Article by Deborah Rudacille. Rudacille is a freelance writer and Dundalk native. Her book about her hometown Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town, was published by Pantheon in 2010. Article originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.
Everyday Heroes: A Baltimore couple recalls the civil rights movement and the struggle that defined a generation
Soon after Helene Berleant Wilson arrived in Washington, D.C. from Buffalo in 1960, she had her first eye-opening encounter with Southern mores. The young Jewish housewife entered a crowded grocery store near Dupont Circle and watched in amazement as “a number of people who were waiting for service at the cashier’s desk all stepped back and waited for me to be served first. They were all black. I was white.”
The experience so disturbed her that she joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942 to use the principles of non-violence to challenge racial segregation and discrimination. As a member of CORE and the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), Wilson participated in marches and demonstrations in the greater Washington area. In June 1961, she was one of three women from the D.C. chapter of CORE to volunteer as Freedom Riders, challenging segregation in public facilities throughout the south. Arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, she spent thirty-eight days at the state’s maximum penitentiary, Parchman Farm.
Meantime, the man who would later become her second husband, Larry Ageloff, was fighting his own battle against injustice. Working at the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn, Baltimore County, Ageloff noted that in the huge claims processing center, all the workers were black and the supervisors were white. Black employees called the place “the plantation,” he learned. When he picked up a flyer announcing a demonstration to protest employment discrimination at SSA, Ageloff decided he could not remain a bystander. He joined CORE and became involved in a series of successful campaigns against discriminatory hiring and promotion practices not only at SSA but also at Baltimore’s commercial banks, the Bethlehem Steel Company, the Baltimore Public Works Commission, and other workplaces.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Larry Ageloff moved to Baltimore in 1958 with his first wife to work at SSA. He grew up in an observant Jewish family—his father was one of the founders of a storefront shul. Helene too was raised in a household “where issues of social justice and Jewish values were often discussed,” she says. Her grandfather, Joseph Berleant, the first president of the first organized synagogue in Buffalo, was an active participant in those discussions, she recalls. Her father, too, had served as a synagogue president and her mother as president of Hadassah. When Helene and Larry met years later in Baltimore, their common backgrounds created an immediate bond. They were married by Rabbi Mark Loeb of Beth El in 1980.
In May 2010, I talked with them about their experiences as civil rights activists in the early sixties. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.