|“I can only imagine what their 100th anniversary will be like.”
There was always something different and special about Freedom House. When it was established in 1949, most community service agencies in Roxbury focused on the problems of black poverty, but the Freedom House founders saw more than economic and cultural deprivation. They saw enormous potential for educational achievement and professional success.
Otto and Muriel Snowden came honestly to this point of view. They were both descendants of families that had found a way to excel despite the prevalent racial discrimination of the early 20th century. Otto, a Howard University alumnus, was the son of Col. Frank Snowden, one of the highest ranking black U.S. Army officers in World War II. Muriel Sutherland, the daughter of a dentist, graduated from Radcliffe College at a time when few blacks attended the premiere universities.
Their idea was to establish a center to promote academic achievement and civic engagement. The latter idea was exceedingly sophisticated because at the time, the black community was too small to have direct political impact. In 1950, the black population of Boston was only 40,057 out of a total of 801,444, according to Census data. A voting bloc of only 5 percent did not have much clout. However, a multiracial bloc effectively organized around common issues could not be ignored.
The Snowdens demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach in their oversight of the Washington Park Urban Renewal Project. This was the largest residential project to be implemented anywhere in the U.S. during the 1960s. As a civic organization, Freedom House had for a decade recruited community residents to participate in projects to clean streets and parks that had not been adequately cared for by the city. It was a natural choice for Freedom House to become the official local agent of the project.
The good work of Freedom House on urban renewal is still apparent today, 40 years later. Unlike many other cities, the black community in Boston is not afflicted with blight. While some individual properties have not been well-maintained and some vacant lots need to be cleaned, there are no slums.
Freedom House was equally effective in promoting academic achievement. In the 1950s, before the value of early education had gained national attention, Freedom House launched a “Play School.” They later established the Freedom House Institute on Schools and Education to provide parents with the information necessary for them to provide educational opportunities for their children.
Freedom House actually ran a freedom school during the “Stay Out for Freedom” boycotts of Boston Public Schools during the 1960s and became an operation center during the implementation of mandatory busing after the 1974 desegregation ruling by Judge Arthur Garrity. However, the crown jewel of education programs at Freedom House was Project REACH (the Road to Educational Achievement).
Each year from 1988 to 1992, about 50 African American and Latino students were enrolled in a program to provide, among other benefits, financial support for their college education. A survey last summer of the REACH alumni found that 97 percent had finished college, 46 percent had earned master’s degrees and 16 percent had earned an M.D., J.D. or M.B.A. Over 95 percent indicated that they have become involved in community affairs.
As the size of Boston’s black community grew over the years, attention was diverted from civic engagement to direct political action. Now that citizens have become aware of the limitations of the latter approach, the Freedom House idea is once again becoming fashionable. With Gail Snowden, the daughter of the founders, now at the helm, the community can expect a revitalization of the energy that once characterized Freedom House.
On Thursday, April 16, from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Colonnade Boston Hotel, Freedom House will “touch lives and uplift spirits” with its Champions of Freedom Awards. It is important to participate in this reinvigoration of an important institution.