Roxbury, September 2014

melnea cass

melnea cass boulevard (sonya kovacic)

melnea cass boulevard (sonya kovacic)

“If we cannot do great things, we can do small things in a great way.”

— Melnea Cass, known as the the "First Lady of Roxbury."

Melnea Cass was born in 1896 in Richmond, VA, and moved with her family to Boston's South End at the age of 5. When Cass's mother died, her Aunt Ella moved her to Newburyport to attend school. The girl's brightness was obvious, and Ella scrounged enough money to send her to a Virginia-based Catholic school for African-American and Native-American girls. Cass thrived, and graduated as valedictorian.

After returning to Boston, Cass attempted to find work as a salesgirl. However, because she was African-American, a job in sales was impossible to find. She eventually took up as a domestic worker.

Shaped by these experiences, Cass spent the rest of her life advocating for the underprivileged — for civil rights, education, employment, housing, and all rights for children, women, and families.

Cass's accomplishments include:

Co-founding the Freedom House, a nonprofit organization dedicated to human rights in the community
Served as President of the NAACP's Boston branch
Fought poverty through the Action for Boston Community Development (as the only woman charter member)
Helped fight the construction of I-95 through Roxbury
Volunteered at the Robert Gould Shaw House, Pansy Embroidery Club, Harriet Tubman Mothers' Club, and the Sojourner Truth Club
Earned honorary doctorate degrees from Northeastern, Simmons, and BC.

In 1981, the city of Boston named Melnea Cass Boulevard in her honor.

On Northeastern's website, you can see a collection of Freedom House photographs — a collection of photos from mid-century Roxbury handpicked by the organization.