Former Annapolis mayor Chambers, 82, dies
By EARL KELLY, Staff Writer
Capital Gazette Communications
Published 02/26/11

The only African-American to serve as mayor of Annapolis has died.

John T. Chambers Jr. died yesterday morning of a heart attack following a long illness, his family said. He would have been 83 on Tuesday.

Chambers was a senior alderman in 1981 when Mayor Gustav Akerland committed suicide. The City Council voted to name Chambers the city's top executive. He held that post from April 12 to June 7, 1981, when Richard Hillman was elected to succeed him.

Chambers' wife, Hannah Chambers, said last night that she and Chambers were married for 57 years, and he was a gentle man who never ceased to amaze her.

"He walked two miles a day and I never heard him use a four-letter word, I never saw him smoke a cigarette or take a drink" she said. "I kept waiting for him to change, I said 'Nobody can stay this good.' But he did."

Even when her husband's Alzheimer's disease was in the advanced stages, she said, he remained calm and dignified. Once she said he was furious at her and she expected the illness to take over and make him use vulgar language, as often is the case with Alzheimer's patients.

"He said, 'You are nasty, nasty, nasty," Mrs. Chambers said laughing. "That was it. That was the extent of it."

John Chambers graduated from then-Hampton Institute, where he played football and rantrack and cross country.

He weighed 175 pounds when he was young, and never went over 184 pounds, Mrs. Chambers said.

Mrs. Chambers said her husband remained nearly perfect physically and spiritually.

"He was the most beautiful person I have ever seen in my life. He would help anybody. He was kind hearted."

Chambers' lifelong friend, George Phelps, said yesterday that Chambers was a man who commanded respect.

"When he spoke, he spoke very softly, but very penetratingly. When he spoke, he said something," Phelps said.

"The last time I saw him was about a week or so ago, he was here, sitting in my house, with his wife," said Phelps, who grew up with Chambers and his brothers. Phelps was, himself, the county's first African-American deputy sheriff.

Chambers served on the City Council for 14 years. In 1967, he filled the Ward 7 seat left vacant when T. Norwood Brown resigned. Later, when the city expanded to eight wards, Chambers was elected to represent Ward 3, the district that included Parole and the west side of the city.

Chambers introduced legislation that made the mayor's position full-time, and he helped establish rent control. He also was active in placing a plaque at the foot of Main Street to honor author Alex Haley and Haley's slave ancestor, Kunta Kinte. Chambers led the fight to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a city and state holiday.

"His example has served as a shoulder for me and others to lean on," Alderwoman Classie G. Hoyle, the current representative of Ward 3, said in a prepared statement.

Mayor Josh Cohen spoke of Chambers' "dignified and warm spirit." "The depth and fiber of his character have enriched our community, and will continue to have a lasting impact for years to come," Cohen said.

Chambers was a Republican, but became a Democrat after leaving public office.

He grew up in Parole and his father, the Rev. John T. Chambers Sr., was a founder of the Anne Arundel County branch of the NAACP.

Besides being a minister, the elder Chambers was a barber, and ran a shop for years in rented space on Clay Street, then on West Washington Street. When urban renewal forced a number of black-owned businesses to close in the 1960s and '70s, the business moved to West Street.

The shop became Chambers and Sons Barbershop and the minister and all three of his sons worked there as barbers.

Located at 135 West St., across the street from Loews Annapolis Hotel, the shop eventually became Chambers Brothers Barbershop, and closed in 1995. It reopened in January 2009 as My Brother's Keeper Barbershop, and is owned and run by The Rapture Church.

"It looks good; they have done it up nice," John Chambers Jr., then 80 and the only survivor of the three Chambers brothers, said when the shop reopened two years ago.

Chambers is survived by his wife, Hannah Scott Chambers, daughter, Dr. Ursula Watson, son, John Thomas Chambers III and seven grandchildren, Hannah Chambers said.

Funeral arrangements have not been completed, Hannah Chambers said.

The Annapolis city flag will be flown at half-staff until Chambers is laid to rest, the mayor's office announced.
Copyright © Capital Gazette Communications, Inc., 2011.