Faculty Spotlight

Professor of Social Work Johnnie Hamilton-Mason Researches Leadership and Advocacy of Boston’s Black Women

Professor of Social Work Johnnie Hamilton-Mason

Founded in 1919, the League of Women for Community Service is a Boston-based Black women's organization that still exists today. According to Professor Hamilton-Mason, the League helped cultivate Black womanhood in a nurturing and supportive way. Members of the League also provided important services to the greater African American community, particularly during the mid-twentieth-century. As we celebrate Black History Month, Professor Hamilton-Mason explains the importance of the League and its extraordinary history.

"The League of Women for Community Service created a safe space for Black womanhood in the city of Boston," says Professor Johnnie Hamilton-Mason of her current research.

The League emerged out of the post-Reconstruction era and developed alongside the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Harlem Renaissance. Over the League's 105-year history, its members have advocated for the equal rights of women and Black individuals. The organization's original mission from 1919 states that: "the object shall be to undertake such work – educational, charitable, as well as benefit the community and to cooperate with other agencies working for the same end." It is one of the oldest organizations in the city of Boston created by and for Black women, and it continues today.

According to Hamilton-Mason's research, the organization began in 1919 as the Soldiers Comfort Unit. This collective supported Black soldiers returning from World War I who faced racial discrimination and lacked resources that were afforded to other veterans. The organization was incorporated in 1920 as the League of Women for Community Service. "The women demonstrated significant leadership and advocacy for women and civil rights in the city of Boston," says Hamilton-Mason. "They advocated for schools, supplied materials to Black students, and provided resources for people with special needs."

In the early years of the organization, its members were typically well-educated women from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds. At that time, their goal was integration, or finding ways to better assimilate into white society. After women obtained the right to vote, the League became more invested in politics and civil rights.

"The League" refers to both the organization that Black women founded as well as the physical building in which some of them boarded. While higher educational institutions in Boston have a history of admitting Black students, enrolled college students were not allowed to reside in the university dormitories, so the League helped satisfy the need for student housing. Significantly, the South End building is located along the Underground Railroad.

The League is currently undergoing renovation. When it reopens, visitors will be able to witness its phenomenal collection of books and art by Black writers and visual artists, including rare books by Ida B. Wells and Langston Hughes.

Hamilton-Mason is especially interested in the history of the League from the 1930s to the mid-1950s. During this era, which coincided with segregation, female college students boarded at the League. "These women viewed education as a pathway for freedom," she says. "They developed strategies to challenge the socially-imposed limitations on their roles." In doing so, they created a robust network of Black women in Boston and all over the country. Moreover, Hamilton-Mason identifies parallels between the efforts of the League and the Civil Rights Movement in terms of the creation of freedom, democracy, and change.

This research project is both historical and ethnographic. After engaging in extensive ancestral research, Hamilton-Mason conducted numerous interviews with living members of the League and their descendants. In the process, she located and interviewed four Simmons alumna who were boarders, as well as Coretta Scott King's former roommate, who is now 94-years-old. Many of the interviewees were social workers or educators. Some were owners of Black businesses, including the first Black women's hair salon in Boston. Later on, several nurses became members as well. As Hamilton-Mason reflects, "it's been a fascinating journey to put all these pieces together, and I'm curating materials as I go."

The League's archives are currently stored at Simmons. Hamilton-Mason is working with Simmons University Archivist Jason Wood, and SLIS students are cataloging numerous boxes of archival material.

Hamilton-Mason's archival research has revealed some startling findings. As WBUR recently reported, she uncovered several documents that showed communications between members of the League and prominent African Americans outside of Boston, including Booker T. Washington and Langston Hughes.

The Simmons School of Social Work is hosting an exhibition on the League. According to Hamilton-Mason, "this visual display is a portion of a larger ethnographic study which began during 2021 to provide rich descriptions about the lived experiences of Black women during the mid-nineteenth century; documenting their unique experience and interpreting contextual events faced by women with widely differing stakes and roles and giving voice to those whose views are rarely heard is an important aim of this project." This exhibition includes numerous uncatalogued materials from the League's archives, including board meeting minutes, annual reports, committee reports, bank ledgers, and letters. Hamilton-Mason predicts that Simmons will host additional exhibitions in the future, now that she has combed through thousands more archival documents.

King Boston, recently renamed Embrace Boston, where Hamilton-Mason was recently an Inaugural Visiting Scholar, funded this research project. Embrace Boston is a non-profit that helped support the creation of "The Embrace," a large-scale statue by Hank Willis Thomas located on Boston Commons. Thomas' imagery is inspired by a photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife Coretta Scott King, who was a member of the League. "It was amazing to be part of King Boston and to see the artwork come to fruition," says Hamilton-Mason.

While "The Embrace" has received some criticism since its unveiling on January 13, Hamilton-Mason remains pleased with the outcome. "Isn't that the purpose of art – to elicit individual interpretations and meanings that an artwork may represent?"

Moreover, she is elated that Coretta Scott King is depicted in the statue. "[She] contributed significantly to civil rights following the death of her husband," says Hamilton-Mason. "She was a skilled organizer and was prolific in promoting justice and civil rights over the years."

For Hamilton-Mason, the location of "The Embrace" is also meaningful. "Some people question why it is at the Commons, instead of a Black neighborhood. But the Black community used to be at Beacon Hill. It is also the seat of the founding of the city, so it centers the knowledge and the advocacy that Black individuals have contributed to Boston. This is an important message for everyone."

Although she is a Professor in the School of Social Work, Hamilton-Mason has diverse academic interests in history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, Black studies, and the arts. "I am drawn to the League because it brings together everything I have done in my career and academic scholarship to this point," she explains. "As we rethink how we teach history, we must pay attention to the strength of resilience and the capacities that people exercise in less than ideal circumstances. The League was the only place to nurture and support each other in the context of Black womanhood outside one's home or church."

For the people of Boston, becoming aware of the League's contributions to Black history is enriching and important. "This is a part of Boston's history that is forgotten. A lot of people in the African American community do not know this history. Unless these women's stories are told, then they will be erased."

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