Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)


Bea Gaddy (1933-2001)
MSA SC 3520-14532


Beatrice Frankie Fowler Brooks Gaddy, often called Bea Gaddy or simply “Miss Bea,” was born on February 20, 1933, in Wake Forest, North Carolina to Novella Davis Young and Mottie Fowler, Sr.1  Gaddy had two natural brothers, one older and one younger, as well as several half siblings from her mother’s second marriage.2

Gaddy’s childhood, like that of many Americans who grew up during the Depression, was difficult and forced her to face the harsh realities of poverty at an early age.  Her stepfather was a particularly abusive and violent man, and contributed to the economic struggle of the family by his excessive drinking.  Encounters with her drunken stepfather often left Gaddy and her older brother hungry and scavenging for food in the garbage bins behind the town’s grocery stores.  Gaddy recalled in a 1989 profile written about her in the Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine that:  

Many days, we didn’t eat because, when my mother didn’t work and couldn’t bring home leftover food, there was nothing to eat.  And even when there was food, if my stepfather had been drinking, he’d come home and throw our plates out in the back yard or through the window.3
Gaddy’s stepfather terrorized the family to the extent that her younger brother was sent to live with an aunt.  Gaddy and her older brother, however, were not so lucky and spent much of their childhoods living in fear of the man who abused them as well as their mother.4  In speaking about her childhood, Gaddy noted that:
Many nights me and my older brother were gotten out of bed and he’d just run us all over that little town.  He would tell us that we were not his children.  And that’s when we learned how to eat behind the stores.  We were scared to go home so we would eat from the bins.5
The difficulties of the Depression coupled with her dysfunctional family life kept Gaddy from enjoying many aspects of her childhood, particularly holidays.  She once spoke of a Christmas when she “woke up and there was nothing.  Nothing at all.  No tree, no presents, not even any food.”6

Eventually Gaddy attempted to escape her family by marrying her first husband, a man who was described as “good but without means or dreams."7  In Bea’s own words, she got married to “leave home.  I got married just to have a place.  And that turned out to be ten times worse.”8  Gaddy followed her drifter-husband to New York City, where they lived off welfare and moved every month because the family could not make rent payments.  Tragically, Gaddy’s husband was murdered by an acquaintance, leaving her to fend for herself and support their children.9

Her years in New York as a struggling mother with several children  were especially difficult for Gaddy.  Money was always a problem and on one occasion, Gaddy simply walked away from an apartment because she knew the sheriff was coming to evict her.  She recalled that, “it was easier to walk away.  I can say it now.  ‘Cause I’ve started over many times.  It just hurts so much to see that sheriff come and take all your stuff and set it outside in the streets.  So humiliating.”10

By her mid-twenties, Gaddy had been married twice and was living alone with her five children.  Struggling as a single mother desperate to support her family and with no real connections in New York, Gaddy looked up an old friend from North Carolina, Elvis Lee Allen, who was then living in Baltimore, .11  With his help, she relocated her family to the city in 1964, though poverty and hardship seemed to follow.12  One winter was particularly difficult as financial stress forced the family to live without heat or electricity and yet remarkably, it was this winter that marked a turning point in Gaddy’s life:  

I had a lot of time that winter to sit down and think about what being poor and hungry does to a person inside.  I never wanted anybody to know I was in such bad shape because you think being poor and hungry is all your fault…Then I just started asking people to help me.  And that helped me help myself.13
In trying to feed her children, Gaddy held a series of jobs in Baltimore, one of which brought her into contact with another individual whose help greatly impacted the course of her life.  While working as a crossing guard for the Baltimore City Police Department, Gaddy often visited the office of Bernard Potts, a local attorney and businessman, to warm up in the cold weather.  Potts saw potential in Gaddy and urged her to complete her high school education, which she did through a correspondence course.14  Potts further encouraged Gaddy to pursue a college degree program, so she enrolled in mental health classes at Catonsville Community College.  Pott’s interest and consideration for Gaddy paid off, and in 1977 the still-single mother of five earned a Bachelor of Arts in Human Services from Antioch University.15  Gaddy so appreciated Potts’ influence in her life that she once described him as “the grandfather, I never had.”16

