Verda Freeman Welcome (1907-1990)
MSA SC 3520-12344
One of Baltimore’s leading African American female pioneers, Verda Freeman Welcome lived a “life devoted to changing reality.”1 Her life experience with family, education, and discrimination led her to fight for the civil rights of African Americans and women in Maryland. After marrying Dr. Henry C. Welcome and earning a degree from Morgan State University, Mrs. Welcome began her early activism in Baltimore City by investing in the community that had supported her during her hard times as a young single student and adult. However, after a few years of bureaucratic frustration with existing officials, Mrs. Welcome ran for state political office because she felt she could affect better community changes by doing things herself. Mary Sue Welcome, her daughter said, “She was a civic activist, but she became frustrated because as she tried to help people, she always had to go to someone else. That’s when she decided it would be better to be able to have your own program put in place.”2 In 1958, with the support of her husband, daughter, and community, she passionately campaigned and won a seat in fourth district for Maryland General Assembly’s House of Delegates, where she fought for the equal treatment of all Marylanders during the Civil Rights Era and beyond. In 1962, Mrs. Welcome’s unwavering confidence, ambition, and political savvy led her to rise from her first public position as a state delegate to her historical role as the United States’ first African American to serve their state government as a Senator in Maryland’s General Assembly. Maryland’s one time Chief District Court Judge Robert E. Sweeney said of Senator Welcome, “[she was] a proud woman who was not in politics for herself.”3 She held a deep attachment to her community, which inspired her activism and was the impetus that impelled her to bring the black and white Maryland communities together in resolution, a passion that drove her lifetime ambition ‘to change reality’.4
The beginning of Senator Welcome’s life is marked with two excellent role models who not only gave her advice but gave her freedom to realize her independence and to aspire toward goals. Mrs. Welcome grew up with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Freeman, of Uree or Freeman Town (now called Lake Lure), North Carolina; they were part of a small knit community that valued family and community cooperation, education, and hard work, all of which inspired the values that drove Mrs. Welcome’s strong good will and ambition. Mr. Freeman, the family patriarch, lived by strong ethics of work and liberty “that all were to follow. It was a matter of faith that every man and woman, every boy and girl, was on earth to improve their lot on earth.”5 And Mrs. Freeman, who highly valued education as the path to improving race relations, sent her daughter to an American Missionary Association sponsored school that first exposed young Miss Freeman to interacting with whites. Mrs. Welcome praised her mother for providing her with a strong self image, “My mother taught me how to carry myself as a woman; she taught me that my sex and my color were not barriers, regardless of what others may tell me.”6 Her parent’s voices were the ideals that led Ms. Welcome to her future public roles as an educator, activist, and civic leader.
In 1926, at the age of nineteen, young Mrs. Welcome endeavored on her teaching career and earned her first teaching position after attending the Peabody Institute for two years. This teaching experience greatly impacted Mrs. Welcome’s life whereas she learned that blacks were often underpaid, undereducated, and underprivileged; she wanted to make a positive impact on her black community as an educator. With her mother’s death in 1928, Mrs. Welcome endeavored on her aspirations and traveled north to live in Wilmington, Delaware with extended family, to earn a higher education. This was a common choice for many southern blacks of the era who were unable to access secondary or higher education due to segregation laws and limited state resources for black communities. With minimal education, many blacks learned quickly that formal learning was a primary link to their race’s autonomy and chose to prioritize school for themselves, their families, and their communities. While living in Wilmington Ms. Welcome often worked as a domestic around her school hours and eventually earned her high school diploma; she said, “I had to make the daily sacrifices needed to keep my dreams intact.”7 Dedicated to her aspirations, she applied and was accepted to Coppin Normal School (then a black teacher’s college, now Coppin State University) in Baltimore, Maryland where she continued her education, worked in domestic labor and moved in with another extended family. Young Miss Freeman’s earned her education the hard way with much persistence and ambition, qualities that marked her life choices.
