Friday, Jan. 18, 2008

Britt remembered for a lifetime of service

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
At a memorial for Gwendolyn T. Britt in the state Senate chamber on Thursday, husband Travis Britt (left) and sons John (center) and Travis Jr. listen to tributes from her friends and colleagues. The senator and civil rights activist died at 66 Saturday of apparent heart failure.
Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt began changing the world well before her involvement in the civil rights movement, her friends and family recalled.

Brentwood Mayor Bettyjean Bailey-Schmiedigen remembered their days together at McKinley Technical High School in Washington in the 1950s. Bailey-Schmiedigen, a white student, needed help with some math problems and sought the help of Britt, then Gwendolyn Greene. Britt was black, and it was socially unacceptable for the two of them to work together, but they did so anyway.

‘‘There was this little dividing line [between] whites and blacks, and my friend said, ‘Oh you can’t get help from [Gwendolyn],’” Bailey-Schmiedigen recalled. ‘‘But I needed some help, so we would meet after classes, and she would coach me.”

Britt, 66, who died of apparent heart failure Saturday at Doctor’s Community Hospital in Lanham, continued to break down barriers during her life.

Before her first election to the District 47 state Senate seat in 2002 — when she defeated a delegate and former state senator — Britt, a Democrat, had compiled an extensive record of civil rights work.

‘‘Gwen changed the world before she got here,” said Lisa A. Gladden (D-Dist. 41) of Baltimore on Thursday during a Senate tribute.

Britt fought to desegregate Montgomery County’s Glen Echo Park in 1960 and later joined the Freedom Riders and challenged Jim Crow laws in the South.

Britt planned to continue her civil rights battle in the current legislative session with a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, something her husband, Travis Britt, said was one of her main goals.

‘‘She began her life breaking laws ... and ended her life making laws,” said Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach.

Travis Britt said his wife was passionate about helping the community, describing her as the type of person who worked hard to get things accomplished but did not boast about her achievements.

‘‘She wouldn’t confide in me about what she was going to do. She would go out and do it and then tell me what she had done,” he said.

Travis Britt said in the 46 years his wife had worked, he never knew of her to take a sick day — she rarely admitted to being sick — until she did not attend the Senate session on Jan. 11.

‘‘I guess I should have known something was wrong,” he said.

On Thursday, Britt’s Senate colleagues held a memorial for her with her family in attendance.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) told Britt’s family that she was ‘‘one of the strongest and classiest senators that ever walked these floors.”

Recalling an inscription from a memorial of activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Dist. 24) of Capitol Heights said Britt, like Bethune, ‘‘gave us her very best of all.”

Del. Victor R. Ramirez, who has worked alongside Britt in the state legislature, described the loss as a hard one for the district.

‘‘To me it’s difficult because we came to the General Assembly at the same time,” said Ramirez (D-Dist. 47) of Mount Rainier. ‘‘We started to develop a closer relationship, and she started coming into her own as a leader. She was taking on some very important issues and we were all starting to dig our heels into the district, us from the House side and her from the Senate. We were becoming a strong, effective team.”

Ramirez said what stood out most to him about Britt is that she always worked on behalf of her constituents.

‘‘It was never about her. It was always about the people and treating them fairly,” he said.

Since Britt was elected, she helped get several projects in the Port Towns off the ground.

Most recently, Britt worked with the Rev. Gail Addison and the Port Towns Youth Council to promote diabetes and obesity awareness.

Addison, the founder and director of PTYC, said Britt was a champion for young people.

‘‘It was just a joy to see her passion and compassion for young people,” she said.

Rufus Lusk, real estate director for the Port Towns Community Development Corp., said he remembers Britt as a force behind the construction of a railway overpass that would take CSX trains above Md. 450 in Bladensburg. When the project is completed this summer, it will end 40 years of traffic backups where the railroad crosses the highway, Lusk said. The $70 million project began in 2005.

‘‘She was instrumental in getting the final funding for the CSX train bridge,” he said. ‘‘At the end of the day, we were $10 million short and had to lobby to get the rest of the money. Senator Britt was right in the middle of it.”

Lusk said he hopes the bridge can be named for Britt when it is complete later this year.

Britt is survived by her husband, two children and five grandchildren.

A viewing will be held 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. today at Reid Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church, 11400 Glenn Dale Blvd. in Glenn Dale. The service will start at 11 a.m. and is open to the public.

Bishop C. Anthony Muse of Fort Washington, a state senator who represents District 26, will officiate.

The Senate was to hold an abbreviated session this morning to allow members to attend the funeral.

Staff Writers Jeffrey K. Lyles and Janel Davis contributed to this article.