From the outside, 558 Massachusetts Street is an understated, fragile brownstone. But the façade differs from the glamorous interior, which is steeped in Boston’s black history. and, Women’s Federation for Community ServiceSince 1920, the Brownstone has served not only as the organization’s headquarters, but also as an important and safe space for Boston’s black community.
Kalimah Redd Knight is the current president of the Women’s League for Community Service. She is the latest in a long line of black women to run an organization that has prioritized community and educational services for Boston’s marginalized communities. During that time, the Redd Knight didn’t learn much about the league. “I had no idea Black people were so visible and doing such great things in the city,” she says. “There are families who went to league dances, but they really didn’t. know about the league. ”
It’s a testament to how much of Boston’s black history is hidden within the city itself. Not only is the league one of Boston’s oldest and longest-running black women-led organizations, it has provided an essential and appropriate safe haven for the expression and preservation of black culture. “I sometimes wonder what my experience would have been like if I knew this information and had the space to go somewhere where I could see myself,” says Redd Knight. .
From hosting dances and plays to providing rooms and meals for women attending local colleges, the league was one of the few places in Boston to offer comprehensive services to people of color, especially black women. When Coretta Scott King attended the New England Conservatory of Music in the early 1950s, she stayed in the league for a year. She was just one of many black women who found a safe place within the walls of the league.
“[The League] We felt it was important for them to provide the resources,” says Dr. Johnny Hamilton-Mason, a professor at Simmons University and a researcher involved in the league’s recovery. In the 90s, I think social workers were stationed. They always had an educator. Many of the members are educators, some of them former nurses. ”
Education and literacy were the main organizational principles of the federation. They viewed both as essential tools for improving not only individuals but entire communities.
Maria Baldwin’s Legacy
Maria Baldwin was already an innovator when she became the league’s first president in 1919. She was an educator at Agassiz Her School in Cambridge, eventually becoming principal (the school was subsequently renamed to honor her memory and achievements at Baldwin). ).
This made Baldwin the first black person to lead an integrated school “not just in Massachusetts, but in New England,” says Red Knight. “This was very unusual, as all of her staff were white, and the majority of the students at her school were white. But she was this black woman placed in this prestigious position. This is truly the pinnacle of the 19th century.”
As a teacher, Baldwin opened his Cambridge home to black students attending Harvard University. One of them he was WEB Du Bois (whom Baldwin was tutoring). Aside from her work in the field of education, she also had a close relationship with and collaborated with Josephine St-Pierre Raffin on her involvement with the Women’s Ella Club, one of the oldest black women’s clubs in the United States. She founded the Women’s Zuela Newspaper, one of the first newspapers in the United States. She prioritizes the experiences of black women at the center.
Baldwin was instrumental in securing 558 Massachusetts Avenue as the league’s headquarters. “She actually bought the property from the Farwell family,” League officer Adrian Benton said as he toured the property. , she insisted on calling it quits and taking over with the league, so she was a very forward-thinking black woman at the time.”
The building at 558 Massachusetts Avenue fell into disrepair in the 1990s, but remnants of its former glory are still evident inside the home. It is his four-story Victorian Gothic brownstone built in 1857 by wealthy timber importer William Kearns.
“It’s a penthouse of sorts,” says Benton, standing in the pool room on the fifth floor. There are windows on nearly every wall, offering nearly 360-degree views of the city of Boston. “As you can see, I used to be able to see all the way to Dorchester and Back Bay because there weren’t any other properties around here.”
When it was built, “it was considered the most luxurious home in Boston,” says Redd Knight. “And to this day, he’s one of the few spaces in the South End that still has all the original fixtures.” From the silver doorknobs to the mahogany and rosewood finishes, this property epitomizes luxury. “The chandelier was imported from Paris. I think the wallpaper is from Brussels.”
The house was heated not by fireplaces, but by expensive coal heat at the time. “The building also has a lot of mirrors,” says Benton, pointing to the spectacular floor-to-ceiling glass. “When Kearns built the mirrors he did in 1857 it cost him about $10,000 a piece.”
A huge library filled with important and rare texts is also a feature of the house. When Maria Baldwin died in 1922, her library was dedicated to her. Many of the valuable texts and letters have since been removed from the property and are stored at Simmons University, where the League’s archives are now being processed. Among these documents is her one of only three surviving copies of her originals of Ida B. Wells’ Southern Horror: Lynching in All Phases.
The league recently began working with the Schlesinger Library at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute to preserve and digitize the commemorative “Personal War Sketches” book found at the facility. “It features members of the Republic’s Grand Army, the Robert A. Bellpost 134, made up of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry – an all-black military unit,” said Red Knight. “This book contains first-hand accounts of black soldiers from these regiments who served in the Civil War. As far as we know, the story hasn’t been seen outside the league for decades.” bottom.”
The letters and materials unearthed by researchers and the league revealed just how far the organization’s ties extend. When Hamilton Mason and members of the League examined the documents, they found that members and founders of the League were in contact with Booker T. Washington and Langston Hughes. “They had deep networks that extended beyond Boston and used the black press to promote their events,” says Hamilton Mason. “They advocated education in public schools early on.”
Despite Boston’s gentrification, the league was able to keep 558 Massachusetts Avenue. The league has received offers and calls to buy the building, but over the years has always made the decision to keep it. More than 100 years after a black woman bought the building, the league “still owns it,” he says Redd Knight.
quest for recovery
There are a number of factors that have led to the building’s need for repair. “You know, the idea of a women’s club fell out of fashion after a while,” he says. “People expressed a desire to promote civil rights in a different way than traditional women’s clubs.”
The league was a hotspot of black community activity for much of the 20th century, but things changed as Boston became more integrated. “The league really put on events, and there was a time when black people couldn’t go to another hotel in the area,” she says. We lost a lot of potential business opportunities that could be profitable in many ways.”
Neighborhood demographics changed as well, with urban redevelopment and gentrification contributing to the displacement of black residents in the area. As women began to enter the workforce, “they don’t have as much time as they used to,” notes Redd Knight.
The house is listed on the Massachusetts Historic Register, which has played another role in the property’s slow restoration. Certain elements of the house simply cannot be replaced. It should be restored to its original condition as much as possible or restored with historical accuracy. This means the cost will be higher than if the league had restored the house without the historic designation.
The league is conducting an ongoing capital campaign to raise the funds needed to restore the building. “This restoration will at least be her $5 million project,” she says Adrienne Benton. “Through the grant she was able to raise $1.1 million, but we need to move forward to ensure balance.” Necessary repairs included improved electrical and plumbing systems, unique window replacements, This includes floor joist repair, stucco work, and more.
The goal is not only to restore the property, but to open it up to Boston’s marginalized community.
“I don’t think people realize how important it is to feel recognized, to feel cared for, to have a safe place to be in the center,” says Redd Knight. “I think we are all very proud when we enter the building. [it’s] It’s about creating a space for future generations to feel safe and a measure of acceptance. ”