For a time during the Great Depression, Ms. Welcome was able to secure a menial labor job at an all-white hotel in Ocean City, Maryland where she also met other aspiring young blacks. This was a time when black unemployment soared and racist hostility plagued society. She experienced the enormity of racial discrimination but felt that she had to overlook some of the experience so that she could reach her goals. She said, “I was struggling, trying to get through school…I was not in a position to demand respect, so I just tried to accept the discourtesy I was subjected to and kept on going.”8 As a diversion to the many issues at hand, she was inadvertently introduced to a group of aspiring black professionals, who exposed her to many intellectual and national racial debates. The group met on Sunday mornings to exchange ideas and opinions. This period marks a time in her life when she became quite aware of the national debates on the autonomy of black citizens, especially the scrutiny theorized by such men as W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Alain Locke, and Marcus Garvey. Ms. Welcome began to embrace a more proactive lifestyle and joined the National Association for Advancement of Colored People in 1937, a young organization at the time that fought for the civil rights of African Americans.
During this era of hard work and endurance in the 1930’s, she met her soon to be husband, Henry C. Welcome, who was also mingling amongst the many aspiring black professionals and college students. The young Doctor Welcome attended Meharry Medical School in Tennessee and interned at Baltimore’s Provident Hospital while he courted the then single Verda Freeman for the next few years; they were very supportive of each other’s ambitions which eventually led to their marriage in 1936. Afterwards, the newlyweds remained in Baltimore and each pursued their career ambitions while they supported the other; Mr. Welcome becoming a surgeon and resident at Provident Hospital while Mrs. Welcome pursued her degrees in higher education and eventually civic activism.
Mrs. Welcome chose to enroll in Morgan State College while she also taught in the black schools of Baltimore City’s segregated public school system from 1934-1945. Morgan State was the only other college, after Coppin, to accept black higher-education students at the time; she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1939. Mrs. Welcome was inspired to pursue a graduate degree because she saw the same inequalities in Baltimore City schools that she had seen in the black schools of North Carolina such as lack of resources, low attendance, and discriminatory practices. However, due to state law she could not attend a graduate program in Maryland because she was black, this led her to attend New York University, where she paid her own tuition and earned her Master’s degree in 1943. Mrs. Welcome continued to teach in Baltimore City until “they could afford to live on one income; she then began a period of community activism.”9
Community activism was the catalyst that propelled Mrs. Welcome from her involvement in community affairs to her political career. Mrs. Welcome decidedly chose to join her community. With her husband a doctor and she a school teacher, they saw firsthand the many atrocities that blacks and women experienced, which moved her to help those who needed access to resources or equal treatment as citizens. Mrs. Welcome rejected all levels of discrimination and felt that communities could work together toward better egalitarian goals. Black communities were suffering in terms of unemployment, poor sanitation, limited or poor medical facilities, poor education, among other things such as crime and racism. “By 1946, she was elected president of the Northwest Improvement Association, an area plagued with overcrowded buildings.”10 As a result, her natural leadership proved to be remarkable, the association not only organized well under her leadership but they won a dispute concerning the ill placement of fire escapes. The association took that experience and continued to fight for other municipal services such as “more police protection, better trash pickups, and all the other things that we thought we paid for with our taxes.”11 Mrs. Welcome sincerely arbitrated for the rights of her community and felt that changes were long overdue and necessary for the health and welfare of her fellow citizens. Mrs. Welcome began joining black professional women’s clubs such as the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; she also joined many local and national women’s organizations such as Citizen’s Housing Council, the National Urban League, Scouting, and the March of Dimes.
Her battle to preserve and improve her community reached its climax in 1957 when the city attempted to place the civic center in Druid Hill Park. Mrs. Welcome took action; as a civic leader, she filed suit against the state and the civic center and rejected the civic center erection. In defense of the community, her suit included that “she is a resident of the area and [that] she and her family have made use of the recreational facilities of the park for many years.”12Mrs. Welcome also made strong use of the public discourse used by white officials who had previously expressed other locations for the center. Winning this case was enormous; she realized that the black community needed more representation in public office if they were going to achieve any permanent changes. Another key experience that propelled Mrs. Welcome into her political career was her role as the president of the Northwest Improvement Association, which led to her position on the Citizens Housing Council where she worked with both whites and blacks to make policy changes for better housing conditions in overcrowded areas.13 Mrs. Welcome wanted an egalitarian community for her citizens, with cooperative leaders and integrated citizens.
