Black American History

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The Matriarchs of West Medford, MA
cookie monster: 'me gotta be blue'
recumbentgoat wrote in blackhistory

Source: Boston Globe Born in the shadow of World War I and raised during the Great Depression, they married men who fought in World War II. When the war ended, they ran their households, their churches, and their neighborhood with steely determination.

Today, many of these women still live with their families in West Medford, where they are reaping the fruits of their labors.

This weekend, 16 of them, middle-class black women ranging in age from 90 to 104, will be honored as the matriarchs of West Medford.

"They are all first-class ladies," said Kenny Phillips, a lifelong West Medford resident.

The 62-year-old Phillips said he knows the matriarchs very well. "Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Frisby," he recalled with a smile. "They all took care of me."

Then his smile wavered a bit.

When it comes to family, faith, and community, no one now can compare to these women, he said. "They're like the last of the Mohicans."

West Medford -- the neighborhood between High Street and Mystic River Road -- has always stood apart from the rest of the city. According to some locals, it was originally an island, and home to the Mystic Indians. Later, as wealthy Bostonians built sprawling estates in Medford, the blacks who worked as servants and laborers on the estates settled on the island.

Some came from Barbados, to work in a local rum company. Others arrived through marriage. By the early 1900s, West Medford was a destination for middle-class black families.

"Race has a lot to do with it," said Dorothy Tucker, a longtime West Medford resident who is helping organize the tribute to the women.

"Back then, we were only able to live on three streets, and there was only one bank that gave us mortgages."

With so few options, she said, the people in the neighborhood became extremely close-knit.

"We had to live through the war, the Depression, and then another war, so people clung to each other," she said. "We were confined, and we said, 'This will not stop us.' "

Several of the matriarchs arrived in this intergenerational community at the end of World War II. As their husbands went off to work, the women went to work in the neighborhood.

They bonded as parents, many recalled.

"Back then, you could tell other people's children to behave," said Alice Isaacs, now 95.

It's not like that anymore, she said. "My heart bleeds for the children and their parents now," she said.

Even now, approaching 100 years of age, Isaacs and her peers still command tremendous respect.

"You just knew that you better not cross them," Tucker said. "If they said, 'No,' you accepted it."

Most of the women became part of Shiloh Baptist Church, the neighborhood's main place of worship.

"The people of the community would come to the minister and say, 'My son needs help' or 'My daughter seems to not be doing as well as we'd like,' " Tucker recalled.

There was the community center on Arlington Street, too. Men from the neighborhood brought back an empty military barracks from World War II, and used it to house community events. The community eventually outgrew the building, and a new facility is now under construction.

The ladies established clubs dedicated to improving the community, received college degrees, and started their own businesses.

"We had the Daffodil Club, and the Lend-A-Hand club," said Evelyn Tyner, 90. "And we always had a bowling league and a dance group."

Although Tyner is being recognized in part for her contributions to the community groups, she was a role model in other ways, too. During World War II, she worked as a welder in a naval shipyard. Later, she operated West Medford's first black-owned beauty salon, then went to college, obtained two degrees, and became a teacher.

Many of her peers were pioneers in the work world, too.

Shortly after World War II, Mildred Holmes became one of the first physical therapists in the area. Dorothy Bailey was a nurse who cared for people injured in the Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942.

Their professional history will be one of the things honored when the community gathers at Shiloh Baptist on Saturday afternoon. Their enduring influence on West Medford will be another.

Craig Berry, a 35-year-old telecommunications worker, has lived on Harvard Avenue his entire life. Last weekend, he stood in his front yard, pointing from one house to the next: His aunts lived there, and that couple had elderly parents living with them, right up until the day they died.

"Every house, I can tell a story about," he said.

Lately, though, winds of change have been felt.

"There's been a lot of change in my lifetime," he said. The biggest one, he said, is how desirable the community has become.

People frequently leave notes on the front door of the two-family home he shares with his mother, asking to buy the house.

"Everybody wants to move to West Medford," he said, "and I'm not surprised. It's really nice here."

But one thing hasn't changed, he said. Strong women still run the show. "Just ask my mother," he said.

A few streets away, David Harris, who was sprucing up his yard, said his family moved to West Medford 12 years ago, because it was racially and economically diverse.

Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, Harvard Law School, said he enjoys living in a place where so many people are related, and where people watch out for one another.

"It's different here," he said. "There are always people out and about."

It's all because of the matriarchs, he added.

"This was always a place we wanted to live," he said, as he watched his son clip the shrubs, "and they are the generation that made it this way."

There's also a 3 minute audio slideshow that's definitely great to hear.

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My father would drive me around the places he grew up and tell a story about every house. One time we even talked and spoke to an old neighbor that remembered both of my grandparents.

Then my parents moved across the country and I out of the country.

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