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A Roxbury standard: The Original H-Block

Black History on Roxbury, MA

Melvin B. Miller | 2/7/2013, 12:26 p.m.

Modern-day history has largely forgotten about men like Matthew W. Bullock.

He lived in Roxbury, near what is now known as Munroe Park. More than anyone else, he set the tone of conspicuous achievement in a neighborhood filled with high achievers.

Melnea Cass was one of them. Valedictorian of her high school class, Cass eventually moved to the same neighborhood as Bullock — and promptly became one of Boston’s most prominent community leaders.

Back in the early decades of the 20th century, back when she was in her late teens and early 20s, she couldn’t find good work downtown. It wasn’t right, but she worked anyway — as a domestic servant.

“You could always make a living,” Cass told an interviewer. “But it wasn’t always what you wanted to do.”

She lived in Upper Roxbury.

On Harold Street.

Not too far away were the Snowdens. Given the racial tenor of early 20th century America, their story is nothing short of incredible.

It starts with Frank Snowden Sr., “the Colonel,” a spit-and-polish man who served in the segregated military during the days of World War II.

No telling what the Colonel would say about his old neighborhood, a place where he raised his two sons — one of whom would become a renowned scholar on Africans in ancient Greece and Rome, the other a founder of “Freedom House,” one of Boston’s foremost community organizations.

No telling how the Colonel would react to police and media reports that his neighborhood is now called “H-Block” by reputed gang members, and that the streets he once walked are now dotted with makeshift memorials to slain youth.

In the Colonel’s generation, the fight was about academic achievement — not mindless, often bloody, turf battles.

That message of intellectual strength was passed down to his grandson and granddaughter.

“I was very afraid to do anything that would reflect badly,” Frank Snowden III told the Washington Post, recounting his experience in 1964 as the first black to attend St. Albans, an esteemed prep school in Washington, D.C. “I was imbued with the fact that it was just not my story but a collective endeavor.”

Snowden III’s racial awareness, even as a high school student, had its roots in both the Colonel’s orders and the intellect of his father, Frank Snowden Jr., a Harvard Ph.D. and the author of countless scholarly books and essays.

“His aspiration for me,” Snowden III said, “was to have demonstrated racial equality by achieving educational equality.”

The Colonel’s other son, Otto, married Muriel Sutherland, a graduate of Radcliffe College and the daughter of a prominent New Jersey dentist. Together, they started Freedom House. Their daughter, Gail, also went to Radcliffe and then attended the Simmons College School of Management. She later became executive vice president of the First National Bank of Boston.

Matthew Bullock knew a thing or two about opportunity and slavery.

In 1944, Massachusetts Gov. Leverett Saltonstall appointed Bullock to the chairmanship of the state Parole Board.

Noting the color of Bullock’s skin as “coal black,” Time magazine characterized the appointment as a shrewd political move.