There were two new portraits put on display in the Senate chamber Monday night — and it came as a surprise to some of the principals involved.
New Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) quietly arranged to honor two giants of Senate history: Verda Welcome, the first African-American woman to be elected as a state senator anywhere in the U.S., and Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Ferguson’s predecessor.
“We’ve got a bit of a special evening,” Ferguson told his colleagues.
As lawmakers entered the Senate chamber Monday night, two red velvet curtains adorned the back wall, where portraits of two former governors, John Smith (who served from 1900-1904) and Edwin Warfield (1904-1908), had hung for 115 years.
Ferguson explained that a visit to the State House from students in his district four years earlier had inspired him to make the portraits hanging in the Senate chamber more representative of Maryland. One student wrote to Ferguson that not seeing anyone on the walls who looked like her “made me sad.”
With that, the curtain was lifted on the portrait of Welcome, which had been hanging in a Senate office building for several years, where a meeting room is named for her.
Welcome was elected to the House of Delegates in 1958, and then represented Baltimore City in the Senate from 1963 to 1983. She died in 1990 at the age of 83.
Welcome’s daughter, Mary Sue Welcome, a former prosecutor and businesswoman, was invited to attend the Senate session but was not told why.
“This is absolutely amazing,” she said, recalling how male and how white the Senate chamber was when she was a girl.
Despite her place in history and her long record of accomplishments, Verda Welcome “knew how to be humble,” her daughter said. “She has 15 [siblings] in her family. She knew how to work as a team and how to get things done. But she also knew how to be humble and how to be grateful.”
Mary Sue Welcome also said her mother would enjoy her new perch in the Senate chamber.
“If every once in a while you feel a little tap on your shoulder, don’t worry about it,” Welcome told the senators. “It’s only Mother saying if you have a doubt about which way to go, follow your heart.”
After the viewing of the Welcome portrait, three generations of Millers, looking a little like a modern-day version of the Von Trapp family, burst into the Senate chamber and took a long row of seats at the front of the room.
“I think we have a good idea of who the next portrait will be, so it won’t be much of a reveal,” Ferguson said, sheepishly.
With at least a dozen former senators also crowding into the chamber, Miller’s portrait, painted in 2002 and hanging in the lobby of the James Senate Office Building for several years, was unveiled.
Miller choked up, and then, as he so often does, began to describe the history of the two governors whose portraits were being replaced.
“It’s remarkable,” he said, his voice cracking.
The portrait of the 33-year Senate leader, who has served in the chamber since 1975, is no more than 10 feet away from the desk where Miller now sits on the floor.
“I’m going to have to be on my good behavior, aren’t I?” Miller mused. “Because I’m going to be looking down at me.”