Familiar with the needs of her community, Mrs. Welcome decided to consider a public office campaign. She consulted her husband and later recalled his response; he said, “Why not?...which [to her] was as good as saying, go ahead.”14 Thus, with her husband’s support, Mrs. Welcome conferred with her extensive network of family, peers, community representatives, and organizations and decidedly ran for the position of State Delegate from Baltimore City in 1958. She said, “I had been on the front lines of the civil rights movement for a number of years, but I was one voice out of many. Going to Annapolis would give me a chance to make my voice heard.”15 The community supported Mrs. Verda Freeman Welcome, Democrat, for one of the three State Delegate seats in the fourth district, because “I knew their concerns and they were able to identify with them. Many saw my battle as their battle.”16 In fact, twelve women, and one man, volunteered for her first campaign team; they were called the “Women for Welcome,” “a merry band of sisters with whom she traveled to victory.”17 She started as an independent democratic candidate during the primaries and later joined an all-Negro coalition for the general election. The goal of Mrs. Welcome’s campaign was to alleviate racial division and to represent all citizens regardless of race or class. Against the advice of her peers, Welcome took her campaign “into the white households…she did not want to ‘write off’ the white vote”; campaigning door-to-door, she said, “I feel myself a candidate of the entire fourth district, and when I am elected, I shall represent all the people of the fourth district.”18 At the age of 52, Mrs. Welcome won a seat to the Maryland House of Delegates, fourth district; as an independent democrat, she began her journey into politics for the citizens of Baltimore City.
Mrs. Welcome’s first elected position was marked with a reform agenda; as one of six female legislators in 1959, she took advantage of every opportunity to make positive changes in Maryland’s legislature.19 She immediately embarked on basic civil rights for all citizens and helped pass Maryland’s state public accommodations law. Mrs. Welcome effectively worked on many public legislative bills over the course of her career including but not limited to some of the following: Maryland’s ratification of the fourteenth amendment, permissive interracial marriage law, gun and smoking laws, university status for Morgan State College, regulatory laws on mail-in voter registration and motor vehicle insurance, and improved access for blind citizens to public accommodations. Mrs. Welcome also made exceptional improvements on the local level as well; she fought for the promotion of female police officers to higher ranks in Baltimore City, for the end of welfare recipient harassment, laws to restrict landlord retaliation, for the funding of Provident Hospital’s new construction, and minimum wage for those erroneously jailed.20 An inherent member of her community, she worked on all levels from picketing and petitioning on a local level to political organizing and compromising on a state level. Mrs. Welcome never wavered with ambitious legislation and policy that would effect social change; she wanted to improve the experience of her citizens and ‘change reality’.
With experience under her belt, Mrs. Welcome felt motivated to run for Maryland State Senate, a difficult and ambitious goal in 1962. With social reform in mind, she addressed the race issue and ran against Jack Pollack, the longstanding political center of Maryland’s fourth district. In November, Mrs. Welcome’s difficult endeavor turned into a political career; she was elected to Maryland’s State Senate, the first African American in the nation to hold that position. She ran for and held the title of State Senator for the next twenty years.
Senator Welcome not only worked on social policy but advocated for cultural preservation. In 1969, she introduced state legislature establishing the Maryland Commission on Negro History and Culture (today’s Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture-MCAAHC, ca. 1991) to collect, preserve, and display the history of Maryland’s black population. The Banneker-Douglas Museum in Annapolis, Maryland was constructed from the MCAAHC and today organizes and celebrates Maryland’s African American history, Martin Luther King holiday events, and many cultural outreach programs. Mrs. Welcome also preserved her black female political history for future historians and students by willing her personal papers and correspondence to Morgan State University upon her death. Preservation was an important part of Senator Welcome’s plan for long term social change.
Senator Welcome continued her multi-faceted activism over her entire career despite deterrent events in her life. She survived many ill experiences such as destitution, discrimination, segregation, sexism, her home breaking and entering, an assassination conspiracy in 1964, and a street mugging in 1975. She said, “I felt I had a mission. I could not be deterred by fear alone.”21 Mrs. Welcome remained dedicated to her citizens; as their representative, she explained that, “I am voting the way people want me to vote.”22 She also credits her husband with much of the loving support that sustained her endurance and optimism. Senator Welcome said in her biography, “I never lost sight of my priorities because I knew that I was loved…it was a masculine field [politics]. Few men would let their wives participate...But Palie (Dr. Welcome’s loving pet name by Mrs. Welcome) was different. We trusted and respected one another and that encouraged our mutual success.”23 Withstanding her race, sex, and class, the Senator overcame many challenges throughout her life and persisted for her family and her community; Senator Welcome strove ‘to change reality’ for every citizen in Maryland.
