Friday, April 19, 2024

Joyce London Alexander, in an image from the Cambridge Black Trailblazers website.

This Black History Month sees the launch of the Cambridge Black Bookmark Project, giving young readers free bookmarks – photos on the front, biographies on the back – introducing more people to a generation of black trailblazers not yet given physical markers around the city.

The Cambridge Black Trailblazers project adds to and updates work begun by the Cambridge African American Heritage Alliance, which installed 20 markers citywide honoring the achievements of black leaders from the 1840s to World War II, said project coordinator James Spencer, representing a committee of another half-dozen people. The group printed 7,000 bookmarks, of which about 4,000 have been given to the school district. Others have gone to the City Council to hand out and to the families of the people being celebrated; a donation of up to 2,000 of the bookmarks to city libraries awaits permission, he said.

“This has been a labor of love … But this is just the beginning. In order to continue, the project will need additional resources,” said Spencer, a retired civil rights and diversity officer, describing plans for at least 20 bookmarks led by an initial seven.

Movers and shakers

The first batch includes Joyce London Alexander, who went from first black president of the CRLS student council to first black chief magistrate in the United States; Charles Leroy Gittens, the first black Secret Service agent and protector of U.S. presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gerald Ford before taking charge of all agency field offices; Elizabeth Rawlins, an educator who became a longtime dean at Simmons College; Leon West, who became famous as a chef in New Orleans; Roy Allen, a television producers and director who became the first black member of the Directors Guild of America; Henry Owens, the entrepreneur behind Green Moving; and civil rights activist Gertrude Wright Morgan, who recently got a street named after her in Cambridge Crossing – after work began on the trailblazers project.

“It is critically important that young people, as well as the larger Cambridge community, recognize the selfless and courageous contributions of these individuals in a generational period of painful discrimination,” Spencer said.

“This initial phase of the project was developed, researched, financed and launched by a committee of dedicated volunteers, with support from the Cambridge Historical Commission,” he said, calling sponsors – individual, corporate and philanthropic – vital to move the project forward from this hopeful start.

Continuing the work

The Trailblazers committee included Melvin Downes, Chandra Harrington, Diahanne Lucas, Frank Lucas, Paula Paris and Kit Rawlins – “a bunch of old Cantabrigians who want people to remember we existed,” Spencer said. The work, including a handsome, extensive and image-rich website built by a group whose leaders are in their 70s and 80s, took more than a year of meetings every other week. Missing an initial deadline of September to catch the start of the school year was “fortuitous,” since completion in January allowed the group to catch Black History Month.

Planned Black Bookmarks will include Saundra Graham, a neighborhood activist and former state representative whose remarkable career is celebrated in a school name; Gus Solomon Jr., who founded the Gus Solomon Co./Dance, with a repertoire conceived as “melted architecture”; and Mary Crutchfield Thompson, the first black female dentist in the Boston area, who held the low-cost Children’s Dental Clinic once a week in her home, Spencer said. Perhaps the most widely known name appearing on the Trailblazer website: Patrick Ewing, the Basketball Hall of Famer who grew up in Cambridge and was a star star player while at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

William Henry Lewis

William Henry Lewis in his Harvard years, seen toward the right in the most prominent “H” sweatshirt. (Photo: Mount Auburn Cemetery)

Perhaps one of the most famous black Cantabrigians was William Henry Lewis (1868-1949), who broke a multitude of barriers in sports, the law and politics. “He was a great man,” Spencer said, and one whose achievements would garner close affiliations with U.S. presidents of the time – not all for the positive.

For most of his adult life, Lewis lived on Upland Road, raising children with his wife Elizabeth Baker – a native Cantabrigian who attended Wellesley, while Lewis’ path to Cambridge and the national stage began in Virginia, where he was born to former slaves. At 15, Lewis entered the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University). With the aid of Virginia Normal’s president, Lewis transferred quickly to Amherst College, where he became captain of the nearly all-white football team and was revered as an orator. He had such a reputation as a scholar and athlete that W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, attended his graduation.

From Amherst, Lewis went to Harvard Law. He played football at Harvard too; many declared him the best center in the game, and he became the first African American to be selected All-American. After graduation Lewis became Harvard’s first professionally compensated coach, compiling a 114-15-5 record over a dozen years. His prowess on the gridiron and as a strategist on the sidelines drew accolades from football legend Walter Camp and admiration from President Theodore Roosevelt, who became a friend.

In 1893, Lewis was denied service by a white barber and decided to take action, first trying a lawsuit but then calling on legislators to include barbershops as part of a nondiscriminatory law. The bill passed. After leaving Harvard, Lewis joined a small law firm in Boston, becoming one of the first African Americans to join the American Bar Association; serving on Cambridge’s Common Council (precursor to the City Council); and a term in the state Legislature – losing in the face of a campaign against him by white Southerners from Georgia, North Carolina and Alabama.

Roosevelt appointed him assistant U.S. attorney for Boston in 1903, then assistant U.S. attorney for immigration and naturalization for the New England States in 1907. In 1911, under Roosevelt’s successor, President William Howard Taft, Lewis was confirmed assistant attorney general of the United States, the highest federal position to which an African American had ever been appointed (a record that would stick until the Eisenhower administration). The next president, Woodrow Wilson, who publicly hosted a screening of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” at the White House, did not reappoint Lewis, who returned to private practice in Cambridge and Boston.

His funeral was attended by Gov. Robert F. Bradford and notorious Boston mayor James M. Curley. Lewis is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.