Faculty Spotlight

Professor Johnnie Hamilton-Mason Researches South End’s League of Women as King Boston Visiting Scholar

Tell us about your role of Inaugural Visiting Scholar for King Boston.

King Boston is a nonprofit dedicated to creating a memorial on Boston Common for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Corretta Scott King. The statue, “The Embrace,” will be unveiled in September 2022, and it’s one of the only tributes to the couple and aimed to spark new conversations about racial justice. It’s part of a ten year project to develop an infrastructure to support Dr. King’s vision of the “beloved community,” in order to address economic justice grounded in policy, research and community engagement to address racial disparities in wealth, housing, public education, and employment.

As the inaugural Visiting Scholar, my role is to support the research infrastructure at King Boston, in particular the research institute. I’m working with the Director of Community Engaged Research, Dr. April Inniss, to consult on research projects, contribute to scholarly papers, and offer presentations. Most importantly, they are funding my research into the League of Women for Community Service, which was an organization created by and for Black women in the South End of Boston in the 1940’s. 

The League was founded in 1918 by a group of Black women who focused on providing multiple services to the community. Women who came to Boston to attend college boarded at the League — due to segregation of the dorms, Black women were not allowed to live on campus. Corretta Scott King is among many prominent African American women who boarded there. Dr. King visited her while she was staying there and they both attended 12th Baptist Church in Roxbury, a historic Black church with strong community advocacy. At that time, a significant portion of the Black community lived in the South and West ends of Boston and lower Roxbury.

What have you discovered about the League of Women?

The most amazing finding is that there were Simmons alumnus who boarded there — one graduated in 1938 from the School of Social Work.  

I’ve known about the League for years. When my daughter was young, she was involved in Jack and Jill of America, a fraternity/sorority offering opportunities for African American children living in predominantly White areas to socialize with other Black children. I was a liaison for Jack and Jill in the late 1980’s when my child was a member, and they had family events for children and families, and we attended some events at the League’s building on Mass Avenue. Last year I saw a short piece on television about that building, which was built in 1918. It’s a beautiful brownstone, a repository of connections in the Black community. 

The League was one of two clubs in Boston at the time they were incorporated. The Black Women’s club movement started by African American women who were involved in the Suffrage movement, but found they were not consistently included in the fight for women’s right to vote. There was some energy for Black women to start their own organizations, and the League is an example of the Black women’s club movement, of Black women’s agency in the face of oppression. 

Boston had a small but really active Black community, even in the 1930’s. It shows the organizing strategies of Black women at the time; they collected dues, held programs, raised money to send children to camp. They worked with hospital discharge workers to get wheelchairs for those in need. The League initially began as a soldier’s comfort home, then later provided assistance to aging people of color, and parties for children in the community. They had ongoing social workers coordinating some of the direct services to people, offering food and clothes and support. It’s astounding, what they accomplished, and it’s an important part of Boston’s history.

Over the years, many people have tried to get access to the League’s archives. When I knew the building was being renovated, I reached out to a colleague on the League’s Board and managed to get access to the documents. I started visiting on Saturdays, while they were packing up items that had been in that building for hundreds of years. We are actually storing the archives at Simmons, so I can comb through the collection while on campus. 

One thing that inspired me was this list of women who boarded at the League over the years. I wanted to know more about all of the women who lived there. A major mission of the league was to support the accomplishments of Black students and educate the community. Many of the League’s members were well educated, or their spouses were well educated. I’m searching through letters, photos, and meeting minutes to understand what the League did and how they did it. I’ve done a lot of qualitative research with a historical lens of the coping mechanisms of Black women; I think this is one reason why I was given access to the archive. 

Anything unexpected you have discovered thus far? 

I have found letters to the League from Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, Carter G. Woodson. These were luminaries in the Black community, writing letters to the League about improving conditions in the community. That is fascinating. They also have mortality data on the state of the community, as well as health conditions and infant mortality rates. 

That said, the work is enormously slow going. I found a letter from a father who said his daughter was attending college in Boston and he wanted her to stay at the League. That’s all I had to go on! But it’s a project that puts together all of my interests. I have three graduate library science students who are working to flesh out the genealogy and also three social work students on my team. I interviewed a few descendents of the League’s boarders to triangulate what I’m finding in the documents with what they know of their ancestor’s experience.

I plan to curate a selection of documents and display them digitally this summer, with explanations to capture some of the history. I have enough data to write about, but it’s difficult to start writing when there are pieces of information I still don’t know.

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