On the afternoon of Saturday, May 31, the horseshoe bar atop the Captain James Landing restaurant in Canton was packed with activists, communists, and residents of Southeast Baltimore's Washington Hill community. Standing against the walls and sitting on the floor, children, their parents, and grandparents sang protest songs and toasted the life of a man of whose unwavering belief in economic and racial equality and his commitment to fighting for them had inspired them all.
Howard Silverberg, a labor organizer, founding member of several community organizations, and member of the Communist Party of Maryland, died May 27 of complications from pneumonia. He was 86 years old.
Born April 30, 1917, in Winston-Salem, N.C., Silverberg moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., as a child with his parents. There, soon after the Pearl Harbor attack of Dec. 7, 1941, he joined the merchant marines, served during World War II, and became a member of the National Maritime Union.
After the war, he moved to Baltimore with his first wife, Regina, and worked at the shipyards at Sparrows Point. There, Silverberg was active in labor organization and other forms of social activism. In 1948, he attended a racially integrated tennis match at Druid Hill Park in protest of the city's policy of segregating public parks. The police arrested several of the protesters but left Silverberg alone, reportedly deeming the solidly built 6-foot-4 man too big to arrest.
Silverberg joined the Communist Party in New York during the 1930s and was active in the Maryland party as well. "They were for workers' rights, for general improvement of economic conditions, for equal rights for blacks. It was right up my alley," Silverberg told George Cerny during a 2002 interview for a City Paper story on the Communist Party of Maryland ("Seeing Red," May 29, 2002). In 1951 Silverberg was called before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. He took the fifth and was kicked out of the National Maritime Union and lost several jobs.
"The thing that sticks in my mind the most about Howard was his complete absence of bitterness," Cerny says. "We talked for close to two hours, and he never expressed anything like regret or self-pity. He had been through a lot--McCarthyism, WWII, the Depression, in addition to all the things that must happen over 80 years--but he didn't express any regrets."
A fellow communist who worked with Silverberg frequently over the years and requested her name not be revealed says, "He was a very respected person in the Left and the progressive movement. He got involved and voted with his feet."
And it is voting with his feet--for not just having ideals but figuring out ways to make them a reality--for which Silverberg is best remembered. In 1971 his neighborhood, Washington Hill, was so rundown and the houses in such poor condition that the city planned to demolish most of it. Silverberg, along with other residents, formed the Citizens for Washington Hill, successfully fought the city's plan, and revitalized the neighborhood.
He also helped develop the Washington Hill Homes Co-op, was one of the founders of the Southeast Community Organization, campaigned to get hazardous waste out of the Monument Street landfill, and ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 1983 with the campaign slogan "People Before Profits." Simon Hemby, current president of Citizens for Washington Hill, remembers Silverberg as a "voice of reason around the table."
"It's hard to imagine a community meeting without Howard's rumbling voice," says Joan Burns, a member of Citizens for Washington Hill.
Silverberg, who donated his body to science, didn't want a funeral. So his second wife, Jeanne Dresser, friends, family, and colleagues gathered instead at Captain James Landing. And while tears were shed, there was frequent laughter. People joked about Silverberg's love for bad puns, his enthusiastic dancing, his intimidating stature, and his gentle nature. "We have big shoes to fill. Howard had big feet," joked Tim Wheeler editor of the Peoples Weekly World, the newspaper of the Communist Party USA.
To the end, Silverberg was a devoted communist and activist. In March, at 85 years old, Silverberg stood downtown at the War Memorial Plaza with more than 130 protesters in the pouring rain to voice his objection to the war in Iraq. Margaret Baldridge, a longtime friend and comrade, visited Silverberg the night before he died and found him as funny and sharp as ever. On her way out, she says, he called to her, "Tell everyone on the outside I said 'hi.' And tell them that Howie said give 'em hell."
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