Citizens for Fair Housing, director of the Middle East Community Association, and a leader of a neighborhood 4-H Club.
"One of our goals ought to be educating our youth," she said in a 1970 Sun article. "We ought to develop leadership qualities in those who have them and maybe reach a point where we could get away from the idea of all black youth going to college. Maybe some of them should work with their hands. More members of the black community should get involved in the political structure."
A 1982 Sun profile of her said, "Quick wits and good-natured tenacity are Lucille Gorham's trademarks."
Her daughter, Lorna Alexander, who lives in Baltimore, recalled her mother as someone "who never saw evil." She said that Mrs. Gorham "saw people as people and never saw color." She described her mother as an angel on earth. "If something bad was going on, she saw the other side," her daughter said.
In later years, she found herself up against another entity, the Johns Hopkins medical complex, which initiated a large expansion in 2002.
"They kind of swooped down on the neighborhood and bought property and moved people out without thinking about it," she said in a 2007 Sun article. "They got involved because they just looked around, and they saw this neighborhood is falling apart. Crime is a real problem for Hopkins employees and for their visitors and their patients."
She recalled the day she received news that her home was to be taken. "When I got my letter to move, it hurt," she said in the 2007 Sun article. "It was like sticking a knife in my chest."
The Morning Sun
She left the home where she had lived for many years and moved to Northeast Baltimore's Belair-Edison.
"You would think it's a step up," she said. "But I'm here and nobody knows I'm here. On Chase Street, I could open my front door and see everybody on my block. Here, I can open my front door and not see anybody for months."
Mr. Brodie recalled how Mrs. Gorham and fellow East Baltimore activist Betty Hyatt accompanied him and his wife to Hamburg, Germany, in 1978 to be honored by the International Federation for Housing and Planning Councils. Mayor William Donald Schaefer led the delegation.
City Councilman Carl Stokes said in a statement about Mrs. Gorham's death, "We have lost an able stalwart of the community whose wisdom, experience and proactive leadership will be dearly missed at a time when cities like ours could benefit from her wisdom and expertise."
Services will be at 10:30 a.m. Friday at New Lebanon Calvary Baptist Church, 501 N. Milton Ave., where she was president of the usher board.
In addition to her daughter, survivors include five sons, Levy Bellon, Charles Bellon, Wayne Kimbrough, Julian "Jay" Kimbrough and Lawrence Alexander; two other daughters, Sally Gorham and Lillian Kimbrough; her mother, Louise Alexander; 14 grandchildren; and 26 great-grandchildren. All survivors live in Baltimore. Her husband, Nathan Bellon, a foundry worker, died in 1966. Her second husband, Earl Gorham, died in the 1970s.