A History of Black Women's Charitable Work in Baltimore

During Women’s History Month there is no shortage of women to highlight whose contributions have brought positive change to the nation and the world. Often neglected are women whose tireless activism within their local communities are overlooked in history books. Their contributions, however, are no less valuable.

This is the case for the Rosebud Charity Club of Baltimore, Maryland, a group of Black women who gave back to their community through charitable deeds to make life better for those in need. They can best be described as what historian Rhonda Williams refers to as “community mothers”--those who “implemented programs to address people’s everyday needs.”

There initial charitable efforts began with organizing Christmas basket and gift deliveries to health facilities such as the Henryton State Hospital, which housed African Americans suffering from tuberculous and moderate mental illness. The club also provided food, clothing, religious and educational instruction, in addition to other necessities such as funds for an amputee who was able to receive a transtibial prosthesis. The Rosebuds, as they were popularly known, were well regarded throughout the city, and state of Maryland. Their charitable efforts extended to the nation’s capital and Virginia; and reached as far as Mississippi, Louisiana, and Indiana. On November 7, 1948, Mrs. Victoria Sully organized a group of women comprised of family friends Mrs. Rosie Watts and Mrs. Sarah Frances Lewis; her sisters Mrs. Althea

Nettles, Mrs. Rosalee Hennigan, Mrs. Mary Jones, and their mother Mrs. Mary Frances Thompson Gray to form The Rosebud Social and Savings Club. This meeting took place at 2227 North Howard Street in east Baltimore. The Gray women, as they were known in their former rural community of King George County, Virginia, migrated to the city in the early 1940s. They were members of a prominent family in King George County; the family patriarch Mr. George Allen Gray was the wealthiest African American landowner in the county. They were pillars in the Good Hope Baptist Church, the first African American church in the county, and they were known for their generosity. “We were better off than most of the Blacks and whites,” said Rosebud Mrs. Frances Gray James. “Papa and Mama never turned anyone away.”

Following the migration from a farm community in which the needs of their neighbors were only apparent when they received a knock at the front door, to the close living quarters of a 1940s segregated Baltimore, the Rosebuds decided to change the direction and name of the organization to the Rosebud Charity Club. Their primary goal was to help needy families and participate more fully in the struggle for civil rights. The Rosebuds were avid readers of the Afro American Newspaper, which “crusaded for racial equality and economic advancement for Black Americans” since its establishment by John Henry Murphy, Sr. in 1892. They became actively involved with the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which by 1946 was one of the largest branches (now the organization’s headquarters) in the country and known for its female leadership. Lillian Carroll Jackson served as president of the chapter from 1935 to 1970. Jackson’s empowering image and influence proved instrumental in the Rosebuds’ decision to become NAACP lifetime members.

The Rosebud Charity Club receives NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award at Wayland Baptist Church, circa. 1975 Courtesy of Mrs. Frances L. James).

The Black church played a fundamental role in the Rosebud's civil engagement. In an effort to increase their outreach, the Rosebud women collaborated with their home church, Unity Baptist. It was one of dozens of Black churches in Baltimore at the time, which built upon a long and rich history of Black social activism in the city. By the mid-nineteenth century, Baltimore possessed “the largest denominational variety of African American churches in the country,” from Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church founded in 1787 to Bethel AME incorporated in 1811 to the Oblate Sisters of Providence--an order of Black Nuns founded in 1829 in Fells Point, an area of the city where Frederick Douglass made his daring escape a decade later.

Black churches in Baltimore continued as a hub for civil rights activism during the twentieth century with women at the helm. Two young sisters Juanita and Virginia Jackson, for example, organized a City-wide Young Peoples’ forum at Sharp Street in the 1930s to challenge discrimination in housing and employment--advocacy that continued throughout the post World War II era.

The Rosebuds were a reflection of the long tradition of charitable organizations that provided relief to many throughout the Charm City.

The Rosebuds also participated in voter registration drives, which were instrumental in two historic elections when Verda Freeman Welcome became the first Black woman elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, and in 1962 when she was elected to the Maryland Senate to become America’s first Black female state Senator. By this time, segregation had begun to lose its grip on the city. Baltimore was also undergoing drastic changes as whole neighborhoods were forced to relocate because of the city’s urban renewal agenda and white flight.

The Rosebuds relocated to west Baltimore during this period, and continued their charitable activities as members of Wayland Baptist Church. Following the deaths of Mmes. Gray, Watson, Sully, and Lewis, the Rosebud Charity Club became a family organization comprised of seven sisters and two nieces. Additional members included Mrs. Margaret Valentine, Mrs. Iola Beverly, Mrs. Lillian Martin, Mrs. Florence Burke, and Mrs. Clara McCrea.

The Rosebuds did not miss a beat. These nine women continued their charity work in Baltimore, raising money for various social and political causes with their biannual dinner sales, cross-country eight day scenic and historic tours, baby contest, and church events. Always looking for an opportunity to educate the community about Black History, the Rosebuds invited Frank Wills, the Black security guard who discovered the Watergate break-in, to speak during a Sunday evening program in 1979. Before that event, which drew hundreds of local residents, few knew that a Black man was a Watergate hero. By the end of the decade, their steadfast devotion to community service had been honored with an NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Ms. Susan Murphy of the famous Murphy family of Baltimore.

The Rosebuds continued their charitable work until 2000. Today there are three surviving Rosebuds: Mrs. Hennigan (97), Mrs. James (95), and Mrs. McCrea (92). While their charitable work is finished, the legacy of the Rosebud Charity Club continues in the numerous organizations in Baltimore, which are working tirelessly to bring about positive change in the community.

About the Author

Arica L. Coleman is a historian whose research focuses on comparative ethnic studies and issues of racial formation and identity. Her additional research interests include indigeneity, immigration/migration, interracial relations, mixed race identity, race and gender intersections, sexuality, the politics of race and science, and popular culture. She is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia.