Gloria Richardson sat regal and contemplative in an aquamarine recliner that faced a wall of windows inside her petite Manhattan apartment. Around her, family photos and mementos from a life lived in love and service to Black justice decorated nearly every space within her reach. Shelves of books scaled up her walls—I immediately spotted Jean Toomer’s Cane because I have the same edition. Beams of natural light brightened the living room, but at its center, Richardson exuded her own brilliant radiance.
I had arrived late and flustered, upending all of the calm in the room to meet with this icon of the civil rights movement after my bus arrived almost an hour late from Washington, D.C.
My friends and creative colleagues, videographer Sabrina Thompson Mitchell and photographer Jamaica Gilmer, were there already setting up their photo and video equipment for our interview with the then-96-year-old movement leader, who graciously invited me to catch my breath as I heaved apologies. With her long legs crossed and her fur-lined house shoes on, she waved me into a cushioned chair. “You’re here now,” she said warmly, “and that’s what is important.”
If you don’t know her by name, you know her from images depicting a woman in jeans, slender and strong, flat-palming the blade of a bayonet thrust directly at her by a charging National Guardsman and shoving it away from her body. One of the photographers to most vividly capture Richardson’s expression—a look that bridged disgust with defiance—was Fred Ward, whose indelible portrait of Richardson is now held in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
That scene took place in June 1963 as the seething racial tensions in Richardson’s native Cambridge, Maryland, blistered into three days of intense protests, some of them violent. The image became an allegory for Black people versus the abuses of the government, and later, after the invention of social media, her gesture resurfaced in meme form to represent Black women’s intolerance of anything nonsensical or less than what they deserve. “I don't really know what a side-eye is,” Richardson admitted when I asked if she knew she had all but invented it in that legendary interaction. “I've seen it on the internet, but I figured it must be kind of complimentary.”
Richardson was walking from a meeting when her would-be attacker ran at her with his brandished weapon leveled at her neck. Had its blade completed its trajectory, she could have easily become another martyr of racial combat. But she never flinched, never buckled, never retreated. If Richardson felt intimidated at all that day, particularly in that confrontation, it didn’t show.
“I may have been afraid when I started out in the demonstration, but in that moment, I don’t think I was. I guess it’s like when people go into the army,” she said, recalling the details of her frontline activism. “They’re probably scared at first, but then that sets in and that’s just your life. Your system gets used to that [fear], and you’re not shaking and screaming every second. I think that’s what happened to me and probably some others in the movement there.”
Mitchell, Gilmer and I were honored just to meet Ms. Gloria—that’s how we addressed her that day—and we’d traveled to New York City for the afternoon to sit under the wisdom of a woman who’d been a de facto leader in a time when men were almost always the public faces of civil rights movements and women were almost always the lesser-known tacticians and organizers that made them flourish.
Richardson was different. She was 40 and married with two children when she co-founded the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC) with her cousin’s wife, Inez Grubb, in 1962, the first affiliate of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) not launched by young people. (The average SNCC member, at the time, was 23 years old).
The previous year, Richardson’s eldest daughter, Donna, had begun joining peaceful sit-ins and boycotts when SNCC activists from Morgan State, Johns Hopkins and other Maryland-area colleges recruited local high school students to demonstrate with them. Initially, her mother thought the protests were just for kids, but she followed her daughter into activism when she realized being older didn’t exclude her from being involved, and she shaped the CNAC into a platform for demanding not just civil rights but human rights.
After a trip to Canada, Richardson returned to Cambridge with even more clarity. “It was the first experience of feeling perfectly normal and human,” she told Ebony magazine in 1964. “It was as if a big burden was lifted from my shoulders.”
She wanted other Black men and women to experience that freedom from fear, inaccessibility and disenfranchisement, too. Her focus for CNAC, from early on, was on the action. Demanding jobs, health care resources and safe, equitable housing, she felt, aligned with the desegregation that was happening, albeit reluctantly, in other parts of the country but remained elusive for Cambridge’s Black residents, who made up one-third of the town’s population of 12,000.
