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Community gathers to celebrate life and legacy of Saundra Graham

Avery Bleichfeld
Community gathers to celebrate life and legacy of Saundra Graham
Former Cambridge Mayor Kenneth Reeves speaks in tribute to Saundra Graham at her funeral July 11. Graham, who served as a Cambridge city councilor and state representative, spent her career advocating for marginalized groups. “I want you to rest in peace. You have fought the fight; the battle is now won,” Reeves said. “But the rest of us, we need to wake up.” PHOTO: Avery Bleichfeld

During a funeral held at the Harvard Memorial Church, an extensive assembly of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandchild of former Cambridge city councilor and state representative Saundra Graham gathered to celebrate her life and legacy alongside her friends, former colleagues in government and others impacted by her work.

Graham was celebrated for her longstanding efforts to speak out for and legislate in support of women, the state’s Black residents and other marginalized groups, locally and statewide. Graham, 81, died of an undisclosed illness on June 23.

Her sister, Sharon “Tami” Freeman, described her as a “strong, powerful woman” both in work and life, and said Graham to her was both a sister and a mother, a friend and a hero.

Cambridge city councilor and former mayor E. Denise Simmons said the work Graham did was always for the greater good.

“When she fought, she didn’t fight just for her, just for the few, she fought for the many,” Simmons said. “She proved determination and resilience will pay off, and there are no limits, except for the ones you place on yourself.”

A lone attendee stands during a performance of the hymn “How Great Thou Art” at the funeral of former Cambridge City Councilor and former State Representative Saundra Graham, July 11. PHOTO: Avery Bleichfeld

Simmons said she was relentless in that work, even as she faced challenges becoming the first woman of color elected to the Cambridge Council and the first Black woman from Cambridge elected to the state legislature.

“She broke barriers and she shattered that glass ceiling. Let me tell you something, when you shatter the glass ceiling, you’re going to get a few cuts,” Simmons said. “That may have slowed her down, but it didn’t stop her. She opened that ceiling so that I and many others here could go through.”

The location of the service was intentionally chosen to reflect her early organizing. In 1970, just outside the church building, Graham interrupted Harvard’s commencement ceremony to protest the university’s displacement of residents in Riverside, a historically Black neighborhood where Graham lived.

Kenneth Reeves, president of the Cambridge NAACP and former Cambridge mayor and city councilor, called it “the place where it all began.”

He described the moment, when Graham took the stage and grabbed the microphone to share her message, as an inspiration to all.

“Take this example wherever you go: 28 years old, less than 5 feet tall, comes up in the citadel — the world’s richest university — to say, ‘you will deal with me’,” Reeves said.

Her care for others in her work sprung from her caring for those in her own home.

“Her family was the center. You know, politics is all about ‘number one,’ well, her family was her number one,” Simmons said.

Graham’s friend and former campaign manager, Pam Thomure, said Graham became the instant matriarch of her family when her mother died.

Her granddaughter, D’Rae Graham, said Saundra Graham’s house was always open to all.

“Nana had an open-door policy to anyone who needed or wanted advice, guidance, love and support,” D’Rae Graham said. “Nana, you always went above and beyond for all of us. If there was anything you could do, you did it and you never expected anything in return.”

Thormure called Saundra Graham’s home a “social service hotspot.”

Friends and family also celebrated Saundra Graham’s connection to her Black heritage. Natassa Mason-Graham said her mother-in-law taught those around her to be proud of their history, heritage and family; to learn from their struggles; and to be unapologetic about who they were.

“Oh, how we laughed out loud. You danced out loud. You loved out loud. You lived unapologetically Black out loud,” Mason-Graham said.

D’Rae Graham said that the younger generations of the family received supplementary education when Saundra Graham felt schools weren’t teaching them enough about their history.

The Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown delivers the eulogy for former Cambridge City Councilor and former State Representative Saundra Graham at her funeral July 11. At the ceremony, friends and family celebrated Graham’s legacy of fighting for marginalized groups and the change she brought to Cambridge. PHOTO: Avery Bleichfeld

“When our school wasn’t teaching us all of our Black history — what you thought we needed to know — you got every book and taught us yourself. You always wanted us to be proud of who we were and where we came from,” D’Rae Graham said.

The ceremony was adorned with classic hymns and more contemporary gospel music. A performance of “How Great Thou Art” was joined by a rendition of Tamela Mann’s 2012 “Take Me to The King.” Graham was carried out of the service to a performance of “The Impossible Dream.”

The ceremony was also marked by the words of poet Maya Angelou. D’Rae Graham read from Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” — which she said was Saundra Graham’s favorite poem. At the request of the family, the Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes read “Still I Rise,” also by Angelou.

Friends, family and colleagues said at the funeral that despite Saundra Graham’s death, her legacy would continue to inspire change in Cambridge. Louis DePasquale, former Cambridge city manager, said there’s always more to be done, a lesson Saundra Graham knew well.

“We all know there’s still more work to do, and if you knew Saundra, you know she’d never let you forget that,” DePasquale said.

Simmons said the results of Graham’s work wouldn’t soon be forgotten.

“Today we mourn her loss, but I want to celebrate her living. I want to celebrate the path she left for all of us to follow,” Simmons said. “Saundra dedicated her life to this city. She was a beacon of hope, a pillar of strength. She was a true inspiration to us all, and she left an indelible mark on the people of Cambridge.”

State Rep. Marjorie Decker said that when Saundra Graham called her, she knew better than to ignore the call and that it was never about something Graham needed, but rather to brainstorm to address some injustice. Even in death, Decker said people would continue to listen to Graham’s call.

“I believe all of us will continue to answer her call and that call is to be accountable, to be reflective, and to ensure that we are doing everything we can to fight injustice wherever and whenever we see it,” Decker said.

Velmer Brooks, Saundra Graham’s cousin, said to the assembled grandchildren that her example should be an inspiration.

“I want to see some of you out there doing what Saundra did,” Brooks said.