Melnea Cass: First Lady of Roxbury

by Dera Silvestre
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Melnea A. Cass Papers. Northeastern University Library, Archives and Special Collections Department, Boston, MA.

Melnea Cass was a community organizer and activist extraordinaire in Roxbury, MA. Born in Richmond, VA on June 16, 1896, her family migrated to Roxbury in 1901. Cass got her start in activism with the help of her mother-in-law. After the passage of the 19th Amendment, the women “organized black women in [their] community to cast their first vote.”[1] Realizing that she was an effective leader, Cass joined her local chapter of the NAACP and began volunteering at the Robert Gould Shaw House, a community center in Roxbury.

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Melnea A. Cass Papers. Northeastern University Library, Archives and Special Collections Department, Boston, MA.

Towards the beginning of her career in advocacy, Cass focused largely on helping other black women. She founded the Kindergarten Mothers (which later became the Friendship Club) and helped to establish a nursery school in the community. She was the president of several different women’s clubs, and served as the secretary, then chairman, than vice president, and eventual president of the northeast branch of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.[2]

Cass’s priorities changed based on needs of the community she served. When World War I began, Cass began shifting her concentration from children and mothers to jobs and wages. In the 40s, she helped to establish a private advocacy and social services agency called the Freedom House. In the 50s, she was appointed as the only woman to be a member of the Action for Boston Community Development committee, a group that focused on making affordable housing available to black families affected by urban renewal.[3]

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Melnea A. Cass Papers. Northeastern University Library, Archives and Special Collections Department, Boston, MA.

From 1962 to 1964, Cass served as the president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. A lifetime member, when asked if she served in any committees, Cass joked, “Plenty of committees, dear. Most everything in there, I guess, from one to another. I don’t guess there’s any committee in there that I haven’t worked on.”[4] As president, Cass organized sit-ins at Boston School Committee meetings to push for better conditions for black students and desegregation of schools. In the 70s, Cass began to advocate for the rights of the elderly in Boston. She served on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for the Elderly in 1975 and 1976.[5]

It’s absolutely impossible to include all of Melnea Cass’s achievements in this post without plainly listing them. She was not properly thanked for her work until the beginning of the 60s, after which she was showered in acknowledgements.[6] Her work was monumental, and her career is best summed up with this quote from her: “If we cannot do great things, we can do small things in a great way.” Melnea Cass was an outstanding advocate and leader for Boston’s black community until her death in December 1978.

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Melnea A. Cass Papers. Northeastern University Library Archives and Special Collections Department, Boston, MA.

[1] “Melnea Cass.” Notable Black American Women, Book 1. Gale Research, 1992. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group. 2002. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Governor Honors Activist Melnea Cass.” Mass Moments, June 19 1968. Mass Humanities Project. https://www.massmoments.org/moment-details/governor-honors-activist-melnea-cass.html

[4] Black Women Oral History Project. Interviews, 1976-1981. Melnea Agnes Cass. OH-31. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Harvard University. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:RAD.SCHL:1004168

[5] Melnea Cass.” Notable Black American Women, Book 1. Gale Research, 1992. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group. 2002. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC

[6] “Melnea Cass dedicated her life to Boston’s black community.” Bay State Banner, February 13, 2003. Print.