Black History Month: Celebrating the Courage in our Community02.28.20
Black History Month offers an important reminder to pause and honor the many courageous African American men and women who fought against discrimination to improve the lives of others and their descendants. At Cambridge Crossing, we’re lucky to be part of the diverse East Cambridge community that has been home to some amazing pioneers. Today we stop and reflect on a few of those who have shaped our history:
Harriet Ann Jacobs
Harriet Jacobs was a 19th century abolitionist, author and women’s rights advocate who’s best known for her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (available for free download here). Interestingly, the work was viewed as a fictional narrative for a century written by its publisher, L. Maria Child, until historian Jean Fagan Yellin’s research uncovered the reality, that Incidents was Jacobs’ story in her own words. Incidents, now properly credited, is, along with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, considered “the two most important slave narratives,” according to literary critic David S. Reynolds.
Harriet, who resided at 17 Story Street in Cambridge, made a substantial impact in her own time. After escaping slavery in North Carolina, she dedicated her life to helping others seek refuge from slavery during the Civil War as a leading abolitionist, as well as helping them to gain essential skills through dedicated schoolhouses. While attending the annual conference of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, Harriet was on hand for a parade of the newly created 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first all-black military units in American history. The 54th was memorialized in a monument on Boston Common and in the 1989 Oscar-winning film Glory.
Last year, the Cambridge Crossing team celebrated the dedication of the former North Street to what is now proudly called Jacobs Street, in Harriet Jacobs’ honor. Former Mayor and current City Councilor E. Denise Simmons offered insightful remarks at the dedication ceremony articulating how these symbols, much like Yellin’s research on Incidents, help to shed light on overlooked history makers. Harriet Jacobs’ name will be forever embedded in our community as will her legacy and what she has taught us all about bravery and determination.
Maria Louise Baldwin
Maria Baldwin was a lifelong Cambridge resident and, despite being educated in the City’s public-school system, she was unable to secure a teaching job here for several years. Through perseverance and her skill as an educator, Maria became the first African-American woman to be appointed as a principal in New England when she assumed that role at the Agassiz School in 1889.
Less than 30 years later, she became School Master at Agassiz (the only African American to hold such a position in New England at that time) and ushered in educational innovations including art classes, new approaches to teaching math and the City’s first open air classroom. Outside of the classroom, she led and hosted the Omar Khayyam Circle, an intellectual and literary group whose members included W.E.B. DuBois.
Maria’s legacy as a gifted and influential educator was cemented by the renaming of her former school to the Maria L. Baldwin School in 2004 and the inclusion of her 32 Sacramento Street home on the African-American Heritage Trail. At Cambridge Crossing, we’re proud to help keep her legacy alive with the 20,000 square foot Baldwin Park. Centrally located within CX, Baldwin Park is designed to bring members of the community together, becoming an important place in our neighborhood for learning, collaboration, and celebration named after a true trailblazer.
Gertrude Wright Morgan
Gertrude Wright Morgan was a leader in both the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements dating back to her high school career, when she became the first African-American girl to attend Springfield High School in Illinois following integration in 1874. Despite being treated like an outcast by many of her fellow classmates, Gertrude graduated third in her class, demonstrative of her excellent academic ability and grit.
Alongside her husband Clement G. Morgan, Gertrude used their home at 265 Prospect Street to host prominent civil rights leaders. The home is memorialized as one of the stops on the African-American Heritage Trail. She played an active role in the Niagara Movement, founded by W.E.B. DuBois, and the establishment of the NAACP. Gertrude was also President of the Women’s Era Club, the Governor-appointed Massachusetts representative at the dedication of the Frederick Douglass House Museum and a Board Member of the Harriet Tubman House.
Like Harriet Jacobs, Gertrude Wright Morgan was memorialized with the dedication of her own street, Morgan Avenue, last year. It was a true honor to host Gertude’s descendants as we unveiled the new street sign and celebrated her life and achievements. During the ceremony, her great, great-nephew, Jim Spencer, himself a resident of Cambridge, delivered remarks, saying, “…she is no longer an unsung hero. She’s somebody having a street named after her, and her family is so proud.”
Today, Spencer finds himself among a group of inspiring Cantabrigians of color who are carrying on the work of these heroes and shining a light on their contributions to society. One way he’s doing that is through his work with the Cambridge Black Bookmark Project, a not-for-profit that honors men and women who made outstanding contributions in areas such as business, medicine, academia, art, equality and athletics with bookmarks featuring their photo and biography to be shared with the community.
While there is no shortage of reasons that we’re proud to call Cambridge home, the many leaders in our City’s history and the efforts by the current generation to ensure they are properly recognized is incredibly inspiring. Morgan Avenue, Jacobs Street, and Baldwin Park are symbolic gestures of how we can carry those legacies into the next chapter of this community, and to continue honoring their achievements and courage.
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