Civil Rights activist Gloria Hayes Richardson was born Gloria St. Clair Hayes on May 6, 1922 in Baltimore, Maryland to parents John and Mabel Hayes. During the Great Depression her parents moved the family to Cambridge, Maryland, the home of Mabel Hayes. Young Gloria grew up in a privileged environment. Her grandfather, Herbert M. St. Clair, was one of the town’s wealthiest citizens. He owned numerous properties in the city’s Second Ward which included a funeral parlor, grocery store and butcher shop. He was also the sole African American member of the Cambridge City Council through most of the early 20th Century.
Hayes enrolled Howard University in Washington at age sixteen and graduated with a degree in sociology in 1942. After Howard, she worked as a civil servant for the federal government in World War II-era Washington, D.C. but returned to Cambridge after the war. Despite her grandfather’s political and economic influence, the Maryland Department of Social Services, for example, refused to hire Hayes or any other black social workers. Gloria Hayes married local school teacher Harry Richardson in 1948 and raised a family for the next thirteen years.
When the civil rights movement came to Cambridge in 1961 in the form of Freedom Riders, the town was thoroughly segregated and the African American unemployment rate was 40 percent. Gloria Richardson’s teenage daughter, Donna, became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) effort to desegregate public accommodations. Richardson, however, refused to commit herself to non-violence as a protest tactic.
When the SNCC-led protests faltered in 1962, Richardson and other parents created the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC) which became the only adult-led SNCC affiliate in the civil rights organization’s history. CNAC enlarged the scope of grievances to include housing and employment discrimination and inadequate health care. Richardson was selected to lead CNAC.
Taking place in a border state rather than the Deep South, the Richardson-led effort differed from most other civil rights campaigns of the era. It addressed a much wider array of issues rather than the one or two that motivated other campaigns. Since Richardson and her followers refused to commit to non-violence as a philosophy or a tactic, CNAC protests were far more violent and confrontational. Protests in 1963, for example, prompted Maryland Governor J. Millard Tawes to send in the National Guard. The Guard remained in the city, which was effectively under martial law, for nearly a year. The Cambridge Movement also drew the attention of U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, who unsuccessfully attempted to broker an agreement between Cambridge’s white political leaders and Richardson’s CNAC.
By the summer of 1964, Richardson resigned from the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee citing, her exhaustion from leading nearly two years of continuous demonstrations. Richardson, who had divorced Harry Richardson in the late 1950s, married freelance photographer Frank Dandridge. The couple moved to New York City with Richardson’s younger daughter, Tamara.
Although she maintained ties with Cambridge and with the local movement, Gloria Richardson never lived in Cambridge again. Richardson died of natural causes on July 15, 2021, in Manhattan, New York. She was 99 years old.