By Courtney Wright
Special to the Gazette
The story of Black History Month begins in 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. That September, the Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent. This group sponsored the first Negro History week in 1926, choosing the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The event inspired schools and communities nationwide to organize local celebrations, establish history clubs and host performances and lectures. President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” As we kick off Black History Month, I wanted to acknowledge the history of how it came to be.
In my previous life, before Main Streets, one of the program’s I worked on was Wentworth Institute of Technology’s Alternative Spring Break, which takes a group of students during their spring break week to another community outside of Boston to learn and engage through volunteerism for the week. In 2019, I was lucky enough to accompany the students to Selma, Alabama. Our time there coincided with the famous Bridge Crossing Jubilee, held annually to commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma-to-Montgomery March that precipitated the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. It is a day and experience I will never forget. The annual walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge begins as it did then, with a service at the Brown Chapel A.M.E Church. As I stood outside the church in total awe of my luck at being able to experience this celebration, the weather turned and tornadoes touched down- a story for another day- and we were temporarily rerouted before finally getting to walk across the Pettus Bridge with the other attendees made up of Civil Rights heroes, elected officials and Alabamians. I think of this experience often, but it always becomes even more powerful during February, as we pay homage to those very Civil Rights heroes that paved the way for the official holiday designation that came years later.
When I look back at my experiences in Selma, I reflect on the examples of advocacy, hard fought battles for inclusion and equity that happen day in, day out, often unseen, within our own neighborhood. Mission Hill is known for its activists and community organizing heroes, and in the last decade, I hear a lot about the concern for who will continue the work of neighborhood preservation as the demographics change. I think for anyone who works in community development broadly, there is a lot of thought about what can be done to make the future easier for those who follow, ‘to plant seeds for trees under whose shade you don’t intend to sit’. I think of my own mentors in Mission Hill, Willie Pearl Clark at Mission Main, John Jackson, the administrator of the Tobin Community Center-and the lessons that they’ve been teaching me through their example for the last twelve years. When talking about my experience in Selma at the Bridge Crossing Jubilee one evening a couple years ago at Yellow Door Taqueria with John and others, I learned that we had in common having spent time in Pine Hill, a town of less than 800 people in the rural Black Belt region of Alabama. As I thought about what I would write this month, I wanted to reflect on what things we do in our daily life and what examples we are leaving for those who come after us. I went to visit John at the Tobin and curious on his thoughts on the topic of legacy, asked him about what that means for him when he thinks of his work in Mission Hill:
“I think one of the one of the legacies that I would want to leave is making sure that we continue to help and work with each other and build on those efforts to support one another so that the younger generation can see that that’s what a community does… When I see kids surprised about the support given to them sometimes, I tell them, when people see the potential and see that you’re doing something good and want to help. That’s the thing I’d want to pass on, the spirit of giving and helping people and the understanding that you don’t have to be by yourself, there are people here that are going to do their best to help you. The spirit of giving and spirit of community where if we can help someone, we should. My philosophy is, I always believe this ‘it’s bigger than me’ so it’s not about how I feel about you it’s about what can we do together to get it done. My attitude is that we can agree to disagree, but let’s get it done. At the end of the day people don’t see what goes on behind the scenes, they just know they can come and see the people here and that’s what it boils down to, being able to support each other because at the end of the day it’s bigger than me and you, the work is bigger than us.”
For those who currently live in the neighborhood, whether permanently or temporarily, I wanted to provide information on how to get involved with the Tobin Community Center and see firsthand the extensive programming and services they provide for not only Mission Hill, but the City of Boston and BCYF. I come across a lot of people who have the desire to get more involved but aren’t sure where to start, so wanted to demystify that a little in the case of those interested in youth mentorship and the Tobin.
“We always have room for folks that want to come in and help with our athletic programs, after-school programs, whether it’s tutoring or something else we do, we serve a lot of students in this area. To me, when you move into a neighborhood it’s your responsibility to find out what the resources are, whether you’re a student or not, just find out what’s going on your neighborhood. If someone wants to find out about Tobin, I’d say come in, find out who we are and we’ll figure it out; whether it’s sports, academics, or STEM, we’ll figure it out.”
Thank you, John, for taking the time to talk to me and sharing your thoughts. On behalf of all of us, thank you for the work you do, and the presence you have in the neighborhood, and in our lives. You are one of one.
Switching gears- we have a couple of exciting business updates on the calendar for the next couple of weeks. Next Friday, February 9th at 10:30 a.m. please join us at 1520 Tremont St (formerly Boba Me) for the Green Haus Ribbon Cutting. The owner and staff will be on hand to share about their new venture and show the community their space and offerings if you haven’t already stopped in.
Need ideas for Valentine’s Day? Solid Ground Café is partnering with Emily’s Flower Kitchen (woman owned, creative floral designs) for the ordering and pick-up of gorgeous bouquets for the holiday of love. Order by Monday, February 12th for pick up on February 14th from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pre-order is highly recommended via emilysflowerkitchen.com as there will be limited bouquets available for walk-ins. Everything on her website is available, choose the “pick up” option at check out and you’re all set to grab them at Solid Ground on Valentine’s Day!