On March 18th, the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center in the Boston Public Library (BPL) debuted their exhibit “More or Less in Common: Environment and Justice in the Human Landscape.” The exhibit examines how social justice and injustice are confronted in the study of the “human landscape” and how we can use questions of social justice to help us build healthier and better environments for the future.
Northeastern’s contributions to the exhibit come from our Freedom House, Inc., records and in particular, their records on urban renewal and neighborhood-led clean-up campaigns. The exhibit features two fliers calling Roxbury neighbors to action in various clean-up and maintenance projects. Neighborhood improvement programs designed to protect Upper Roxbury from urban blight began in 1949 when Freedom House joined with community members to organize neighborhood clean-up projects and playground construction.
Freedom House worked closely with the city to improve the services provided to Roxbury. At the same time, Boston was beginning a formal urban renewal campaign that did not initially include Roxbury. A telegram from Freedom House founders Muriel and Otto Snowden to Mayor John F. Collins resulted in the inclusion of the Washington Park Urban Renewal Project in Boston’s campaign. By 1963, Freedom House had entered into formal contracts with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and the Action Boston Community Development to serve as a liaison between the planners and technicians and the residents of Washington Park. This relationship lasted until the BRA withdrew from Roxbury in the late 1960s, leaving much of its work undone.
The Leventhal Center’s exhibit takes our Freedom House records, and many other institutions’ records, and composes them into a complicated vision of how human landscapes were confronted and contended with in the past and how they can be reimagined for the future.
Visit the exhibit in person at the BPL’s historic McKim Building during the BPL’s visiting hours, which can be found here.
Or you can view the digital exhibit, along with lesson plans and resources for further study, here.
Find out more about the Freedom House records, the Snowdens, and Roxbury neighborhood history here.
In honor of Women’s History Month, the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections is highlighting the work and accomplishments of two East Boston women: Evelyn Morash and Mary Ellen Welch. Their decades of community organizing and advocacy beginning in the 1960s were effective in improving the quality of life for residents in their neighborhoods, from the establishment of parks and greenspaces to improvements in their neighborhood schools, improved access to healthcare, and mitigation around air and noise pollution from the airport.
Meet Evelyn Morash Evelyn Morash grew up in East Boston in the 1930s and ’40s, the daughter of Italian immigrants. As an adult with children in the Boston Public Schools in the 1960s, Evelyn became an outspoken advocate for desegregation and improving education in all the city’s schools. In 1970, she founded the advisory committee Parents and Teachers Who Care, a coalition that grew out of her efforts to ensure school libraries in all of East Boston’s elementary schools. During this same time, Evelyn worked with other community members to establish the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, which opened in 1970 to serve a geographically isolated and largely immigrant and low-income community. She later served on its board in the 1980s.
Recognizing her leadership around issues of education in East Boston, Governor Francis Sargent appointed Evelyn to the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1973, where she prioritized making quality vocational education available for women, since secretarial training was women’s only option at the time. Following the 1974 court order to desegregate Boston’s public schools, Judge Arthur Garrity appointed her to serve on the Citywide Coordinating Council, an autonomous oversight committee to monitor the progress of desegregation efforts across the city. Along with her city- and state-level work, Evelyn continued to focus her activism on East Boston, later serving on the planning committee for the construction of the Mario Umana Academy in the 1980s, where she fought for the new building to serve both as a school and community center for the neighborhood.
The Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections maintains oral histories and written records of Evelyn’s organizing efforts and achievements. In 1997, Evelyn was interviewed as part of the East Boston Greenway Council’s Oral History Project, an effort to capture memories of East Boston from before the expansion of Logan Airport in the 1960s and ’70s and to reflect on changes to the neighborhood. In the recorded conversation with fellow East Boston activist Roberta Marchi, Evelyn describes her early life in East Boston, her involvement with the Girl Scouts, her efforts to establish the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, and how she got involved in school advocacy. You can listen to both parts of Evelyn’s interview in the Digital Repository Service (DRS) (Part 1 and Part 2).
Two decades later in 2018, Evelyn was interviewed by Greta de Jong about her role in parent organizations during school desegregation in the 1970s and other efforts around school reform. You can listen to the interview and view accompanying materials in the DRS here.
Meet Mary Ellen Welch Mary Ellen Welch was an indefatigable activist and teacher at the Hugh R. O’Donnell Elementary School in East Boston, who advocated for civil rights and affordable housing, and against the impacts of airport expansion felt by many East Boston residents, such as noise and air pollution. Throughout her decades of activism, Mary Ellen was active across numerous causes and groups, including the East Boston Neighborhood Council, the East Boston Area Planning Action Council, and Airport Impact Relief.
In the mid-1980s, Mary Ellen, as a member of the East Boston Ecumenical Community Council, joined a newly formed housing committee to address the many issues facing East Boston housing, including absentee owners, rising rents, and lack of aid for the new wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America. The committee soon incorporated as its own entity in 1986 under the name NOAH, East Boston’s Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, with Mary Ellen as its first president. Anna DeFronzo, Lucy and William Ferullo, Evelyn Morash, and other prominent East Boston activists participated in establishing the community development corporation.
While the legacy of her neighborhood improvement activism is visible throughout East Boston, it is no better appreciated than along the collection of parks joined by a walking and biking path called the Greenway. In the late 1990s, Mary Ellen helped found the East Boston Greenway Council, a community group that worked with the Boston Natural Areas Fund to identify areas in the neighborhood to transform into recreational greenspace, including the old Conrail railroad yard, now the location of Bremen Street Park. Construction on the East Boston Greenway broke ground in 1997 and opened its first completed section in 2007. Following her death in 2019, the East Boston Greenway was renamed the Mary Ellen Welch Greenway in her honor.
The Mary Ellen Welch papers include personal papers, event flyers, newspaper clippings, reports, letters from O’Donnell Elementary School children to Massport, and other correspondence, the bulk of which relate to Mary Ellen’s anti-airport activism. The collection is available for viewing and research at the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.
Further Reading Evelyn Morash and Mary Ellen Welch participated in a large network of activists and community organizers in East Boston, including Anna DeFronzo, Edith DeAngelis, Roberta Marchi, and the staff at the East Boston Community News. For more archival materials and biographies about these and other East Boston community figures, be sure to check out the following resources:
Established in 1949 by two African American social workers, Muriel S. and Otto P. Snowden, Freedom House was created to centralize community activism in Roxbury, MA, a middle-class, racially mixed neighborhood. The hope of its founders was to link community members to existing services and to create new services in areas that were lacking by focusing on neighborhood improvement, good schools, and harmony among racial, ethnic, and religious groups.
Eventually, archives from the Freedom House came to Northeastern University and were digitized creating the Northeastern University Libraries’ Freedom House Collection consisting of 2,265 photographs, negatives, and slides. These images document a variety of topics including the organization’s early activities to create an integrated Roxbury, to initiate citizen participation in the urban renewal of Roxbury, and the early oversight of Boston Public Schools desegregation. The images also include representations of well-known figures like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator John F. Kennedy.
More recently, on March 18, 2011, the The Scout Report listed NU Libraries’ Freedom House Collection as a featured research and education source. The article can be found here. The The Scout Report is a weekly publication that provides information on new or newly discovered online resources of interest to researchers and educators. To sign up to receive the The Scout Report in text or HTML format go to: http://scout.wisc.edu/About/subscribe.php
To find out more about Northeastern University’s Digital Collections go to http://www.lib.neu.edu/archives/digital_collections/