The 2100 block of Presbury Street is now adorned with a sign that reads ‘Gwen Shelton Way.’ This is a fitting tribute to a woman whose most enduring legacy is a lifetime of community activism and service.
Friends and family recalled the “Gwen Shelton way,” defined by selflessness and a tenacious drive to leave the communities in which she resided better than she first encountered them.
Kibwe Shelton, the second of Shelton’s two children, recalls the home at Edmondson Ave. and N. Payson where he grew up as a veritable food kitchen, a place where anyone in need of a meal could stop by for something to eat. In addition to food, Gwen Shelton had stocked her home with about four computers for the use of neighbors and area residents.
While cleaning out his mother’s personal belongings, after her death in December 2013 at age 65 from breast cancer, Kibwe Shelton discovered another use of those computers: about 20 obituaries his mother had written, without charge, on behalf of community members who had lost loved ones, easing the pressure of a responsibility that can prove daunting in the early stages of processing grief.
From 2007 until her passing, Shelton, an active community presence in Baltimore for well over 30 years, served as president of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association in West Baltimore. Margaret Powell, secretary of the association, and a longtime friend and collaborator, remembers Shelton’s fighting spirit. “She was definitely a warrior for the people of West Baltimore,” said Powell.
According to Powell, Shelton was an active presence at Matthew A. Henson Elementary School, and, despite the fact that her own children had long since passed elementary school age, Shelton sat on various school committees. “She realized the school takes a community too,” said Powell.
Shelton passed onto Powell the importance of becoming involved in even those facets of the Baltimore community that did not affect one directly, sending her to different community associations to serve as their secretary. “I felt elevated because she thought enough of me that I could do something to help other communities, not just our own,” said Powell.
Marvin ‘Doc’ Cheatham, who took over as president of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association in January, initiated the effort to have the 2100 block of Presbury named after Shelton. He recalled the last general meeting of the association with Shelton presiding. Though at that time she required a cane to get around, Shelton’s focus was ever on the community.
“She explained her love for the community,” Cheatham said, “but that each of us had a major responsibility to keep things going and to take it to the next level.”
Powell also remembers that meeting, referring to it as Shelton’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. The words that still ring in Powell’s ears: “Our community is worth saving. Our children are worth saving”
Shelton’s commitment to people and neighborhoods that many would write off was unyielding. Timothy Hawkins, Shelton’s eldest son, remembers his mother’s courage.
“People that I – and anybody – would be afraid to even come near, would come to her and she would deal with them,” said Hawkins.
For Hawkins, one of the enduring legacies of the Gwen Shelton Way is the refusal to write people off because of mistakes or their present circumstances. Shelton was heavily involved in the prison ministry at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women as a representative of Empowerment Temple. In the neighborhoods where she lived, she confronted self-described thugs and drug dealers who would later come back to share how her intervention had spurred them to lead a better life.
“Everywhere she went she made a difference in the community,” said Hawkins, “and her big thing was it’s not where you live, it’s how you live.”