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Roxbury Memorial reunion recalls good old days

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Roxbury Memorial reunion recalls good old days
Roxbury Memorial alumni Mary Gundersheim ‘56, Marvin Liberman, ‘59, Bob Miller ‘60, Ilanga ‘58 and Gretchen Coleman-Thomas ‘60 met at the Bay State Banner last week to discuss the reunion. (Photo: Yawu Miller)

It was a time when singing groups like the G Clefs, the Latins and the Duvelles battled for talent show supremacy. When blacks, Jews, the Irish and Italians got along and formed lasting friendships.

“I feel like I grew up in the best of times,” says Marvin Liberman ’59. “Roxbury Memorial gave me so many things. Social contacts — it built my self-esteem as a teenager. I felt comfortable there.”

It all came to an end in the spring of 1960 when Roxbury Memorial graduated its last senior class and closed its doors. But the friendships that were forged in hallways of the Townsend Avenue building remain strong to this day.

Now, 50 years later, graduates of the school, which opened in 1934, are coming from all over the United States for a reunion expected to draw as many as 600 graduates.

A core group of Roxbury Memorial graduates has been reaching out to alumni through word of mouth advertisements and social media for the June 18 event, which will be held one day before this year’s Roxbury Homecoming Picnic in Franklin Park.

 “They’re coming from California, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Virginia, Las Vegas, Chicago,” Gretchen Coleman-Thomas said, reading from her ledger book of classmates who have sent in their checks.

“Virtually everyone who responded said they enjoyed the camaraderie of the school,” said Bob Miller, ’60. “When we grew up we were all very good friends. We had parties together.”

Coleman-Thomas, Miller and three other Roxbury Memorial graduates met at the Banner last week to discuss their reunion. As can be expected, much of the conversation revolved around the music and culture of Roxbury in the 1950s.

It was an era when the black middle class had reached a critical mass in Roxbury and shared the streets with the city’s then sizeable Jewish community. While Boston’s schools had not been legally segregated since the 1850s, de facto racial segregation persisted in many of the city’s neighborhoods.

In that era Roxbury Memorial was unique for its balanced mix of blacks and Jews, the graduates say. And it was also one of a handful of schools in the city where boys and girls shared a building, although a wall separated them and their classes started at different times.

But in the social milieu — the parties at the Hect House and the Freedom House, the Gand G deli and in the streets and parks of Roxbury — the Roxbury Memorial students forged friendships across race and gender lines.

Mary Gundersheim ’56 recalls a now deceased classmate, Burton “Chico” Krantz, a dark-skinned Jewish basketball player who blended in with his all-black teammates.

“We won a game and in the Herald it said ‘All-colored team wins again,’” she says. “He thought he was a brother.”

Gundersheim, who was born in Roxbury, but moved to Mattapan during middle school, says the nearly all-white student bodies of the schools in Mattapan disappointed her. And the advantages of the high school weren’t all social. The business courses offered at Roxbury Memorial helped prepare her for a 42-year career at John Hancock Insurance.

Ilanga ’57 also credited the business courses with shaping his career, although he has remained in the arts. He served as manager of the G Clefs, the doo-wop group he co-founded at Roxbury memorial, then ran his own dance companies in Holland and Greece.

“I have never had an agent or empresario,” says Ilanga, who now dances with and serves as artistic advisor and outreach director for Ballet Rox.

Bob Miller ’60 went into sales with Proctor and Gamble, then management at Polaroid and now works as a business consultant.

Liberman has spent 50 years in an investment firm. And Gunderson, who is organizing the reunion, spent 30 years working in broadcast media, much of that time in human resources.

In the years following the closing of Roxbury Memorial, much has changed. Housing patterns in Roxbury, the South End and Mattapan became more segregated as the number of blacks increased and Jews left the city.

Racial tensions rose and spiked during the court-ordered desegregation of the 1970s.

But through it all, Roxbury Memorial graduates have stayed in touch and many of their singing groups have remained intact, including the G Clefs, which will perform along with other groups at the reunion, which will be held at Lombardo’s in Randolph.