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   Support for Black Culture:
A Tale of Two Organizations
The League of Women for Community Service
Contact Lorraine Roses

          Black Society
            League of Women for Community Service

on the cityscape of Black Boston over the past eighty–three years two civic associations have stood out as fixtures of social and cultural life.
Both of these venerable and enduring institutions—the Women’s Service Club and the Women's Service ClubLeague of Women in Community Service-- continue to flourish and co-exist side by side at this writing.
Though the two clubs are well known and respected, the question of precisely what role they have played in the promotion of cultural life has not been explored or precisely documented.

Adelaide Cromwell
, in her sociological study of Boston’s black upper class, calls them “charitable-social, local, non clique limited clubs” and deems them “extremely important institutions in Boston” (143)--presumably because they are indigenous to the city, not chapters of organizations founded elsewhere.
“Non clique” means, one supposes, that they are open to new applicants for membership. Though it is known locally that James Weldon Johnson and Roland Hayes, to name just two luminaries, made featured appearances at the League of Women for Community Service, there is little systematic documentation that would allow us to gauge the linkage between the social service mission of the club and the genesis of cultural capital in Black Boston.

The year 1918 is cited as the beginning for both, though their dates of legal incorporation would differ. Cromwell found that

“[b]y 1950, roughly thirty years after the founding of both clubs, the services performed by both were quite similar—a modest amount of social service, the use of either building for outside events, the use of a few rooms for students, and the continuation of a feud between them.“

To the outsider trying to comprehend how two clubs could grow up nearly side by side and endure for eighty years and counting, these two associations appear maddeningly similar. One wonders why, if their activities mirrored each other so closely, they would not either merged for fiscal benefit or differentiated so as to be more complementary.

Their location in the elegant South End, a short walk south of Symphony Hall, the Christian Science Mother Church and Mapparium, and Horticultural Hall, places them at Boston’s architectural and cultural heart.

The Women’s Service Club at 464 Massachusetts Avenue occupies an elegant three-story town house, while the League (“558”) is headquartered in a stunningly ornate Victorian mansion. Their nicknames, accordingly, are “464” and “558.”

The stimulus for their formalization came out of the desire of black women to contribute to the war effort. But they already existed as private affinity clubs, one around the activity of bridge and the other around knitting. Their real differences, surmises Cromwell, were social,

“rooted in conflicts among individuals, which antedated the formal origin of either [organization]” .... [a] certain tragic aspect is involved in their development, for the accomplishments in organizing both groups at the time are still unique among Negro women at this writing” (147).

But perhaps there is no tragedy in the fact that two strong and autonomous black women’s organizations have thrived and lent coherence to the development of a vibrant and historic community.
Discussions with present-day members and others acquainted with the history provide the material for only the broadest comparisons, in which 558 emerges as the association focused primarily on cultural events, counting on its “well-to-do” members whose husbands originally “wrote the checks.”
In contrast, 464 may have taken the lead in “hands on” social involvement, preparing Thanksgiving baskets, running a food bank and often “going into its pockets” to carry out such programs.

Not that they stood alone in this respect. Other black organizations functioning through the same times were socially oriented as well—perhaps more so, as suggested by Ruth Batson, a leader in education for decades in the city of Boston.
Batson recalls that

“[t]here were many women’s organizations in the early days: The group at 464 and the one at 558, which tended to be more la-de-da. I was never interested in joining these organizations. I was more interested in the fight for freedom.”

Batson’s own activism stems from her family’s involvement in the Garvey movement, strong in Boston during the 1920s and 1930s.

Other individuals, such as the daughters of activist Florence Le Sueur, do not draw a sharp distinction between one or the other of the two organizations, but seeing them both as being socially concerned. Mural on Facade of Harriet Tubman House
They remember that 558, like the Harriet Tubman House fostered by their mother’s activism, helped newcomers find work in defense plants, starting in 1939 and located openings for live-in maids in Cambridge at the homes of Harvard professors.

One could add to the list of organizations devoted to community service the Robert Gould Shaw House (one of “the settlements,”) as important organizations adding strength to the social fabric.

Myra McAdoo, both of whose grandmothers were founding members of 464, is the group’s historian, preparing historical summaries every five years.
According to McAdoo, whose mother Gladys was a prominent member too, it is not the case that 464 and 558 had the same functions, even though they were not always separate. During World War I they combined, but afterwards “couldn’t decide who would be President.” Some of the members left 464 and went to 558, like Gladys McAdoo’s “bridge buddy Emma Newman.” Today McAdoo sees “The League” at 558 as concerned with cultural events.