Beginning in the 1980s, Gaddy started using the pain and disappointment of her earlier years, coupled with successes of her years in Baltimore, to channel her energy into helping those around her.  Still extremely poor herself, Gaddy’s earliest work focused on simply feeding her neighbors as well as her own family.  Amazed at the simplicity of asking store owners for leftover food, Gaddy realized that she had the ability to gather what she needed to feed her children and neighbors merely by asking for it.  Using a garbage can, Gaddy began soliciting food from local vendors with such success that she thought to herself “Ain’t nothing going to stop me now.”17

Bea Gaddy’s earliest relief work started rather unexpectedly when she used fifty cents she had found to buy a lottery ticket – a ticket that ended up winning her $290.  Gaddy used this money to feed 39 of her neighbors, which effectively marked the beginning of her emergency relief work in Baltimore.18

In many ways Gaddy’s earlier struggles with homelessness and hunger drove her work in Baltimore, as she sought to battle her own past by reaching out to those in need around her:  

You know, we talk about homelessness.  Well, I was really only homeless one night in my life, but in another way I’ve been homeless all my life until I came to Baltimore.  And everything I do for people today is what I’ve always wanted people to do for me.  To feed me, to care for me, give me warmth, to show me where I was wrong and put me on the right path.19
Bea Gaddy understood firsthand the hardships, humiliation and feelings of self-worthlessness that accompanied poverty, hunger and homelessness, thus she was able to reach the needy of her community in a unique and direct way.  This directness often characterized Gaddy’s work as she used a hands-on, grassroots approach to fulfilling the needs of her neighbors.

One of Gaddy’s biggest relief concerns was hunger, and as she had often remarked that “hunger was my constant childhood companion” this is hardly surprising.20  As a result, on October 1, 1981, Gaddy opened her soon-famous Patterson Park Emergency Food Center.21  Though it started off small and was driven by Gaddy’s solicitation of local food vendors with her wheeled-trashcan, the Center is now run as a non-profit corporation.  True to its humble beginnings, the Center relies on the work of volunteers and the donations of local companies as well as private individuals.  On any given day Gaddy’s center feeds between 50-150 people, and since she began keeping records in 1981, Gaddy estimated that she had served more than 100,000 families.22

While her Emergency Food Center perhaps did more to help the poor of Baltimore than any of her other efforts, Gaddy is best remembered for her annual free Thanksgiving dinners.  Like her other work, the Thanksgiving Dinner relies on donations and volunteers and was at one point carried out at her home.  The popularity of the event, however, necessitated a larger location and the dinner was moved to Dunbar Middle School.

Since its inception, the crowd at the annual event grew steadily to nearly 20,000 and requires a massive amount of donation and organization. The Washington Post reported in 2001 that the meal consisted of 80 tons of food, 30,000 paper plates, 50 cases of aluminum foil, 2,000 pumpkin pies and 100 cases of sweet potatoes.  According to The Post, the 2001 dinner relied on 3,500 volunteers who fed 20,000 people.23

In addition to her daily work at the Emergency Food Center and her yearly dinners, Gaddy also became involved in running a furniture bank, renovating and refurbishing abandoned row homes, running summer youth programs and speaking out on the necessity of voter education.  Shortly before her death, Gaddy also became an ordained minister so that she could marry and bury the poor at no cost to them.  Gaddy’s East Baltimore row house became the center of all of these various operations and worked under the name of the “Bea Gaddy Center for Women and Children.”24

The extensive reach of Gaddy’s volunteer activities required massive amounts of planning and organization, and yet the grassroots nature of her work often made accurate record-keeping nearly impossible.  In 1994, Gaddy faced criticism from The Baltimore Sun pertaining to her allegedly poor record-keeping practices, and yet in the face of such censure, Gaddy managed to maintain a positive attitude and retorted that “You’re going to be criticized.  They criticized God and they finally killed him” adding “Not that I’m worth his toenails.”25

