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Herman Hemingway, groundbreaking advocate for human rights in Boston, dies at 88

Herman Hemingway at home in 2013.
Herman Hemingway at home in 2013.Mike Lovett/Brandeis University

Raised by a single mother who cleaned offices to support the family, Herman Hemingway learned early to advocate for equal rights with body and mind.

“At the age of 12, I marched in demonstrations against the racism that restricted folks that looked like me from fair housing, fair education, fair employment, and competent health care,” he said in an interview with his alma mater, Brandeis University.

Mr. Hemingway, who as the founding director in 1968 of Boston’s Office of Human Rights became a prominent voice for racial equality in Massachusetts, died Dec. 14 in his Waltham home of kidney failure due to vascular disease.

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He was 88 and previously had lived in Roxbury and Brookline.

“Throughout my life, I have believed that everyone has a sense of fairness and justice, and that the first step was to acknowledge one’s own belief in self and in the strength of one’s own truths,” he said in a 2020 interview with the Brandeis Alumni Association.

Mr. Hemingway, who formerly taught at the University of Massachusetts Boston, had served in the late 1960s as acting administrator of the Boston Housing Authority early in the administration of Mayor Kevin H. White.

“A lawyer, teacher, freedom fighter, Mr. Hemingway was brilliant, passionate, selfless, and kind,” Chad Williams, the Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Professor of History and African and African American studies at Brandeis, said in a statement.

In his role as head of the city’s Human Rights Office, Mr. Hemingway pushed for increased diversity at all levels of the Boston Police Department, and for neighborhoods of color to have officers of color patrolling their streets.

“The promotion of Negroes and Puerto Ricans from the ranks to a supervisory capacity, even sergeant, can and will be crucial in easing the tension between the police and the community — especially if that man is stationed in his own community,” he wrote for the Globe in May 1969.

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He also urged that a Latino member be appointed to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

“Our Spanish-speaking community, as well as the community at large, has the right to have its interests represented by a person who has not only its trust and confidence, but who shares in the same experiences,” he wrote in the Globe in June 1969.

The city’s Human Rights Office evolved from a Human Rights Task Force city government had created after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

White asked Mr. Hemingway and his staff to recommend appropriate steps to address racial inequality and conflict in a wide range of areas, including recruiting Black firefighters, finding ways to encourage entrepreneurship in the Black community, ensuring that city contracts complied with the state’s anti-discrimination legislation, and improving communication among all of Boston’s diverse groups.

“Our biggest problem has been police-community relations, and conversely this is where we’ve made the most progress,” Mr. Hemingway said in December 1968. “The problem is extremely complex and involves the interrelationship of society’s attitude toward Black people and the role of the police.”

Herman Wadsworth Hemingway was born in Boston on Feb. 11, 1932, a son of Herman Hemingway Sr. and Martha Lark.

“His parents were divorced so his mother raised him and his siblings,” said Mr. Hemingway’s daughter, Myra Hemingway of Marlborough.

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Martha had attended college, but wasn’t able to afford to pay her tuition to finish a bachelor’s degree.

“She cleaned the Christian Science Monitor building,” Myra said, and Mr. Hemingway found jobs while growing up in Roxbury to help support the family.

“He was the eldest and worked hard and took care of his brother and sister,” Myra said.

After graduating from Roxbury Memorial High School as class president, and having joined the NAACP Youth Council at 15, Mr. Hemingway fielded scholarship offers from Harvard University, Boston College, and Brandeis.

He recalled that he chose Brandeis, where he majored in Near Eastern and Judaic studies and graduated in 1953, in part because he found the university to be “innovative and exciting.”

People sometimes asked him why he didn’t take the opportunity to attend Harvard, his daughter said, adding that “they gave him a job at Brandeis. At that time, in his position, he really needed a job. He believed in hard work.”

At Brandeis, he chartered the university’s NAACP chapter and was inducted into the Sigma Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity for Black men.

Mr. Hemingway pledged as a line brother alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was then a doctoral student in theology at Boston University, and with whom he became friends.

The fraternity later honored Mr. Hemingway with a lifetime achievement award for his commitment to social justice and the impact he had on the Black community through his activism and advocacy.

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Drafted into the Air Force after Brandeis, he served as a statistician.

The institutionalized racism Mr. Hemingway and other Black military personnel faced prompted him to pursue a law degree, his family said.

He graduated from Suffolk University Law School and initially was a public defender in the district courts in Roxbury and Chelsea. Mr. Hemingway later launched his own private practice before joining the White administration, in which he also had served as assistant commissioner of housing inspection.

In 1961, he married Barbara Bernice King. An artist and pianist, and a nurse practitioner who had taught nursing at the University of Massachusetts Boston, she died in 2018.

The couple’s daughter Angela, a horticulturalist and wildlife advocate who had worked for the state Department of Transportation, died in 2019.

A professor emeritus of criminal justice at UMass Boston, Mr. Hemingway had also taught at the Boston College and Boston University law schools.

While in his 70s, Mr. Hemingway taught himself to play saxophone, and he could recite passages from plays by Shakespeare and August Wilson.

In the 1970s, he moved his family to Nigeria for several years while he was a lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University.

Mr. Hemingway “had so many stories,” his daughter Myra said.

“He was always amazed at the opportunities he had and how people opened the door for him in certain circumstances,” she said. “He was always grateful for the path that people paved.”

A service will be announced for Mr. Hemingway, who also leaves his brother, Stephen of Woolwich, Maine, and sister, Brenda Thomas of Schenectady, N.Y.

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Mr. Hemingway was devoted to his three grandchildren, Amarachi, Alanna, and Amaechinna Iwuh.

“He cherished them, they cherished him,” Myra said. “Whenever he spoke, they listened.”

Amarachi said that “focusing on education and the betterment of the world around him was his ticket out, and his opportunity to create a lane for himself where he could practice law, yes, but be a Black man doing that and creating opportunities for other Black people.”

A prolific writer who penned poetry, Mr. Hemingway read with his grandchildren and encouraged them to write. He also always included them in his discussions of the world.

By doing so, Amarachi said, he “allowed us to think bigger: ‘How can you give to others?’ "


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.