Cambridge is located along the Eastern Shore of the storied Chesapeake Bay about an hour from Annapolis. Prominent civil rights leaders working on a national scope dismissed the unrest in the tiny town—even Martin Luther King Jr. refused Richardson’s initial request for help—because they mistakenly believed that the most urgent turmoil existed only in southern states well below the Mason-Dixon Line. (Three years later, King would expand his focus to the North and announce his Chicago Freedom Movement.) The protests in Maryland would eventually be dubbed the “Cambridge Riots,” the first major civil rights event to erupt outside of the Deep South, and Richardson was the central figure and mastermind of negotiations with local and national government officials.
“[History likes] to call them riots, but they were shoot-outs. Because at night, cars would come by shooting at our houses,” she told us. “It was more like a war. I mean, there were times when you couldn’t even go out in the street because the shooting back and forth was so bad.”
Black folks were armed. White folks were armed. With the entire town on edge and ready to fire, then-Maryland Governor J. Millard Tawes enacted martial law and deployed 425 guardsmen into the town, along with 150 state troopers and 17 local police officers.
“Quite candidly, the situation could erupt into serious shooting,” Lee White, special counsel to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote in a 1963 White House memo. “Many Negroes are armed, and the National Guard is understandably nervous since a National Guardsman (incidentally a Negro) was wounded two days ago.”
That fury doesn’t just happen. It’s cultivated from a daily, monthly, yearly accumulation of indignities, abuses, denials, rejections, assaults and oppressions. Eventually, that tinder is going to catch fire. In Cambridge, the two sides of a shared city were literally divided by the myopically named Race Street.
The insult of segregation was further compounded by economic stressors for the town’s largely working-class Black population. Richardson respected and, for the most part, followed the ethos of nonviolence but believed in Black people’s right to defend and protect themselves when confrontation was imminent or necessary. That put her in the crosshairs of criticism from other leaders, including King and SNCC chairman John Lewis, who tried to convince her to be more accommodating and less confrontational, but Richardson refused to back down or mellow out. Later, when King could make time to come to Cambridge, Richardson rebuffed his offer. “We can’t deal with her; we can’t deal without her,” one white member of the segregationist Citizens’ Council complained of her.
Richardson didn’t become an activist by her own design. Her poise was molded by an affluent family devoted to community service in Cambridge’s Second Ward. Her father, John Hayes, was a pharmacist; her grandfather, Herbert Maynadier St. Clair, arguably the wealthiest and most influential Black man in Cambridge, was the son of a well-to-do butcher, an entrepreneur several times over and a city councilman for more than 50 years. Yet segregation barred him from attending the council’s annual banquet—instead, his plate of food was delivered to him at home.
After Richardson graduated from Howard University in 1942, freshly educated with a degree in sociology and experienced in protesting instances of segregation in Washington, D.C., she returned to her hometown to work in her family’s funeral parlor, grocery store, rental properties and other businesses, but the direct and indirect indignities of segregation and systemic racism defined her drive for change.
“She benefited from her family’s privilege. In fact, she talks about how the SNCC leaders were somewhat responsible for encouraging her to take a leadership role when they came to Cambridge because of her family's economic status in the town. They knew that the city leaders could not retaliate by either firing her or evicting her,” explains Kelly Navies, a museum specialist of oral history at NMAAHC, where a 90-minute interview of Richardson resides as part of the Civil Rights History Project, a collaboration between the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. “She lived in a home owned by her grandfather. She had a family that would take care of her. She didn't have the same limitations as other people because of her class.”
Still, Navies says, when Richardson came back to Cambridge after graduation, she wasn't able to find a white-collar job that reflected her education and skills. “So in that sense, regardless of her class, she still experienced racial discrimination in that town,” says Navies. For a time, Richardson worked in a factory, which gave her a chance to see what making a living was like for people who did not have degrees.
