Born June 16, 1896. Died 1978.

by Barbara Elam

Melnea Agnes Jones Cass, “First Lady of Roxbury”, was a nationally known African American community leader, civil rights activist and advocate, problem-solver, wife, mother, and grandmother. She persuaded neighbors, community residents, club members and institutions to come together to find solutions and remedies for problems and petitioned elected officials and politicians to make changes.

Melnea Jones was born in Virginia. When she was nine years old, she moved to the South End section of Boston with her parents. She attended the Boston Public Schools and graduated from Girls High School in 1914. After graduating from high school, she could only find work as a domestic and milliner because of her skin color.

In 1917, Melnea Jones married Marshall Cass. Her three children, Marshall, Marianne and Melanie, remember that their mother sewed, made doughnuts, baked cakes and bread, and took the children to the Swan Boats and picnics in Franklin Park and to City Point Beach.

For over 50 years, Melnea Cass dedicated herself to achieving a humane, nurturing and equitable society. She was thoughtful and kind, but also strong- willed, steadfast, forceful, and persistent. She worked to secure voting rights for women. She started a “Mother’s Club” and a preschool nursery in the 1930s that became a model for the day care center movement. Around 1933, she also participated in demonstrations urging department stores to hire African Americans and Boston City Hospital to hire Black doctors and nurses.

As president of the Roxbury Council of Elders and a member of the National Advisory Council on Elderly Affairs, Melnea Cass developed outreach programs for the elderly. She was president of the Women’s Service Club for 17 years, where she created two outstanding programs: the Migrant Service Program and the Homemaker Training Program.

Perhaps the most important part of Melnea Cass’s vision for Boston was to provide the city’s African American citizens with increased educational and occupational opportunities. She cared so much about Boston’s school children that, as president of the Boston Branch of the N.A.A.C.P., she led sit-ins at the Boston School Committee.

Melnea Cass received many special awards and honors: in 1974, she was Massachusetts Mother of the Year; in 1976, she met with Queen Elizabeth when she visited Boston; in 1977, she was one of seven people declared a “Grand Bostonian;” she was the first woman elected state president of the Gold Star and War Parents of America and the first Black woman elected state president of the United War Mothers. She was also the first woman to deliver a sermon from the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Boston.

She received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Boston University, Northeastern University, and Simmons College.
Melnea Cass’s rich legacy to the city of Boston lives on in community landmarks that bear her name: the Melnea Cass Clarendon Street Branch of the YWCA, the Melnea Cass MDC Swimming Pool and Skating Rink, and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
Melnea Cass carried the following verse with her all the time. She loved it, believed in it, and quoted from it:
“There is a destiny that makes us brothers. None goes his way alone. All that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own.”
by Barbara Elam

Melnea Agnes Jones Cass --In Her Own Words
“If we cannot do great things, we can do small things in a great way.”

Even during heavy snow or a heat wave, Melnea Cass’s children remember her saying: “1 have to go. They depend on me.”

In 1975, at age 70, she wrote: “1 am convinced that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can, for the harder I work, the more I live.”

On jobs and education:
“The basis of everything for Blacks and Whites is economic security. You’ve got to prepare for jobs and you’ve got to be encouraged to work for them”

On respect:
“Respectability is the key word: by being respectful of yourselves and others, you, in turn, will command respect.” The Boston Globe, March 4, 1974.

When Melnea Cass was named Massachusetts Mother of the Year, she spoke about those people who were opposing school integration:
“We should let them know that people should meet on their own merits, not their color. We should band together as American mothers to change things. I believe in changing things, and not staying as we are.” The Boston Globe, March 24,1974

“I rejoice in life for its own sake; life is no brief candle for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which 1 got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before turning it over to future generations.”

From: Biographies of Twenty One Notable Women

Boston Womens Heritage Trail