As if managing so many different outreach operations was not enough, Gaddy became involved in local politics, winning a place on the Baltimore City Council in 1999.  Sworn in on December 9, 1999, Gaddy “pledged to bring a citizen’s voice back to the council” and planned on using her familiarity with Baltimore’s poor to her advantage.26  Gaddy won a seat on the Council from the Second District, winning by a clear margin.27  Prior to her election, The Baltimore Sun, who had so harshly criticized Gaddy several years before, heartily endorsed her with:  

Democratic primary winner Bea Gaddy, who’s work with the homeless and hungry is synonymous with civic commitment in Baltimore, also deserves election.  Ms. Gaddy has displayed far more compassion for her constituents than virtually any incumbent council member.”28
In 2001, Gaddy’s potential on the City Council was largely unrealized as her term was cut short by her death in October of that year.  Those involved in Baltimore politics spoke very highly of her.  Mayor Martin O’Malley commented that, “She’s closer to the very poor than anyone else.  She can be instrumental in finding a better way to provide homeless services."29

Gaddy’s presence undoubtedly did much to lift the spirits of the poor in her district as well as throughout the city.  In a 2001 article in Baltimore Magazine, reporter Jim Brochin noted that in walking the streets of Baltimore, Gaddy was “greeted like a conquering hero” by her constituents and that “the people of the Second District now feel as if they have someone fighting for them on the inside."30  Joan Floyd, who worked with Gaddy on her various relief efforts and was the founding director of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance commented that Gaddy was “encouraging us to empower ourselves as a neighborhood” and that “We got the sense that as we improved the neighborhood, she would be right there with us.  Her presence is a real plus.”31

For her extensive work, Gaddy received countless awards throughout her life, including the Unsung Hero Award (1972), Afro American Woman of the Year (1984), Baltimore’s Best (1984), National Council of Negro Women Humanitarian Award (1988), Mayor’s Citation (1988) as well as the Baltimore City Council Award (1987, 1989).  Gaddy was also honored as the 695th point of light by former President George Bush as part of his “1,000 Points of Light” campaign.32  In 1991, Family Circle magazine recognized her in the article “Women Who Made a Difference” and in 1992 she was named “Marylander of the Year” by The Baltimore Sun.33  Posthumously, the Maryland Commission for Women inducted her into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2006.

Bea Gaddy’s tireless work caused her to sacrifice many things, one of which was her health.  Despite the fact that she felt a lump growing in her breast, Gaddy refused to seek medical attention or acknowledge that she was ill.  First diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, Gaddy’s cancer went into remission, only to return fatally in 2001.  On October 3, 2001, Bea Gaddy passed away at the age of 68, leaving her children and friends to carry on her work.  As a testament to her lasting power, Gaddy’s daughters, Sandra Briggs and Cynthia Campbell have successfully managed to coordinate the annual Thanksgiving dinner, as well as working on many of her other outreach projects.  In 2003, two years after Gaddy’s death, her supporters still managed to feed more than 17,000 people at Thanksgiving.34

Bea Gaddy attained almost legendary status in and around the Baltimore region throughout her lifetime, inspiring countless others to engage in outreach programs in their own neighborhoods.  Jamie Ridgley, a young girl from Manchester in rural Carroll County, was just one young person inspired by the activist.  After hearing about Gaddy, Ridgley decided to found “Helping Hands” and used a small wagon to collect canned foods from her neighbors.  Bea Gaddy soon heard about the young girl and met her outside of a supermarket to help collect food and inspire yet more people to get involved.35

The tall tale of “Balldemer Bea” is yet another example of her mythic-like role within the Baltimore community.  Third graders in Harford County created the character of “Balldemer Bea,” giving her larger-than-life characteristics of the real woman and reflecting the extent to which Bea Gaddy’s charitable work was respected throughout the greater community.  The school children claimed that:  