As they fought for freedom for all Black people, women in the movement fought simultaneous battles with sexism for themselves, and the civil rights movement offered no protection from its marginalization.
In 1963, Richardson was one of six “Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” grudgingly invited to speak at the historic March on Washington alongside Daisy Bates, Rosa Parks, Myrlie Evers, Prince Lee and Diane Nash, but she only managed the briefest “hello” to the crowd of 250,000 before the mic was snatched from her. Women, she would say in later comments, were intentionally silenced that day. If she had been allowed to speak, she would have told the people to stand their ground. “We were two or three days off from voting, and I was going to tell them: don't leave the grounds until the Civil Rights Bill has passed,” she remembered.
Later that summer, she met with U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to negotiate an agreement based on CNAC demands. Also an advisor to the president, Kennedy was the only political leader Richardson considered an ally and, in a nine-hour negotiating mega-session that included local Cambridge leaders, Justice Department officials and activists like John Lewis, she reached an agreement historically called “The Treaty of Cambridge” with the Kennedy administration—no more demonstrations for a year in exchange for desegregation.
The agreement forged a fragile peace that didn’t last long, partly because the all-white citizen’s association opposed the move that called for, among other progresses, desegregation of public spaces and the first four grades of Dorchester County schools, federal housing assistance and improved consideration for Black job seekers. For Richardson, it was a step, not a victory, and she barely eked out a smile when Kennedy teased her for being so serious. At the press conference following the negotiation, Richardson encouraged Black folks to oppose the proposed referendum, because it would keep segregation intact.
“In Cambridge, we weren't trying to change people's minds. We were trying to break the city and state, and apparently did a pretty good job, financially. We thought that's the only thing that white folks cared about anyhow,” she said of the impact protests had on the city’s flow of money.
After almost two years of occupation, the longest imposed on any community since Reconstruction, the National Guard were called back, and Richardson resigned from her leadership in the movement in 1964, burnt out from consecutive years of demonstrations, protests and intensive strategizing.
She moved to New York City with her second husband, photographer Frank Dandridge, and never returned to live in Cambridge again, though she continued to advise from a distance and serve her community in Harlem and Manhattan.
Inside the sunny apartment in bustling Union Square, as Gilmer snapped pictures, Richardson nodded with approval and camaraderie when the photographer related that she also had graduated from Howard University.
“Girl, what I knew was the photograph,” Gilmer recalls when I asked what she’d first learned about Richardson and her leadership. “I don't remember how old I was, but I was very young, and I was enthralled because the way she looked at the guard with the bayonet was mesmerizing. I felt a connection to her because I also had a lot of passion, and I also had a lot of anger about what was happening to me and my family and my people specifically.”
“That one picture in particular sticks out for me,” Mitchell adds. “For her to have that bravery back then—she was being defiant, and she probably had no clue she'd been photographed. There were no camera phones back then. She wasn't doing it for the ‘Gram.'”
We spent close to two hours with Richardson, joking with her about her stylish athleisure wear, taking breaks as needed, asking her permission following her photo and video shoots to pose for a selfie right before we zipped into our coats to venture back out into the early March chill.
Richardson died in July 2021 after living her awesome 99 years of life with passion and intelligence and dedication to the empowerment of entire communities.
Her list of accomplishments is long, her work for the people legendary, her life an investment in justice and equity for folks who look like her, but she’s not a household name. I never asked her directly, but I sensed she was okay with that.
The state of Maryland, however, now recognizes her legacy with the dedication of February 11 as “Gloria Richardson Day.” The iconic image of her, a determined Black woman pushing danger and impediment out of her determined Black woman way is representative of her fierceness as a civil rights leader in Cambridge and beyond. I intended to write about her before she passed away. She will never get the chance to read how much I admired her and how much that day—as off-script and off-schedule as it turned out to be—was an honor for the three young Black women she invited and welcomed into her rarified orbit.