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Melnea Cass, ‘First Lady of Roxbury,’ gave Boston her all

Civil rights activist Melnea Cass stood with US Senator Edward Brooke (left), US Representative Augustus Hawkins, and US Representative Bill Clay during a Congressional Black Caucus party held at the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge on April 5, 1972.Don Preston/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

This Black History Month, the Globe is saluting people from Massachusetts who have made a difference.

A large recreational complex. A community pool. And a boulevard winding through Lower Roxbury. The name of Melnea Agnes Cass, known as the “First Lady of Roxbury,” is emblazoned on public amenities across the neighborhood she called home, a testament to her legacy as a civil rights activist and community organizer.

Born in 1896, Cass moved from Richmond, Va., to Boston’s South End as a child. She attended public schools in Boston, eventually settling in Roxbury.

Melnea Cass ( left) and Lydia Peters, co-chairperson of the Cass Branch Committee, unveiled a plaque to be placed outside of the Melnea A. Cass Branch of the Boston YMCA on June 4, 1976. Michael Cheers/Globe Staff

Her work spanned more than five decades, starting with her efforts to help women in her neighborhood register to vote after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Cass co-founded Freedom House, a center of the civil rights movement in Boston; helped organize the first pre-K program for what became the South End’s first day care center, the Robert Gould Shaw House; and served as Boston’s NAACP chapter president from 1962 to 1964.

“If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way,” Cass told a crowd in 1965.


She also broke many glass ceilings, becoming the first Black female state president of the United War Mothers of America; the first female state president of Gold Star and War Parents of America; and the only woman appointed by former Mayor John Collins as a charter member of the Action for Boston Community Development, a human services nonprofit.

When Cass died in 1978, at age 82, more than 1,000 people — Black and white, rich and poor, young and old — filled St. Mark Congregational Church to pay their respects. Many testified to her “tell it like it is” attitude that held public officials accountable and brought out the best from the city’s residents.

“If Melnea Cass had only walked up the right staircase in her life,” said the Rev. Samuel L. Laviscount during the service, “she would have been the first woman mayor of Boston.”


Melnea Cass spoke at the scene of the Boston Massacre outside the Old State House in Boston on Crispus Attucks Day, 1970. Ed Farrand/Globe Staff

Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at Follow her @tianarochon.