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Black Community Activism: Melnea Cass’s Early Beginnings

Melnea Agnes Cass dedicated her life to improving the world around her. Read more about the early life of this Boston champion.

By Armany Brandao

Melnea Cass's brilliant life started on June 16, 1896, in Richmond, Virginia.  Melnea lived in Richmond until she was five years old. The Cass family left Richmond when her parents, Mary Drew Jones and Albert Jones, heard that Boston was a better place to educate their children and to find more work opportunities.

Melnea Cass, 1976
Melnea Cass in 1976, Boston City Archives

Many Black families and individuals moved from the American South to northern cities during the early 1900s. This movement was called The Great Migration. Black families moved to avoid racial discrimination and to find better economic living conditions. Melnea’s family was a part of this movement to seek a better life. Their choice to move was influenced by their friends that lived in Boston who told them that it was a good place for them and their children.

  Excerpt from an Oral History Interview by Lavert Stuart of Melnea A. Cass, Boston City Archives 

Older generations often didn’t want to move from their homes, so it was very common for them to stay in Virginia. The Cass family left behind many older members of their family who decided they would rather live out the rest of their lives in their southern homes. Even though they had to leave family behind, Melnea's family felt that it was necessary to start a new life. When they arrived in Boston, they moved into a large building in Back Bay on Hemenway Street. The building was home to 20-25 other Black families that had also moved from the South in search of a different life. While Melnea's family lived in this building, she attended the Prince School in Back Bay. 

Third grade - Prince School
Prince School on Newbury Street, circa 1890-1900, Boston Public Library

Melnea's family later moved to their home in the South End on Kendall Street. Both of her parents worked to provide for the family. Melnea's mother did laundry for other people and delivered it to them, and her father worked in janitorial services.

Melnea's father was an only child and kept close contact with his mother in Virginia. He even brought the family down to Richmond so that his children could meet their grandmother. They maintained this close relationship with their family despite being separated by so many miles.

Melnea and her family also found ways to maintain their culture even in a completely different environment. Her family was able to keep cooking the traditional dishes that connected them to their culture. Melnea's family had their extended family ship southern vegetables to Boston. They also found ways to purchase special ingredients in Boston. Melnea talked about her family connections and maintaining their culture in her oral history interview.

Melnea Cass OH 1
Excerpt from an Oral History Interview by Lavert Stuart of Melnea A. Cass, Boston City Archives 

Not only was their family able to ship special vegetables to them from the South but her mother was also able to buy special ingredients that were usually disposed of by butchers. She would travel to different parts of Boston to buy these ingredients for inexpensive prices.

 Excerpts from an Oral History Interview by Lavert Stuart of Melnea A. Cass 1975/76 pg.5, Boston City Archives 

In her oral history, Melnea, remembers the thriving Black businesses in the South End, She also recollects Black lawyers and doctors from the South End. Melnea's family preferred to hire a family doctor that they trusted to come to their home and give checkups to their children, rather than going to hospitals and clinics.  According to her oral history, Melnea’s family hired South End doctor, Dr. Hall as their family doctor. After Melnea’s mother died, her family used multiple family doctors but eventually began going to clinics for their healthcare.

Melnea's family was hit by tragedy when she was young. Melnea had two younger sisters, Elizabeth and Emma. Melnea’s mother died shortly after she gave birth to Emma. Their aunt stepped into the place of their mother and helped to raise the girls. Melnea's aunt taught her life lessons about responsibility as well as teaching her how to do practical tasks. Melnea helped her aunt in return. Melnea's aunt had very little education, so Melnea helped her by writing for her and running small errands. Melnea's aunt saw her academic potential and worked to send her to a very prestigious school in Virginia to nurture that potential. Melena began attending St. Francis de Sales Convent School in Rock Castle. Shortly after she graduated from the the Convent School, Melnea returned to Boston to begin a life of community activism influenced by her early beginnings.

Armany Brandao is a Boston Collegiate High School Junior interning at the Boston City Archives. 

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