McAdoo’s own group, the Women’s Service Club at 464 is devoted to hands on work. It began as “Mrs. Mary Wilson’s knitting club,” Mary Wilson being the wife of attorney Butler R. Wilson.

At first 464 had its own building, “The Rest House,” at the Columbus Avenue playground.
An 80th anniversary program put out by “464,” states that the club was incorporated on December 3, 1919 .

“On March 1, 1920, the ladies raised all the money and in early days went into their own pockets to maintain the building and to provide the necessary services. They even cleaned the buildings themselves........[t]he Charter members were culturally, socially, and economically mixed and met today’s definition of ‘diversity.’”

This intriguing comment on diversity, according to Myra McAdoo, means that “We had black and white women, rich and poor, you name it, we had one.” Myra’s two grandmothers were founding members: “One was short and Catholic (Katie Gallagher McAdoo). The other, Mattie, was tall, Episcopalian, white, and sang in eight languages.”

Whether 464 adopted an issues-oriented or political stance in its early decades remaMelnea Cassins to be researched. What is clear is that when Melnea Cass (1896-1978) assumed the presidency of 464, she placed political activism high on the agenda.
Cass, known as the “First Lady of Roxbury,” encouraged women to vote in the 1920s, and in the 1930s successfully pressured department stores and hospitals to hire African Americans.

According to Adelaide Cromwell,

“[464] is generally credited with rendering effective, widely recognized service, entertaining soldiers on the way to and from army posts, supplying many needs of servicemen, and educating and stimulating a war-depressed community.”

One misses the concrete detail here, the description of what those contacts might have been like, who the women were, and how they might have interacted with servicemen from all parts of the United States, some of them green recruits, others shell-shocked from war. It’s easy to picture their nimble fingers turning out woolen hats, gloves, and socks for the World War I servicemen stationed at nearby Camp Devens, traveling by train for formal visits, providing cigarettes as well, at a time when tobacco was thought to be a fairly harmless habit.

Originally a temporary cantonment area, the Camp Devens army post, according to its Web site, came into existence on September 5, 1917, on land purchased from individuals in the towns of Ayer, Harvard, Shirley, and Lancaster, about an hour’s drive from Boston.
Two divisions of more than 100,000 soldiers trained at Camp Devens (the 76th and the 12th) between August, 1917 and November, 1918. In 1918 it became a separation center for over 150,000 troops upon their return from France. The camp would definitely have been in need of support for the servicemen for reasons beyond the usual ones. In September 1918, it was facing a terrible epidemic of what was later diagnosed as Spanish influenza. A doctor stationed at Camp Devens, which was also the base hospital for the Northeast, wrote to a friend, and fellow physician, stating that his surgical unit was sustaining fifty deaths every day. He described the onset of the illness as what at first appeared to be

“an attack of la grippe or influenza. . . , and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible. . . We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up.

The disease, also called “the Spanish lady,” claimed victims in Boston too: as September 1918 drew to a close, the city had lost more than 1000 people. One can only imagine the trepidation of the women as they knitted, sized, and stitched woolen items for the servicemen, with autumn advancing and winter chill on the way. It wasn’t until early November that the flu virtually disappeared from Boston.

In order to describe in more detail what went on, we would need information on whether “464” had direct contacts with the colored men at the Camp or at their headquarters in Boston, whether they worked in conjunction with black YWCA leaders such as Caroline Bond Day and Addie Hunton, who were engaged in similar wartime work in New York and elsewhere. Further, did the members themselves have sons and husbands at Camp Devens or on the fields of France? Were there love stories that deserve to be included in the pages of history?

The second organization, the League of Women for Community Service, or “558”, was started as a bridge club, which, according to Adelaide Cromwell, “Mrs. Wilson [founder of ‘464'] hadn’t been invited to join.”

Why wouldn’t she have been invited, one wonders. Was there a disagreement between Mary Wilson and Maria Baldwin, who served as 558’s first President from 1918-1922?
Wilson’s social standing as wife of attorney Butler R. Wilson, was high. Perhaps she was perceived as a snob, someone of old roots who lorded it over those who didn’t have them? Did Baldwin and Wilson have different ideas about how to pursue black progress? Did some have ties with William Monroe Trotter’s family, which embraced a more militant philosophy than local supporters of Booker T. Washington? The question is an important and intriguing one.

According to historian Robert C. Hayden, the women met socially in each other’s homes for Sunday afternoon tea.
It was a time (1918)

“[w]hen World War I gripped the country, when Southern agriculture declined and when war related industry jobs were plentiful all at the same time, [and] Black Americans moved in large numbers from the South to the North. Many coming to the Boston area were black soldiers stationed at the Fort Devens Army Base in nearby Ayer.”

