Gloria Richardson, the first woman to lead a prolonged grassroots civil rights movement outside the Deep South and one of the nation’s leading female civil rights advocates, died Thursday (July 15) at age 99.
Richardson’s granddaughter, Tya Young, said Richardson died in her sleep in New York City and had not been ill, Associated Press reports. Young told AP that, while her grandmother was a pioneer of the civil rights movement, Richardson did not seek praise or recognition.
“She did it because it needed to be done, and she was born a leader,” Young said.
Richardson was born in Baltimore and later lived in Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in the same county where Harriet Tubman was born. She began her activist career after entering Howard University at age 16, where she protested segregation at a DC drugstore.
In 1962, Richardson led the Cambridge Movement, where she helped organize sit-ins to desegregate restaurants, movie theaters, and bowling alleys. During the Cambridge Movement, she was photographed pushing away the rifle of a National Guardsman.
Joseph R. Fitzgerald, who wrote the 2018 biography The Struggle is Eternal: Gloria Richardson and Black Liberation, told AP, “I say that the Cambridge Movement was the soil in which Richardson planted a seed of Black power and nurtured its growth. Everything that the Black Lives Matter movement is working at right now is a continuation of what the Cambridge Movement was doing.”
Richardson also advocated for the right of Black people to defend themselves when attacked. In a 2018 interview with Topic, Richardson said, “I didn’t believe in non-violence if people were coming shooting into your houses. It was just people whose lives were at stake and in danger and it was a life and death situation almost every day.”
The Cambridge sit-ins turned violent in the summer of 1963 and Governor J. Millard Tawes declared martial law under the National Guard. Cambridge Mayor Calvin Mowbray asked Richardson to end the protests in exchange for a promise not to arrest Black protestors, but Richardson refused to compromise.
While the city was still under martial law, Richardson met with U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to negotiate what became informally known as the “Treaty of Cambridge,” which ended segregation in public accomodations in Cambridge in exchange for a one-year ban on demonstrations. While Richardson did sign the treaty, the unrest continued in Cambridge until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Richardson also stood on the stage at the 1963 March on Washington as one of six women called “fighters for freedom,” though was only allowed to say “hello” before the microphone was taken from her.
Richardson led the Cambridge, Maryland, Nonviolent Action Committee for three years before her resignation in 1964. After her resignation, Richardson married photographer Frank Dandridge and moved to New York, where she worked a variety of jobs including a stint at the National Council for Negro Women.
Richardson is survived by her daughters, Donna Orange and Tamara Richardson, and her granddaughters, Young and Michelle Price.