On the day she was born, she baked her own birthday cake…She could bake a 2,000 layer cake in four seconds.  She was such a good cook that whenever people smelled her cooking, there were lines, miles long, at her door.36
The third graders at Roye-Williams Elementary school also claimed that “Balldemer Bea” read 200 cookbooks a day and caught 1 million crabs from the Chesapeake Bay that she used to make free crab sandwiches for the homeless.  While obviously these stories were influenced by a healthy dose of childhood imagination, they nevertheless reflect elements of truth and in many ways mirror the celebrated status that Gaddy enjoyed from the appreciative adult community in Baltimore.37

Despite Gaddy’s untimely death, her message of caring for the less-fortunate and her legacy of selfless giving have endured.  In 2002, the first “Annual Bea Gaddy Day” was celebrated on the anniversary of her death and marked a city-wide food drive to promote poverty and hunger awareness in Baltimore.38  On June 6, 2002, the Bea Gaddy Cancer Education and Prevention Center opened and has since worked to provide free cancer screenings and health education to Baltimore residents.39  Gaddy’s work earned her the popular titles “Mother Teresa of Baltimore” and “St. Bea” – titles undoubtedly deserved due not only to the work she did throughout her lifetime, but also to the work continuing in her name.


1. M. Dion Thompson, "Fond Farewell for Bea Gaddy: Church Overflows with Mourners for Homeless Advocate,"  The Baltimore Sun, 10 October 2001; "Beatrice Gaddy," Who's Who Among
    African Americans, 16th edition Gale Group, 2003 (Biography Resource Center).

2. Alice Steinbach.  "Bea Gaddy: A Hunger to Help."  Sunday Sun Magazine, 1 January 1989, 10.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Paul Hendrickson, "The Angel Who Spread Her Wings: Bea Gaddy Has a Home Now," The Washington Post, 28 November 1991.

7. Ibid.

8. Steinbach, 10.

9. Ibid.

10. Hendrickson.

11. Ibid.

12. Jacques Kelly, Frederick M. Rasmussen, M. Dion Thompson, "Advocate 'Was Always on a Mission' for Poor," The Baltimore Sun, 4 October 2001.

13. Ibid.

14. Steinbach, 10.

15. "Editorial," The Baltimore Sun, 1 September 1999; Nancy Trejos, "Cornucopia of Gratitude for One Woman's Heart: Baltimore Dinner for Homeless Recalls Founder," The Washington Post, 23 November 2001.

16. Hendrickson.

17. Kelly.

18. Nancy Trejos, "Cornucopia of Gratitude for One Woman's Heart," The Washington Post, 23 November 2001.

19. Steinbach, 10.

20. Gregory Kane, "City Thanks Gaddy for Showing Us How to Help the Poor," The Baltimore Sun, 10 October 2001.

21. Kelly.

22. Steinbach, 9.

23. Darragh Johnson, "Baltimore Poor Lose 'Beacon of Hope': Bea Gaddy Survived Poverty to Feed and Fight for the City's Neediest Residents," The Washington Post, 4 October 2001.

24. Ibid.

25. Laura Lippman, "City's 'Mother Teresa' Fails on Finances," The Baltimore Sun, 29 May 1994.

26. Gerard Sheilds, "City Council is Sworn in," The Baltimore Sun, 10 December 1999.

27. "Telegraph," The Baltimore Sun, 4 November 1999.

28. "Santoni, Brown Picked to Pep up City Council," The Baltimore Sun, 25 October 1999.

29. Jim Brochin, "The Education of Bea Gaddy," Baltimore Magazine, January 2001, 45.

30. Ibid., 46.

31. Ibid.

32. Johnson.

33. Brochin, 36; Kelly.

34. Trejos.

35. Johnson.

36.  Tanya Jones, "Gaddy's Facts Impress Pupils More Than Fiction," The Baltimore Sun, 2 April 1995.

37. Johnson; Jones.

38.  "Second Annual Bea Gaddy Day Planned," The Daily Record (Baltimore), 2 October 2003.

39. Valerie Matthews Mehl, "News From the Sydney Kimmel Cancer Center: Bullseye! Researchers Nab the Develop Therapy for Leathal Leukemia," Phi Kappa Phi Forum 83, no.1 (2003).

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