The women’s group set up their “Soldier’s Comfort Home” on the site of the present William D. Carter playground on Columbus Avenue.”
Their leader, Maria L. Baldwin (1856-1922), was a brilliant lecturer, often speaking against racial discrimination and praising the achievements of Black Americans. After retiring from her post as Head of the Agassiz School in Cambridge, Baldwin moved to the South End--for what would be the last four years of her life. At first the women first rented storefront space at 528 Massachusetts Avenue, then proceeded to purchase a Victorian row house mansion that had been owned by an abolitionist. The symbolism of the place was strikingly apt:

Five-fifty eight Massachusetts Avenue was built in 1860 by John Farwell, a wealthy white sea captain and shipping merchant. Farwell was an active abolitionist and he used his home as a station of the Underground Railroad in Boston to hide fugitive slaves. When federal officials came to Farwell’s home in search of a runaway slave a secreted ‘hidden room’ was used to hide the slaves and it has been speculated though not documented that a secret passageway was used to move them into the home next door at 560 Mass Ave.
Because of its place in the history of the abolitionist movement, ‘558’ has been named as a member of the National Register of Historic Places.

At the May 1, 1919 meeting the women voted to change the name of their organization from “Soldiers Comfort Unit” to the League of Women for Community Service, to take effect in 1920 when they became incorporated.

Maude T. Jenkins,Maude Jenkins in her study of the Black Woman’s Club Movement in America, describes the building at 558, built in 1860, as having “marble fireplaces, French gold leaf chandeliers, a ballroom and library, fine iron work around the windows, massive mahogany staircases and doors, Corinthian columns, elaborate plaster work, huge Venetian mirrors on the walls, silver doorknobs and beautiful Victorian furniture.”

Under Maria Baldwin’s leadership, explains Hayden,

“receptions for black soldiers returning home to Boston and regular visits to Soldiers at Fort Devens with knitted sweaters, candy, and cigarettes were carried out by the women. The Soldiers and Sailors Visiting Committee existed ‘to carry comfort and cheer to soldiers and sailors in [m]any camps.’”

In their mission rhetoric the women made it clear that they were focused on the needs of African American men. A Junior Comfort Unit was established ‘to draw the attention of the younger people to the need of work also among them for soldiers and to cooperate in the patriotic service we are trying to render the race." [emphasis added]

After World War I, 558 provided housing and assistance to young black women arriving to attend college, and also assisted Southern girls and women seeking positions as domestic workers.

What did it take to become a member of 558?
According to Cromwell, the LWCS stressed “old Boston residence and educational qualifications.”
With headmistress Maria Baldwin as President, the educational part makes sense. What might be meant by “old Boston residence,” though? This antiquity requirement could be read as a devotion to honoring Boston’s special history as home of the Abolition Movement and earliest northern black settlement—a devotion that approached the fervor of religiosity in this hidebound Boston community. Or, alternatively, it could refer literally to the length of one’s family’s presence in the city of Boston, though long bloodlines were the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps it meant both.

Mission statements, activity papers, and minutes of the meetings are needed to assess more fully the importance of both 558 and 464. There are more questions than answers at this point. What about the role of men’s associations that contributed to developing cultural life? (Cromwell’s study is limited by gender to females).

Cultural Considerations

Both clubs hosted all manner of meetings, concerts, lectures, and allowed usage of their space for rehearsals. In so doing, they would have created an auspicious environment in which a climate self-reflective of black culture could develop. But as private clubs they would have placed conditions on such usage. What might their criteria have been? One surmises that a kind of social propriety derived from the women’s Black Brahmin ethos would have been important. How would the women have decided who should be allowed to present or use their space?

During this era, when W.E.B. DuBois proclaimed that the future belonged to “the talented tenth” and Alain Locke, in 1925, hailed “The New Negro,” it’s likely the women would have favored uplift discourse and worried about plays with overt social criticism or political content. Minstrel shows or performances of a risquÈ nature would be antithetial to their purpose, one would think. Perhaps the singing of spirituals, meetings of Pan-Africanist sentiment, and plays spoken in dialect would have stirred discussion among the members or on the Board of Directors. How important was it for the organization to have events conform? What were membership dues, and what were the usage fees and how would they have had the effect of regulating access?

But what is important to emphasize is that the events sponsored and held at 558 and 464, whether musical, oratorical, artistic or dramatic, would have tended to lift people out of daily life, and to further define a sense of community.