Unlike the occupant in the White House, Elijah Cummings was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His grandfather was a sharecropper in South Carolina, and his father Robert as a child often had to be taken out of school to help his parents work in the fields. In the 1940’s, his parents moved to Baltimore into what was then a black neighborhood in South Baltimore — in the 1940’s there was no such thing as an integrated neighborhood in Baltimore.
In 1960, when Elijah was nine, the family moved into what until then had been an all-white working class neighborhood of Edmondson Village. I can speak from personal experience as to what happened next. The white grownups in Baltimore of Elijah’s and my childhoods lived in hate and fear — hate of the black, fear that a black family would move onto the block — “Block Busting.” Working class white neighborhoods such as Edmondson Village were especially vulnerable — the modest row houses were affordable to black folks trying to escape their own poverty stricken neighborhoods.
Within days if not weeks of a black family moving in, the For Sale signs went up in front of virtually every row house. I recall at age 18 walking through my own neighborhood of Pimlico. For block after block after block after block, there were For Sale signs in front of virtually every row house. Edmondson Village was the same, leading the way a few years earlier. Real estate agents made a killing. They deliberately picked a neighborhood ripe for blockbusting, encouraged the black family to move in, then sent workers to knock on doors encouraging whites to sell NOW before it’s too late. The leading offender in Edmondson Village was Morris Goldseker, who tricked impoverished black families moving into Edmondson Village to sign contracts in which no equity was built up until the “sales price” was paid in full. According to W. Edward Orser, Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village Story (1994), not a single “buyer” was able to pay the debt in full — every contract resulted in foreclosure, many after years of timely payments, without the evicted family having a penny of equity in the house they thought they had bought.
So, imagine how 9 year old Elijah Cummings must have felt, moving into a new and nicer neighborhood, trying to make friends with the children his age, but these children at best shunning him, at worst cursing him with the N word, and within weeks or months everyone on the block he had moved into was gone. Gone, treated as if he carried some sort of communicable disease, because of the color of his skin.
Fast forward to Labor Day 1962 — Elijah is now 11 years old and no doubt carries the pain of his family’s move into Edmondson Village. He accompanies a group of older children to swim in Riverside Park Pool. The pool was and remains to this day a city owned pool. Until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, all city facilities were segregated, but immediately after the Supreme Court handed down its decision, Maryland Governor Theodore R. McKeldin, and Baltimore City Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro (“Big Tommy” — Nancy Pelosi’s father) ordered the integration of all publicly owned facilities. But executive orders are one thing, custom and practice, and the realities of racial bigotry, are quite another.
So eleven year old Elijah Cummings and 31 companions attempted to go swimming in a city owned swimming pool in a city which has technically integrated all city owned swimming pools and which he has every right to swim in. According to the 1962 Baltimore Sun accounts of the incident, the crowd of angry whites grew to 500 in number, but the children were able to swim, thanks to the protection of about 70 Baltimore City policemen assisted by K-9 dogs. Yet the police were unable or failed to protect the children from the rocks and bottles the whites, screaming the N word and “go back where you came from,” threw at the black children. One of them hit Elijah in his forehead, he bears the scar on his eyebrow to this day. Civil Rights leader Juanita jackson Mitchell, who herself had been hit and was bleeding from a rock or bottle thrown by one of the mob, put her arms around the young boy to protect him from further injury.
Although I didn’t know him, Elijah Cummings and I attended the same high school, Baltimore City College (founded in 1839 when going to high school was like going to college). Congressman Cummings was in the 10th grade while I was a senior in the 12th grade. I am proud that he is one of our alumni.
In contrast, what courageous thing did Donald Trump do at age 11, before he developed his unfortunate condition of bone spurs?