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Zatella Giles greets City Council President Jack Young.
Zatella Giles greets City Council President Jack Young. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore Sun)

Eleanor Zatella Giles, a longtime East Baltimore activist who fought a proposed prison and advocated for her community, died Dec. 26 at Gilchrist Hospice Care of heart failure following a lengthy illness. She was 85.

Born in Baltimore, she was the daughter of Charles Spellman, who died when she was young, and the former Matilda Stephens, who worked at the Continental Can Co.

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Mrs. Giles, who went by her middle name, was the second-oldest of seven children. She graduated from Dunbar High School and Cortez Peters Business School before going on to a 30-year career as a quality control inspector at Continental Can.

Mrs. Giles got her start in community advocacy and politics when the state proposed building a 900-bed prison at the Continental Can factory site at 3500 E. Biddle St. in the 1970s, recalled her sons, Darrell Giles Sr. of Fallston and Spencer Giles of Baltimore.

"All of the community associations in the area banded together as a group called the Concerned Citizens of East Baltimore, and she was chosen as the spokesperson and president," Darrell Giles said. "She led protest marches in Annapolis, led protest marches up here, and she coordinated all of the background and reaching out to the politicians who were in power at the time."

During a 1971 rally, Mrs. Giles said she worried for the safety of nearby residents and predicted that property values would plummet, according to an account in The Baltimore Sun. She led the crowd in shouting: "No more prisons in East Baltimore — No!"

At one point, Mrs. Giles and her husband, Henry, were parties in a lawsuit challenging the contract the state awarded to demolish the Continental Can buildings. The prison ultimately was never built.

Mrs. Giles' community involvement was extensive, including a period as president of the Berea-Eastside Neighborhood Association and founding the Kenwood Neighborhood Club. She also belonged to the Eastern District Police Community Relations Council.

Mrs. Giles was a member of Ray of Hope Baptist Church, serving as a trustee and financial secretary and singing in the choir. She was chairwoman of the church's social action committee, helping church members in need.

She advocated for rent control and pushed for married women to be allowed to obtain credit cards in their own names, "instead of 'Mrs.' in front of their husbands' name," Darrell Giles said.

Her involvement in the community extended to politics, with unsuccessful runs for the City Council, the House of Delegates and mayor in the 1970s. She was affiliated with the Associated Civic Democratic Councils political club.

Darrell Giles said it was common to walk into his mother's house and see her sitting on the couch talking a politician. "They were always stopping by and calling," he said.

Spencer Giles was a teenager when his mother got involved in community affairs and was often by her side as she led meetings and walked door to door greeting voters during her campaigns.

He believes she was successful in many of her community efforts because people could see her passion was genuine.

"She knew how to get people to believe in what she was saying, and she spoke from her heart," Mr. Giles said. "When you believe on the inside, it comes out on the outside. I believe that was what made a lot of things happen in the community."

Mrs. Giles remained involved with the community even as her health failed, attending a community holiday party less than two weeks before she died.

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"She was a force to be reckoned with," said Margie Fleming Brinkley, who was vice president of the Berea-Eastside Neighborhood Association when Mrs. Giles was president and considered her a mentor. "She was very dedicated, very demanding. She carried a big stick, but she had a gentle smile."

Mrs. Giles earned scores of accolades for her work — including being named Woman of the Year by the Afro-American Newspaper during the prison protest — but was motivated by her love of community, Darrell Giles said.

Mrs. Giles was shocked last year when the city designated the 1300 block of N. Kenwood Ave., where she lived, as "Zatella Giles Way," Darrell Giles said.

"She was flabbergasted, surprised and yet humbled by it. She just couldn't believe they would do that," he said. "She never did it for fame and fortune. She did it because it was the right thing to do."

A viewing will be held from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Vaughn C. Greene Funeral Home East, 4905 York Road. The funeral will be held Monday at Ray of Hope Baptist Church, 3000 Parkside Drive, with a wake at 10 a.m., followed by a service at 11 a.m.

In addition to her sons, Mrs. Giles is survived by two sisters, Ollie M. Brown and Annette Catlett, both of Baltimore; two brothers, Charles Spellman Jr. of Los Angeles and Ray Adams of Baltimore; five grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her husband and a son, Randolph.

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