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Op-ed

Before we knew him as Kweisi Mfume, we knew him as ‘Pee Wee,’ and we consider him family | GUEST COMMENTARY

Kweisi Mfume is up for re-election to fill Maryland’s 7th congressional seat. A prominent leader in the Black community, Kweisi previously left Congress in the mid-1990s to become president of the NAACP and is credited with reviving that historic organization. Some in Baltimore may remember Kweisi from serving on the City Council or maybe even from his talk show in the ‘70s. But my family knew Kweisi before that. We knew him as Mary Gray’s son Pee Wee who used to stock shelves in my grandparents’ grocery.

My grandparents, Holocaust survivors from Poland, immigrated to America and settled in West Baltimore below North Avenue, in a neighborhood full of Black and Jewish people. In the ‘60s, my grandparents opened a small grocery that they lived above with their son, Samuel, my father. They took pride in helping their neighbors, regardless of race or roots.

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Mary Gray lived across the street raising her four children on her own in a tumultuous time politically and economically. In his memoir “No Free Ride,” Kweisi wrote that his mother’s relationship with my grandparents, David and Hinda Pottash ”had become extremely close. They extended credit to her when times were tight and let me earn money doing stock work.”

It was Kweisi’s very first job. He also recounted a time my grandfather opened up about his experiences in the Holocaust, “David Pottash was a proud and private man… Why he took me into the privacy of his people’s history one day is still a mystery to me.”

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The Pottashes “took me into their family.”

Sadly, Mary died when Kweisi was only 16.

After Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, rioting erupted in Baltimore, and Kweisi witnessed my grandparents’ store being looted and burned. Kweisi lamented, “David Pottash and his wife and kids hadn’t done anything to deserve this. Their only crime was being white and Jewish in a sea of black pain.” A year later, my family left West Baltimore.

Years later, when Kweisi was head of the NAACP, a scandal erupted when Lee Alcorn, a local branch leader, questioned the wisdom of presidential candidate Al Gore picking Joseph Lieberman as his running mate because Lieberman was Jewish. “I think we need to be very suspicious of any kind of partnerships between the Jews at that kind of level, because we know that their interest primarily has to do with money and these kind of things,”” Mr. Alcorn said.

The NAACP immediately removed him, and Kweisi made a fire-breathing statement to the press: “I strongly condemn those remarks. I find them to be repulsive, anti-Semitic, anti-NAACP and anti-American… We are proud of our long-standing relationship with the Jewish community.” Kweisi, who had previously visited Auschwitz concentration camp, continued, “I personally will not tolerate statements that run counter to the history and beliefs of the NAACP.”

Kweisi also played a key role creating the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, an organization dedicated to improving relations between Baltimore’s African American and Jewish communities. A friend of mine who participated told me it was his first time hearing a peer speak to their personal experiences of racism. Hearing it firsthand profoundly changed his perspective. In a recent interview, Kweisi noted, “I’ve seen the young people that come through that program… They are the messages that we send to a future that we may never see.”

At a Jewish memorial for Efraim Gordon, an Israeli killed while visiting Baltimore in 2021, Kweisi spoke about my family again, all these years later. “There is for me a very special place within this community since 1964,” he said. “I was a young man playing in the streets of West Baltimore with my friend, Samuel. I didn’t know he was Jewish, he didn’t know I was African-American. We were kids.” He added, simply, “they loved my mother.”

When my grandparents helped Mary Gray, they did not know that her son Pee Wee would one day develop into a towering figure in Baltimore politics, a champion for civil rights and a true mensch. They took care of their neighbors because they once lived in a place where neighbors did not take care of them. My grandparents chose to send a message to a future they never had the opportunity to see flourish.

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My grandparents taught me kindness by welcoming Kweisi, in his words, “into their family.” Kweisi taught me respect: If someone welcomes you into their family, you welcome them into yours. Sixty years later, we are still in the same family.

Eli Pottash (epottash@gmail.com) is a Baltimore native who currently resides in Rechovot, Israel.


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