In the years before he became mayor, following in his father’s footsteps to City Hall, Thomas “Young Tommy” D’Alesandro III chose a high road that few other white political leaders were willing to tread in the early 1960s. He died Sunday at 90, and his funeral will be held Wednesday in Baltimore, with his famous sister, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, delivering a eulogy. Of all things remembered, let’s remember the man’s courage.
It was forged in his family, in his education and in a practical understanding that his city was changing. The civil rights movement was underway, Baltimore’s African American citizens were demanding equal treatment, and new laws and court rulings were on their side.
But many, if not most, white Baltimoreans, who had grown up in a semi-southern city segregated by ordinance and covenants, either resisted change or ran from it. Some moved to the counties at the first whispers of integration in housing and public schools. A chart of Baltimore’s population shows the decline starting in 1954, the year of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional. Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., or “Old Tommy,” was mayor at the time, and he agreed with the court’s ruling. “I asked the nuns,” he used to say. “They said it was right, so I went with the nuns.”
His eldest son, elected president of the City Council in 1962, had a far more studied approach to civil rights, exhibiting a deep understanding of the brutal history of racism and the institutional oppression of blacks, and arguing for equality under the law.
Born a few months before the stock market crash of 1929, Young Tommy grew up in a Democratic household in Little Italy during the Great Depression. His father, a future congressman as well as mayor, had just started his political career as a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly. Struggling families, many of them immigrants, came to the D’Alesandro house on Fawn Street looking for help. Lines formed on the sidewalk. Young Tommy’s mother, Nancy D’Alesandro, and other women cooked meals for people who were out of work.
So public service and charity, along with New Deal-Democratic Party politics, informed Young Tommy early in life. “And he had the heavy influence of the Jesuits,” says his son, Nick D’Alesandro. “He went to Loyola, the high school and university, and had the Jesuit education. He believed in Matthew 25: ‘I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me ...’ And he asked, how can we have a city where everyone has a fair shot?”
Young Tommy appointed black people to prominent government positions, funded anti-poverty programs and new schools in neglected neighborhoods, and he pushed legislation to ban discrimination in housing and public accommodations. He fought blockbusting, a practice of unethical real estate speculators who would sell a house to a black family in an all-white neighborhood or spread word that blacks were about to move in to cause white people to panic-sell their homes at a low price. The speculators would then flip the properties to black families at high profit.
“Tommy was courageous in support of civil rights,” says Bob Embry, president of the Abell Foundation and a member of City Council in the 1960s before becoming city housing commissioner. “He was very out front about it.”
“But it was a tough time,” says Ted Venetoulis, the former Baltimore County executive and long-time Tommy friend. “He knew it was an unpopular position, he could feel it in the streets. I mean, we think things are bad now, but think about how it was back then.”
To give you an idea: In 1966, the year before Young Tommy ran for mayor, a wealthy Baltimore County businessman named George P. Mahoney emerged as the Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland, and he split the party with his dog whistle slogan: “Your home is your castle, protect it.” Mahoney opposed open housing, or any law that banned racial or religious discrimination in housing. His campaign was a call to keep blacks from buying homes in communities they liked and could afford, and it fed the white flight from Baltimore that was already underway.
Fortunately, Mahoney did not win the general election that year, but he represented the racism and resistance that Young Tommy faced in the 1960s in Baltimore, that kept public housing out of the county and that stands today against banning further discrimination by landlords. Fifty years on, some people in Baltimore County still want to let landlords refuse rentals to people because they are poor and come with federal housing vouchers to subsidize their rent. In the organized opposition to a proposed ban on such discrimination, there’s an echo of Mahoney’s castle credo.
“Tommy read the wave, he saw what was coming, and he spoke out about it,” says Venetoulis, looking back on the tumultuous 1960s.
“He was indomitable in his efforts to improve race relations,” says Embry, who remembers Young Tommy standing up to bigots at a community meeting in northeast Baltimore, giving them an eloquent history lesson in American racism and arguing passionately for understanding. “He didn’t back down.”
The city exploded in riots in 1968, after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. If he ever had an ambition for a second term, Young Tommy did not go for it. And so he’s commonly remembered as the mayor who left the job in frustration, the mayor who looked into the fires and saw all his efforts aflame.
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But that simplifies a complex story. And it overlooks all that he did on the way to becoming mayor. Young Tommy was a deeply ethical man — “incorruptible” is Embry’s word — who understood what it took to be a true-blue Democrat, what it took to be a progressive, and what it took for a white political leader to join the march for civil rights in the 1960s. It took courage.