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On 'Melnea Cass Day,' Remembering The Boston Civil Rights Activist And Her Legacy In Roxbury05:45
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A depiction of Melnea Cass, far left, and other neighborhood icons, in the "Faces of Dudley" mural on Washington Street. (Rachel Paiste/WBUR)
A depiction of Melnea Cass, far left, and other neighborhood icons, in the "Faces of Dudley" mural on Washington Street. (Rachel Paiste/WBUR)

On this date 52 years ago, then-Boston Mayor John Collins declared “Melnea Cass Day.” Now, Mayor Marty Walsh has again officially declared this Tuesday "Melnea Cass Day" in honor of the late civil rights advocate.

'The First Lady Of Roxbury' 

For many Bostonians today, Melnea Cass is best known for the street bearing her name that cuts across lower Roxbury.

The Walsh administration declares May 22, 2018, "Melnea Cass Day" in the city of Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Walsh administration declares May 22, 2018, "Melnea Cass Day" in the city of Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Cass didn't gain her nicknames — the 'First Lady of Roxbury,' and sometimes the 'Mayor of Roxbury' — through a single action. Over many decades, Cass delivered on a series of efforts — big and small — to improve the lives of those living in her community.

The focus of her activism often mirrored her roles in life.

First, as a young woman, she helped lead "get out the vote" drives in the years immediately after women’s suffrage. Then, in the 1930s, she passionately encouraged shops to hire black workers.

When her children needed schooling in their community, Cass launched a kindergarten program at the Robert Gould Shaw House.

In 1962, she became the president of the Boston branch of the NAACP and led the organization for two years. From that perch, she held sit-ins at the Boston Public School Committee office to protest its segregation policies.

After her tenure, she remained on the board of the NAACP, and was there for its filing of a class-action lawsuit that spurred court-ordered busing in Boston.

In 1977, Mayor Kevin White hosted an event honoring seven "Grand Bostonians." Cass was one of them, and in an interview with WGBH about the honor, she spoke about her approach to activism.

"You never give up hope, never, because just when you think you’re gonna give up, that’s when you could really gain the victory — if you just kept on going, just a little bit more."

Among the honorees at Mayor White's 1977 gala: Melnea Cass; Florence Luscombe; Leverett Saltonstall; Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.; Elliot Norton; Walter Muir Whitehill and Sidney Rabb. (Courtesy Northeastern University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections Department)
Among the honorees at Mayor White's 1977 gala: Melnea Cass; Florence Luscombe; Leverett Saltonstall; Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.; Elliot Norton; Walter Muir Whitehill and Sidney Rabb. (Courtesy Northeastern University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections Department)

Throughout her social activism, Cass inspired younger generations to be smart, strong and confident, too.

Sarah Ann Shaw knew Cass her whole life. Cass was even the leader of her Girl Scout troop. Shaw said one of her most distinct memories from the time was when her troop marched in the holiday parade in Charlestown.

"We were the only African-American girls in the parade," she said, "and someone called us the N-word, and we were like, 'Huh? What?' and Mrs. Cass said, 'Don’t pay attention to that. That’s not who you are.' ”

"You never give up hope, never, because just when you think you’re gonna give up, that’s when you could really gain the victory -- if you just kept on going, just a little bit more."

Melnea Cass

Shaw went on to become the first black woman reporter on TV in Boston.

Cass later would help inspire and train young black women as president of the Women's Service Club, particularly through its in-migrant program, which helped young women from the South and the Caribbean gain the skills they need to find jobs in Boston.

She was also the only female charter member of Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), the anti-poverty program established in 1962.

"She knew everybody," Shaw said. "And people knew her."

The way Cass presented herself, Shaw said, allowed her access to all levels of government.

"In meetings, she didn't raise her voice. She didn't insist on having her way, but she certainly made her feelings and her thoughts about what was going on, she made it very clear."

Melnea Cass, front far left, next to Bob Coard and with Francis Sargent, front far right, at a bill-signing in South Boston. (Courtesy of ABCD)
Melnea Cass, front far left, next to Bob Coard and with Francis Sargent, front far right, at a bill-signing in South Boston. (Courtesy of ABCD)

Melvin Miller, editor and founder of the Bay State Banner, said Cass "had qualities that any politician would love to have."

"Even though there were people around her who were Ivy League graduates, she was without a doubt the leader of the pack," he added.

To get any complaint heard, project started or nonprofit off the ground, he said, it was best to first get Cass' blessing.

She died three years before Melnea Cass Boulevard opened in 1981. But Cass lived long enough to receive other recognition. In 1968, a state pool and arena in Roxbury was named in her honor. It was one of just a few state facilities named after a living person.

And, of course, there was that first Melnea Cass Day in 1966 — but it was an honor she downplayed.

"Wasn't any special thing, but it was just to say thank you for all of the things you've done over the years, for many people," she said, according to 1977 interview as part the Black Women Oral History interviews at the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. "It was quite nice, at the Hotel Bradford, and it was really a beautiful affair."

In her later years, Cass became an advocate for older people, chairing the Massachusetts advisory committee for the elderly.

'She Saw Injustice Where She Was' And Sought To Fix It

Rosalyn Elder, founder of the African-American Heritage in Massachusetts, said Cass succeeded because she focused her efforts not on changing the world, but on improving her neighborhood.

"I think she saw injustice where she was, and she wanted to make change, but she wasn’t really interested in the glorification to herself, it was more dealing with particular problems," Elder said. "You know, starting where she was, and sort of trying to figure out how to help someone right then and there."

Cass died in 1978. But Walsh says her impact is still felt today.

"When we talk about MLK, Malcolm X, we talk about great leaders that lived here in Boston or came through Boston. Melnea Cass is right there at the top of the list."

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh

"When we talk about MLK, Malcolm X, we talk about great leaders that lived here in Boston or came through Boston," he said, "Melnea Cass is right there at the top of the list."

When the city honored her in 1977, Cass spoke to the legacy she hoped to leave behind.

"The only way I would like to be remembered in my life is that I have tried to share myself with others, that I have given the best years of my life to help others, and that I really feel that it has been effective, 'cause I’ve lived to see some of the things that I wanted to see come true."

While there is still work to be done to improve educational and economic opportunities for Boston's black communities, since Cass' death, the organizations she helped found continue to make progress.


Editor's Note: Quotes attributed to Melnea Cass in this story come from 1977 interviews for the Black Women Oral History Project at the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, and courtesy of the WGBH media library and archives.

This segment aired on May 22, 2018.

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Rachel Paiste News Writer
Rachel Paiste is a news writer and editor at WBUR.

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