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Tour hails historic women of Roxbury

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Tour hails historic women of Roxbury

Guides and participants on the sold-out Roxbury Women’s History tour stand around Fern Cunningham’s “Family Circle” sculpture in Roxbury’s Elm Hill Park

Two of the important contributors to Roxbury’s history recognized on the tour were Mary Eliza Mahoney (left), who in 1879 became the first African American professional nurse, and Melnea Cass (right), a tireless community activist who organized the neighborhood around important social issues of her day. (“Family Circle” image: Sandra Larson photo; Mahoney and Cass images courtesy of Discover Roxbury)
Tour participants Faith Beysolo of Roxbury (back row), Gloria Jolley and her grandson Tonji Hampton of Roxbury (middle row) and Tonji’s mother, Renee Jolley, of Roxbury (front) listen to a discussion of the life of Dr. Jessie Gideon Garnett, the first black woman dentist in Boston and the first black female graduate of Tufts Dental School. (Sandra Larson photo)
The tour group did not go inside the former home of Dr. Jessie Gideon Garnett, located at 80 Munroe Street, but Patricia Carrington, a member of Discover Roxbury’s board and a former patient of Garnett’s, gave a firsthand account of what a visit to the history-making black dentist’s office was like.  (Photo courtesy of Discover Roxbury)

At the tail end of Women’s History Month, a pair of local cultural nonprofits joined forces last Saturday to honor the legacies of prominent women of Roxbury.

On the sold-out Roxbury Women’s History trolley tour, guides from the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail and Discover Roxbury pointed out important neighborhood sites and told tales of some of the activists, artists and medical professionals who changed history.“We’ll just be touching the tip of the iceberg today,” said Sylvia McDowell, president of the board at Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.

McDowell and Marcia Butman, Discover Boston’s executive director, encouraged participants to introduce themselves as the trolley rolled along Warren Street.

Renee Jolley, 42, of Roxbury came with her son Tonji Hampton, a 14-year-old student at Lexington Christian Academy in Lexington, Mass., and her mother, Gloria Jolley.

“You’ve got to bring the family,” said Gloria Jolley. She announced with pride that she has lived in Roxbury for 64 years.

Mandy Ly, 42, is an accountant who came to the U.S. from Hong Kong 10 years ago and now lives in Quincy. She said she heard about the tour from a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, where she is pursuing a degree in management. A report on the tour will earn extra credit in her “Women and Society” class, she said.

Others on the tour came from Brockton, Roslindale, Roxbury, Dorchester and the South End.

The tour stopped at Elm Hill Park, surrounded by restored Victorian houses and graced by “Family Circle,” a bronze sculpture by Fern Cunningham of a man, woman and child wrapped in a loving embrace. The noted African American sculptor also created the Harriet Tubman statue “Step on Board” in the South End.

A few people shared personal recollections of the women highlighted on the tour.

Patricia Carrington, 65, a Discover Roxbury board member, was a patient of Dr. Jessie Gideon Garnett, who in 1919 became the first African American woman to graduate from Tufts Dental School and the first black woman dentist in Boston.

The tour did not go inside Garnett’s former home at 80 Munroe Street, but Carrington provided a firsthand account of a visit to Garnett’s office.

“It had a door with a window and white Venetian blinds,” Carrington recalled, pointing down the driveway to where a smaller separate building once stood, “and the minute I opened that door, there would be that dentist’s office smell.”

Garnett was a formidable presence to Carrington, then a teenager.

“As gentle as she could be, when she went to yank that tooth out, you felt her strength,” she said.

Carrington also took ballet classes from Elma Lewis, founder of the National Center of Afro American Artists (NCAAA). The trolley tour passed by the NCAAA’s museum, housed in a majestic mansion on Walnut Avenue.

Elma Lewis graduated from Emerson College and earned a master’s degree at Boston University before opening the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in 1950. In 1981 she received one of the first MacArthur Fellowships, often called “Genius grants.”

Lewis died in 2004. Her legacy, said McDowell, includes a flourishing museum, annual performances of the “Black Nativity” Christmas performance that she used to produce and direct, the Franklin Park summer arts staple Playhouse in the Park and plans for a new cultural center in Roxbury honoring her vision.

Roger Freeman of Roxbury spoke to the group about his grandmother, Melnea Cass.

“My grandmother organized the community by making phone calls,” said Freeman. “One would tell another — we didn’t have Internet then — and that’s how they began social activism in the black community.”

Early on, Cass worked to support black troops fighting in World War I, he said, and spent her life advocating for a wide range of causes, including education, fair housing, daycare and opportunities for women and children.

At The Dimock Center, the tour stopped to see a “wall of fame” honoring four women who made history in the 19th century.

Dr. Susan Dimock was one of them. The physician and surgeon for whom the center is named trained in Switzerland after being denied access to medical training at Harvard University.

Dr. Marie Zakrzewska was another. She founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which would later became Dimock Community Health Center.

Linda Richards was the third, and the first American professional nurse and a pioneer in medical recordkeeping. The fourth, Dorchester native Mary Eliza Mahoney, in 1879 became the first African American professional nurse.

“So, four women very important in the history of medicine, before people thought women could do anything,” said Katherine Dibble, a guide with the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.

After the tour, Donna Cotterell, a teacher at Orchard Gardens Pilot School, said she found it interesting to hear about Freedom House, the community center founded by Muriel and Otto Snowden in 1949 as a place where black and white people could come together.

“I’ve seen it so many times, but I never knew how it started,” said Cotterell, who lives in Brockton.

Ly, the UMass-Boston student from Hong Kong, said she was glad to learn more about American history.

“There are so many outstanding women,” she marveled.