BALTIMORE—By 8:43 a.m., the line snaked through the sizable parking lot of New Psalmist Baptist Church. Mourners, dressed mostly in black, stood solemnly or shuffled forward hoping to secure a spot inside the 4,000-seat sanctuary. The air was damp and cool enough to leave those waiting to pay their final respects to Rep. Elijah E. Cummings with nipped cheeks, or ferociously rubbing their shoulders in an attempt to stay warm.
Cummings’ home-going services had begun two days before, with a public tribute service at Morgan State University on Wednesday inside the sprawling James H. and Louise Hayley Gilliam Concert Hall. Hundreds of people ventured in and out of the auditorium to view the congressman’s body as a video playing notable speeches, interlaced with photos of the congressman with family, friends, and constituents, played onstage. In between, on Thursday, he lay in state in the United States Capitol, the first black lawmaker to receive that honor in the 219 years of the building’s existence.
Cummings, who represented Maryland’s 7th District, including large parts of Baltimore, in Congress since 1996, died on Oct. 17 from complications related to long-term health issues. He was only 68—still in what might have been his prime years, in a government full of septuagenarians and octogenarians.
Former President Barack Obama said during his eulogy that Cummings was an “honorable” man whose “life validates the things we tell ourselves about what is possible in this country.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared the congressman to the Prophet Elijah in the Bible, saying Cummings “looked out for the vulnerable among us. He lifted up the next generation of leaders—and he even worked a few miracles.” Other attendees of Cummings’ home-going services included former President Bill Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
And work miracles he did, particularly in Baltimore, where his influence—like his powerful, booming voice, bubbled up from the city’s southwest side, rolled through Harlem Park and Sandtown, glided across North Avenue and reverberated down the sidewalks of Greenmount Avenue. His career as a public servant may have taken his body to Washington, but to the crowd outside, his heart belonged to Baltimore. And, on this chilly October morning, the city showed up for him.
Cummings was born into the last years of the America of Plessy v. Ferguson, on Jan. 18, 1951, in the Sharp-Leadenhall neighborhood to sharecroppers who had migrated north from South Carolina. His father, Robert, was a laborer at Davison Chemical Co. in Curtis Bay—now known as W.R. Grace & Co.—and his mother, Ruth, a housekeeper. It was not a marriage, Cummings would say later, that anyone thought “would yield a U.S. congressman.” They were also preachers and his mother founded Victory Prayer Chapel.
Barrier breaking was ingrained in Cummings. In the early 1960s, as a child, he helped integrate Riverside Park swimming pool. He grew up to become the first black person to be named speaker pro tempore in the Maryland House of Delegates.
During his 23 years in Congress, Cummings championed a variety of issues—promoting access to dental care for children after Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old boy from Maryland, died from a brain infection stemming from untreated dental disease and reproductive rights; decrying the inhumane treatment of migrants at the border; asking the public if we saw Freddie Gray as a human being, and not simply iconizing him following the 25-year-old’s death in police custody; speaking out against family separation; leading the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, a man with whom Cummings had thought he’d at least be able to remain cordial. The list goes on and on.
Those were the subjects of the national commemoration, a life in public deeds, for those of us outside the city. In Baltimore, people’s memories were more direct and personal.
As the line to enter New Psalmist shifted forward, Eloise Bridges and her husband, Leon, told me they met Cummings not too long after Leon Bridges moved his architecture firm to Baltimore from Seattle. Cummings, who was a young lawyer at the time, explained the politics of the city to the couple and introduced them to people with whom they’re still friends.
Eloise Bridges, who noted how much Cummings did for black people in particular, was particularly proud of his role as chairman of the House Oversight Committee. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do to replace him. We really need a champion,” she told me.
“I’m very moved by his death,” she continued, her voice cracking as she teared up. “We need somebody else like him to take his place who’ll speak up for Baltimore. He still had a big agenda. He had lots he wanted to accomplish. He was a man of action. I’m so pleased we had him for the time we had him.”
Cummings went to and reached black folks in places others often choose to ignore. At the public tribute, Andrey Bundley, director of African American Male Engagement for the city of Baltimore, noted that Cummings felt comfortable in the hood and wanted to ensure the people who lived there had access to the same resources as everybody else. He founded the Elijah Cummings Youth Program and sat on Morgan State University’s board of regents. As a Maryland state delegate, he advocated that the state should provide more money to help treat drug addiction in Baltimore.
During the uprising following Freddie Gray’s death, he physically placed himself between police and protesters, asking for calm but never chiding residents for their anger. He understood that he had to meet his constituents where they were. It was where he was, too: For more than 30 years, Cummings resided in a West Baltimore row house. His home and car were subject to break-ins. And the congressman was once robbed at gunpoint by two assailants with sawed-off shotguns. Still, he went home to his district nightly and could sometimes be seen feeding pigeons around the corner from his front door.
“He never let us forget that this work was never about us, but always about the people we are entrusted to serve and represent,” said Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby during the Morgan State tribute. “He showed us that to be effective in places like Baltimore you have to be a shepherd who smells like the sheep—and the people have to be able to see you and to touch you, and not just hear you.”
Outside the church, in the slow-moving line, Borndavid McCraw told me he had interacted with Cummings several times through the University of Maryland Baltimore’s PAL program. At a recent ceremony for UMB’s CURE Scholars program, which helps sixth to 12th graders prepare for careers in STEM, Cummings came to the event directly from the hospital, according to McCraw.
Days before, during the tribute at Morgan State, Edna Manns-Lake, the founder of Fayette Street Outreach, said onstage that Cummings had aided her in opening a community center by attaining $100,000 in funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2002. The congressman continued to stay involved with the center. He’d come by, sit on his walker, and have the kids explain their coding processes to him.
As she sat waiting for the tribute to begin, Conica Smith told me that in 2009 when she was searching for collegiate scholarships, she was advised to call Cummings’ office. She remembers speaking to a staffer initially before Cummings himself called her back and personally walked her through the process of applying for a scholarship. She’d never had a politician personally reach out to her before and was overwhelmed.
“Being in Baltimore, when you call and you want to speak to a [politician], it’s very unlikely that you would hear back from them personally,” she told me. “You may hear from a delegate. You may get a card, but it’s hard for someone to give you a call back.
“That made me inspired that someone cared.”
Come 9:30 a.m., the sanctuary of New Psalmist had hit capacity.
As some of the crowd dispersed, many others kept walking toward the church, despite knowing they wouldn’t be able to enter. A woman in sparkly shoes said she’d skipped work to show up for Cummings. Another came up from Washington on the MARC train to pay her respects. A third furrows her brow as she pushes her walker up the hill to partake in a citywide tribute to the congressman’s legacy—a man who many believe stands among other great Marylanders like Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, and Harriet Tubman.
The migration toward the congressman’s home-going service in spite of the odds of entrance reminded me of a story his widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, shared with the crowd at Morgan State on the Wednesday. Just over a week before, on Oct. 15, when Cummings was still alive and still at Johns Hopkins Hospital, staffers from the rehabilitation unit came into his room. They wanted to give the congressman sunshine therapy.
He couldn’t walk, Cummings recounted, so the staff wheeled his bed up to the rooftop of Hopkins where the helicopters land. The congressman looked all around him, upon South Baltimore, the Inner Harbor, downtown, and West Baltimore—he gazed upon his city, the place where his life began and where it would soon end.
“Boy,” he said, “have I come a long way.”
Correction, Oct. 27, 2019: Due to a photo provider error, a caption in this piece originally misidentified the pastor of New Psalmist Baptist Church as Bishop Walter Thompson. He is Bishop Walter Thomas.