On Sunday May 7, 2017, Barbara Aileen Clark Elam passed away at Briarwood Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center in Needham, MA at age 88. As a young girl, Barbara’s favorite things were books and the ocean. All kinds of books and mostly the ocean of Cape Cod. Those love affairs never changed. A lifelong community activist, librarian and children’s advocate, Barbara worked tirelessly on important social justice issues like mental health, literacy, and educational reform.
Born in Boston on February 10, 1929, to E. Edward and Leslie (Saunders) Clark, Barbara was the second of their five children and the only daughter. Brothers Winston and Kenneth died young, many years ago and last year, her 82 year-old brother, Carl, passed away. Sidney, the oldest (soon to be 90) and now, only remaining offspring, lives in Avon, Connecticut.
Barbara graduated from Roxbury Memorial High School in 1945 and began attending Simmons College when she was just sixteen years old. She received her BS with Honors in Library Science in 1949. During her college years, she pledged the Iota Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. She recalled being embarrassed, yet undaunted, when one of her tasks as a pledgee consisted of handing out toilet paper to complete strangers in front of Jordan Marsh department store in busy downtown Boston.
From early childhood on, Barbara devoured books and spent hours in the public library with librarians who whet her reading appetite. There she discovered a career that would keep her surrounded by books, especially children’s books, and one that would fulfill her voracious desire to “help somebody”. Throughout her life, she thought children’s books were more valuable than precious jewels and was always dazzled by beautiful illustrations and well-told, seemingly simple stories that held nuanced meaning for readers of all ages, particularly those by and about people of color.
In 1945, Barbara met the love of her life and future husband at St. Mark Congregational Church in Roxbury, by virtue of an announcement she made about an upcoming penny sale to benefit the choir. Harry Justin Elam, who served in the army during World War II, happened to be in the audience and was instantly smitten. He attended the penny sale the following week; she, however, did not. He was determined to meet this exceedingly attractive and well-spoken young woman so, he joined the choir. Because of their seven year age difference (she was 16, he was 23) her parents chaperoned all their dates by sitting with them in the living room.
After college, she worked for a short time in a New York public library and upon return to Boston, initially served as a children’s librarian at the South End branch of the Boston Public Library and later at the East Boston branch. Meanwhile after the War, Harry completed his undergraduate work and began law school. She and Harry married on September 23, 1950, at St. Mark Church, of course. Harry’s brother, Clarence (who also became an attorney and former head of the Alcohol, Beverage Control Licensing Board) was the best man and Barbara’s dear friend, Thelma O’Brien (a long-time school teacher), was the maid of honor.
Harry practiced law for many years with Clarence and former US Senator Edward Brooke. In 197l, Harry became the first black judge, and later the first black Chief Justice, to sit on the Boston Municipal Court. He was appointed to the Massachusetts Superior Court in 1983.
While raising her children, Barbara stopped working in the public schools but was hardly a stay at home mother. Instead she dedicated herself to community service, primarily addressing racial inequities in the Boston Public Schools and the dire need for mental health services in the Black community. She joined the local chapter of the state mental health organization, recruited other members, and eventually became president of the Fort Hill chapter of the Massachusetts Mental Health Association. Barbara lobbied the State House and contacted Senators personally to establish the Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller Center in the South End. The bill passed both houses and was a tremendous victory for the black community, due in no small part to her efforts.
Once all of her children were in stable and satisfying school situations, Barbara decide to return the workforce and in 1965 she became the librarian for the newly constructed Joseph E. Lee School in Dorchester. As the Lee had a student body that was 90% black, Barbara used this opportunity to enhance the school system with children’s and young adult books by and about people of color. Subsequently, Barbara took a position at Brighton High School where her unmatched dedication came to the attention of administrators for the Boston School Library System. Soon she was a member of the Administration Library, tasked with making the library the focal point of every school system. Barbara played an integral role in the development of a city-wide innovative program that trained low-income mothers without secondary school degrees to become library aides. Many of these volunteers later continued their schooling and went on to become full librarians, something they never previously dreamed about. All of them remained eternally grateful for the opportunities the program presented and the guidance Barbara so freely offered. Barbara herself also returned to school in the evenings earning Masters Degrees in Education from Boston University and in Library Science from her alma mater, Simmons College.
In 1988 Barbara retired from the public school library system and Harry retired from the bench, a community event celebrated at a huge joint retirement party for over 1000 people. After retirement, Barbara and Harry relocated from their Dorchester home to Onset in the Buzzards Bay area of Cape Cod. It was not too far from Boston, yet provided endless golf time for Harry and reading and beach time for Barbara, who never learned to swim but loved wading into the ocean as often as possible. After some ten years of travel and enjoyable Cape Cod living, Barbara developed arthritis and underwent hip replacement surgery as well as back surgery. The surgeries exacerbated dormant neurological problems and she was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
At first, Harry cared for her at home but after several years he found it necessary to place her in a nursing home. There were stays at two different facilities but Barbara moved to her final home in the Memory Care unit of Briarwood. Even in the throes of Alzheimer’s, she remained a compassionate, giving, and kind soul, always concerned about others. Although Alzheimer’s is a dreaded disease, her family is grateful that she never had to experience the deep pain and loss of her beloved son (Keith aka Guru) or devoted husband of almost 62 years. Harry, at 90, predeceased Barbara in August 2012.
Barbara and Harry’s oldest child, Tricia Elam Walker, a writer, lawyer and educator, is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Howard University and lives in Dorchester MA, with her husband Chuck Walker, Esq., an attorney and law professor. The second child, Harry Justin Elam Jr., Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Vice President of the Arts at Stanford University, resides in Redwood City, CA with his wife Michele Elam, a professor in Stanford’s English Department. The third child, daughter Alicia Saunders Elam, died at three months old of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). The fourth child, Keith Edward Elam, also known as Guru of Gangstarr, an internationally renowned hip hop artist, died of cancer in 2010. The fifth and final child, Jocelyn Elam Perron, a bilingual preschool teacher for many years, resides in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Barbara leaves her three remaining children (Tricia, Harry Jr. and Jocelyn); son-in-law, Chuck and daughter-in-law, Michele; six grandchildren (Justin Nicholas-Elam Ruff, Elam Ruff, Nile Ruff, Claire Patterson, Keith Casim Elam and Brian Perron); brother Sidney Clark , sisters-in-law Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas, June Elam Mooers, Jerry Clark, Linda Day Clark, Joan Clark; brother-in-law, Wilfred Thomas; nieces Ekua Holmes, Rejoice Masters, FaruQah Rushdan, Winifred Elam, Carolyn Elam, Diane Elam, Janice Elam Carter, Minola Clark, Lara Clark, Brenda Elam, Lakshmi Clark; nephews Charles Elam, Robert Elam, Carl Clark, Jr. , Kelton Clark, Russell Clark, Kevin Clark, Jameel Day, and a legion of other relatives and friends.
June 10, 2017 3:30 pm –
Barbara Elam’s family will receive friends at a memorial service on Saturday, June 10, 2017 at 4 PM St. Mark Congregational Church, 200 Townsend Street, Dorchester. A Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Omega, Omega Service will begin at 3:30 PM immediately prior to memorial service. To celebrate Barbara’s love of books, the service will include a book exchange. (You are invited to bring a book to share that has special meaning to you and you will receive a new book in its stead.) In lieu of flowers consider a donation “in memory of Barbara Elam ’49, ’93LS” to The Simmons Fund for the School of Library and Information Science (SLIS), 300 Fenway, Boston, MA 02115 or online at www.alumnet.simmons.edu.