Tour hails historic women of Roxbury

Sandra Larson | 4/1/2009, 7:09 a.m.
Guides and participants on the sold-out Roxbury Women’s History tour stand around Fern Cunningham’s “Family Circle” sculpture in...

“You’ve got to bring the family,” said Gloria Jolley. She announced with pride that she has lived in Roxbury for 64 years.

Mandy Ly, 42, is an accountant who came to the U.S. from Hong Kong 10 years ago and now lives in Quincy. She said she heard about the tour from a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, where she is pursuing a degree in management. A report on the tour will earn extra credit in her “Women and Society” class, she said.

Others on the tour came from Brockton, Roslindale, Roxbury, Dorchester and the South End.

The tour stopped at Elm Hill Park, surrounded by restored Victorian houses and graced by “Family Circle,” a bronze sculpture by Fern Cunningham of a man, woman and child wrapped in a loving embrace. The noted African American sculptor also created the Harriet Tubman statue “Step on Board” in the South End.

A few people shared personal recollections of the women highlighted on the tour.

Patricia Carrington, 65, a Discover Roxbury board member, was a patient of Dr. Jessie Gideon Garnett, who in 1919 became the first African American woman to graduate from Tufts Dental School and the first black woman dentist in Boston.

The tour did not go inside Garnett’s former home at 80 Munroe Street, but Carrington provided a firsthand account of a visit to Garnett’s office.

“It had a door with a window and white Venetian blinds,” Carrington recalled, pointing down the driveway to where a smaller separate building once stood, “and the minute I opened that door, there would be that dentist’s office smell.”

Garnett was a formidable presence to Carrington, then a teenager.

“As gentle as she could be, when she went to yank that tooth out, you felt her strength,” she said.

Carrington also took ballet classes from Elma Lewis, founder of the National Center of Afro American Artists (NCAAA). The trolley tour passed by the NCAAA’s museum, housed in a majestic mansion on Walnut Avenue.

Elma Lewis graduated from Emerson College and earned a master’s degree at Boston University before opening the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in 1950. In 1981 she received one of the first MacArthur Fellowships, often called “Genius grants.”

Lewis died in 2004. Her legacy, said McDowell, includes a flourishing museum, annual performances of the “Black Nativity” Christmas performance that she used to produce and direct, the Franklin Park summer arts staple Playhouse in the Park and plans for a new cultural center in Roxbury honoring her vision.

Roger Freeman of Roxbury spoke to the group about his grandmother, Melnea Cass.

“My grandmother organized the community by making phone calls,” said Freeman. “One would tell another — we didn’t have Internet then — and that’s how they began social activism in the black community.”

Early on, Cass worked to support black troops fighting in World War I, he said, and spent her life advocating for a wide range of causes, including education, fair housing, daycare and opportunities for women and children.