In memory of the Maryland’s first black female State Senator, the state and many organizations have established or erected many memorials in her namesake. On the state level Senator Welcome is celebrated with her portraiture displayed in the Maryland Senate Office Complex, James Building, and one of the conference rooms in the Miller Building has been dubbed the Verda Freeman Welcome room.24 Morgan State University, her alma mater, has memorialized the late senator by naming the crosswalk bridge over Cold Spring Lane in her name, The Welcome Bridge. And, the United States Post Office building at 3000 Homewood Ave in Baltimore City is named for the late senator and her husband as well. Congressman Elijah Cummings said during the dedication ceremony, “We are engraving into stone our admiration and appreciation for what this great couple did for our future generations.”25 The Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Baltimore Chapter, also distinguishes the late Senator Welcome with an annual political legislative achievement award in her name for politically and socially driven female community leaders in Baltimore City. Senator Welcome has been highly praised by her peers for mentoring their contemporary careers and she has been mentioned as a woman of valor.26 Senator Barbara Mikulski said in her memory, “She listened to the needs of her people and turned them into political action,” words that Senator Welcome lived by.27 In 1988, Ms. Welcome was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame by the Maryland Commission of Women. Senator Verda Freeman Welcome passed away in April 22, 1990 after living a prosperous life of family love and political achievement; she said, “I view the civil rights struggle as the proudest achievement of my career.”28
1. C. Frasier Smith, “Welcome Eulogized
for Leading the Way,” The Baltimore Sun, April 27, 1990. return
2. Phillip Davis, “Md. Senator and Activist, Verda Welcome, is Dead,” The Baltimore Sun, April 24, 1990. return to text
3. Peter Kumpa, A Person of Principle March 18, 1907-April 22, 1990 (Commemorative Booklet), Maryland: Maryland General Assembly (1990), 4. return to text
4. C. Frasier Smith, “Welcome Eulogized for Leading the Way,” The Baltimore Sun, April 27, 1990. return to text
5. “The Freeman’s had a long history of land ownership and a longer heritage of freedom, as the family name proclaimed.” Kumpa, 6. return to text
6. Kumpa, 8. return to text
7. Kumpa, 9. return to text
8. Kumpa, 10. return to text
9. Kumpa, 16. return to text
10. Kumpa, 17. return to text
11. Kumpa, 18. return to text
12. “Civic Leader Files Suit on Center Site,” The Baltimore Afro-American, November 2, 1957. return to text
13. Kumpa, 19. return to text
14. Kumpa, 20. return to text
15. Verda F. Welcome, My Life and Times as told to James A. Abraham, New Jersey: Henry House Publishers (1991) 54. return to text
16. Welcome, 56. return to text
17. Members named in commemorative pamphlet. Kumpa, 20. return to text
18.. Jessie Carny Smith, ed. Notable Black American Women, Book II, Michigan: Gale Research Inc. (1996), 699. return to text
19. Six women legislators include the following: Senator Mary L. Nock; Mrs. Frances Holub, 2nd district; Mrs. Irma G. Dixon, 4th district; Mrs. Verda Welcome, 4th district; Mrs. Margaret Schweinhaut, Montgomery County; Mrs. Edna P. Cook, Montgomery County. “Meet Maryland’s Six Women State Legislators.” The Baltimore Sun. January 18, 1959. return to text
20. Kumpa, 3. return to text
21. Welcome, 119. return to text
22. Keith B. Richburg, “Md Senate Votes 21 as Drinking Age; Public Pressure Cited; Hughes Expected to Sign,” The Washington Post, March 10, 1982. return to text
23. Welcome, 217. return to text
24. Portrait Artist, Simmie Knox. return to text
25. "Post Office Name After Baltimore Heroes Sen. Verda Welcome adn Dr. Henry Welcome," <http://cummings.congressnewsletter.net/common/mailings/?id=10#A2>, Accessed June 28, 2007. return to text
26. Wiley A. Hall, III, “Verda Welcome: ‘woman of valor,’” The Evening Sun, April 27, 1990. return to text
27. Ibid. return to text
28. Welcome, 271. return to text
Written by Jenette Parish, Summer Intern 2007.
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