For more than a century, two former governors have ruled over the back wall of the Maryland Senate Chambers. John Walter Smith (1908 to 1921) and his predecessor, Edwin Warfield (1904 to 1908), had the stern, mustachioed, middle-aged white men look of the early 20th century governing class. On Monday night, they were evicted. Fear not. They are destined for places of honor elsewhere in the State House complex. But more important was who took their place. One was expected — former Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller was the longest serving senate president in the country. But the other was a delightful surprise: A onetime Baltimore school teacher named Verda Welcome now looks down on the chamber in which she once served. If anything, her return is overdue.
Senator Welcome may not be a familiar name to a lot of people, even history buffs. She isn’t Charles Carroll of Carrollton or his fellow Declaration of Independence signer Samuel Chase, names Maryland schoolchildren have committed to memory for generations. But she is of no less importance. Verda Mae Freeman Welcome wasn’t just the first African American woman to be elected to the Maryland Senate, she was the first to be elected to any state senate in this country. And that wasn’t even her first broken barrier. In 1958, she was the first African American woman to be elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. Her election to the Senate came four years later. In 1964, there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt by political rivals near her home in Liberty Heights in which she was slightly wounded. She continued to serve in political office in 1982. She died in 1990.
Senator Welcome’s achievement hardly went unnoticed. The same portrait that now hangs in the Senate had been hanging in the nearby James Senate Office Building for nearly two decades. But not long ago, a young city senator was giving a State House tour to a group of Baltimore schoolchildren when one of them questioned why she saw so few portraits that looked like her. Of the hundreds of portraits in the State House collection, a pittance are of women and African Americans. A portrait of abolitionist and onetime Maryland slave Frederick Douglass can be found in Government House, the governor’s official residence. His achievements are surely as great as any elected office holder in state history. There are a few others like Lucille Maurer, the state’s first female treasurer, or Clarence Blount, the first African American senate majority leader.
Oh, and the city senator giving the tour? That was Bill Ferguson, who last week took over as Senate president succeeding Senator Miller. The choice to promote Senator Welcome’s portrait to a place of such prominence was one of his first acts in office. She was a city teacher. He was a city teacher. Teachers understand how meaningful such symbols can be. And now he will see her looking across from him every day he presides over the chamber. Mike Miller, Verda Welcome, Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, Thomas Stone, William Paca. It is heady company.
Senator Welcome is most often associated with civil rights legislation of her era including equal employment opportunity and various other laws discouraging racial discrimination. But her devotion to public education was an important part of life as well. And so it’s entirely appropriate that in a matter of weeks, this same chamber will be debating the future of K-12 education in Maryland and whether to follow costly Kirwan Commission reforms. Perhaps some lawmakers will find inspiration in that portrait, this bespectacled woman, seated with hands clasped together behind law books in her painting, who started life in a small North Carolina farm and rose to national prominence as a breaker of glass ceilings. Perhaps they will remember it was education that got her there, including degrees from Coppin State Teachers College and Morgan State College. And they will surely think of her bravery, her leadership, her devotion to her adopted city.
Symbols matter. Portraits matter. History matters. Maryland was better for Verda Welcome’s career in public service. If her presence proves inspirational, if not to her successors then to the next group of city students who come to watch the chamber in action, so much the better. Welcome to a more diverse, a more inclusive Senate Chamber, she will wordlessly remind them.