Shaneka Henson was sworn in on Thursday to the Maryland House of Delegates, where she occupies the seat held by House Speaker Michael Busch until he died last month. Henson is the first African American woman to represent the district in the General Assembly.
The district, which includes the city of Annapolis and part of Anne Arundel County, “has a large historic African-American constituency,” said Carl Snowden, a longtime civil rights activist and political figure in Annapolis.
Before Henson, the only African American to represent Annapolis in the legislature was Republican Aris T. Allen. Allen’s service ended when he died in 1991.
Snowden said the lack of representation before and since Allen is historically significant. Annapolis became the first jurisdiction in the state to elect a black office holder when it elected William Henry Butler to the City Council in 1873.
“There has been a black representative on the City Council from 1873 to the present time with only one exception, and that exception was in 1909, when the Maryland General Assembly passed a law that in effect said that if your grandfather could not vote you couldn't either,” Snowden said.
That law cost African Americans their right to vote and their representation on the Annapolis City Council. The Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in 1915.
“Having representation in the Maryland General Assembly has always been a very important goal of African Americans locally because they understand that the state has such enormous power,” Snowden said.
Now, Henson said, she is stepping into office nearly 30 years after Allen’s death thanks in part to a shift in attitudes about what qualifies someone to lead.
“We now are much more willing to take a look at people for what they are bringing to the position, as opposed to just those face value qualifiers that we used to give people — if that person is a man or if that person looks the part or if that person has the right last name, or sometimes the right first name,” she said.
Henson is also entering office at the same time as Delegate Adrienne Jones is beginning her role as House speaker. Jones is the first African American and the first woman to lead the chamber.
“The combination of those two is the sea change that we'll see,” said Vince Leggett, a longtime lobbyist in Annapolis and the founder of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, a nonprofit that works to document African Americans’ contributions in the region. “Not only is it reflected in our capital city district 30, but also reflected throughout the state.”
Once Henson begins making policy, Snowden said he expects she will pay more attention than her predecessor did to problems faced by African Americans in her district — “problems with deal with crime, of course, housing — affordable housing.”
Along those lines, Henson said one of her top priorities is addressing areas of the law that disproportionately affect certain groups.
“In the black community, sometimes things that are one-size-fits-all solutions sometimes fit too tight or too loose for the black community,” she said.
But Henson, like many office-holders, will need to balance the diverse needs of her constituents, from the business community to the Naval Academy to low-income residents, Leggett said.
He emphasized that Henson didn’t win an election. Rather, she was appointed.
Many qualified African Americans have run in Henson’s district before, he said, but “if we look historically at African Americans in district 30 who have ran for a seat in the House of Delegates or the Senate, the record shows none have been successful.”
But Henson has a leg up, he said. She has three years to show people in her district why they should support her at the next election.