“If we cannot do great things, we can do small things in a great way.”
This quote by Melnea Cass (1896-1978) summed up how she lived her life. Mrs. Cass never sought fame or glory, she simply wanted a better life for her family and her community. Melnea Agnes (Jones) Cass, also affectionately known as the First Lady of Roxbury, was born in 1896 in Richmond, VA to Albert and Mary Drew Jones.
The family’s move to Boston’s South End in 1901 made them officially part of the Great Migration, that mass exodus of African Americans from the South beginning at the turn of the century in order to find a better life for themselves and their families. The Cass family relocation was not a smooth one, jobs were competitive and housing for the growing family that quickly included three siblings, all girls, was not easy to find.
The death of their mother five years after their move made matters more difficult for their father and he depended on female relatives and neighbors to help him raise the girls until the decision was made to send Melnea back to Virginia for her secondary schooling at a Catholic school for African American and Native American children.
Melnea’s achievement as Valedictorian of her high school class in 1914 was a harbinger of the greatness for which she was destined. In Boston, since employment opportunities were limited for an African American female Valedictorian, Melnea found steady employment as a domestic before her marriage to Marshall Cass in 1917. While Marshall served in the military during WWI, Melnea lived with her infant son in the home of her mother-in-law, Rosa Brown. After Marshall Cass returned from the war, Melnea became primarily a housewife except for a short period during the depression when she worked as a live-in housekeeper in Newton.
Mrs. Rosa Brown was a suffragist, a member various groups including the NAACP, the Women’s Service Club of Boston, and William Monroe Trotter’s National Equal Rights League. She influenced Melnea Cass to become active in politics and local efforts to improve the community. In addition to Mrs. Brown, Melnea Cass was influenced by what she called, “just ordinary people, just good neighbors who were willing to help each other.” Everyone was civically oriented as a survival strategy and it was through that exposure that Melnea Cass learned the power of united efforts to achieve common goals.
The struggle for the enfranchisement of women did not end with the passage of the 20th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. Many women were fearful that if they exercised that right, they would put their husbands’ jobs or even their own jobs in peril of retaliation by vindictive employers. Mrs. Brown courageously and defiantly led the effort to register African American women in Boston to vote and Melnea joined her mother-in-law in that struggle. That effort whetted her appetite for activism and Melnea Cass never looked back. She joined the NAACP in the early 1920s and her natural leadership allowed her to take the helm of several women’s clubs becoming president of the regional branch of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and eventually becoming President of the Boston Chapter of the NAACP.
When her three children were young, Mrs. Cass realized that her community lacked educational facilities for children their age, so she worked with other women in her neighborhood to organize kindergartens, nursey schools, and even summer camps. Those were communal efforts where the neighborhood mothers could take their children and they would take turns to staff the facilities until they were able to raise funds for permanent staff.
Those early successes inspired Mrs. Cass and her community to keep pushing forward despite many setbacks. According to Mrs. Cass, participation in protests and marches was something expected of everyone because they understood that any future individual gains would be enjoyed by everyone. When the Pullman Car Porters went on their twelve-year strike in 1925, their eventual success was due to the entire community’s collective efforts. That communal philosophy of working toward the greater good brought to mind a quote by Nannie Burroughs, an African American “race woman” as they were called during the early part of the 20th century,
“Don’t wait for deliverers. Moses, my servant is dead. Therefore, arise and go over Jordan. There are no deliverers. They’re all dead. We must arise and go over Jordan. We can take the promised land.”
When a march was called, Mrs. Cass’s ‘can-do’ attitude was instrumental in helping to organize them and individuals marched in shifts according to their work or child-care situation. Mrs. Cass also understood the struggles of domestic workers so when social security was established in 1935 and it did not include a whole series of categories of work that was dominated by AAs, specifically agriculture and domestic work, Mrs. Cass participated in national efforts to revise that discrimination. By 1952, individuals who were employed as a domestic for at least two days a week were covered by that new government benefit.
A charismatic and altruistic leader and organizer, Mrs. Melnea Cass was a founding member of Freedom House and she was appointed as a charter member of Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), both important social service organizations for African Americans in Boston, in addition to her participation in too many other social service activities and community groups to mention here. When Queen Elizabeth visited Boston in 1976, Mrs. Cass was one of the few to receive an invitation to be presented to the Queen.
Melnea Cass began her adult life as a domestic yet to paraphrase the words of Rudyard Kipling,
“She could talk with crowds, and keep her virtue, and she could walk with Kings (or Queens) and not lose her common touch.”
Mrs. Cass was recognized for her service to the community with the naming of the Melnea Cass Indoor Recreation Arena, the re-naming of a major thoroughfare, the Melnea Cass Blvd. and the designation of Melnea Cass Day in 1966 by the City of Boston. Northeastern University, Simmons College, and Boston College all bestowed honorary doctorates on her before her death on December 16, 1978 in Boston, MA.
By Rosalyn Delores Elder