On the crisp, clear morning of April 24, 1915, Jane R. Bosfield and her mother left their home in Boston’s Allston neighborhood to make their way to Medfield, about 20 miles southwest of the city. Jane was traveling to interview for a stenographer job at Medfield State Hospital, or, as it was commonly known, Medfield Insane Asylum. She was the seventh of the 10 Bosfield children, raised in a family that valued education and a strong work ethic. Her parents, Elizabeth and Samuel, had emigrated from the Bahamas at the turn of the century, first renting an apartment in Cambridge and then saving to purchase their own house. Her father, a newspaper editor back in his native country, now worked as a compositor at Riverside Press, which published The Atlantic Monthly magazine as well as books and other periodicals.
Bosfield was a graduate of Cambridge Latin and High School; afterward she attended Boston Evening High School, where she excelled in bookkeeping, stenography, and typewriting. She wrote shorthand at 100 words per minute and typed at a rate where her fingers would “fly over double or single keyboards,” as one newspaper account later noted. With ease, she scored high on the Civil Service Examination, a requirement for employment by the state of Massachusetts at the time. But even with that, she’d been frustrated in her effort to find work as a stenographer and had taken factory work for lower pay as she searched. “I tried for positions, tried desperately hard, and always I was refused,’’ she later told a reporter. The position at the state hospital in Medfield, however, seemed perfect, and after submitting an application, she was invited to interview.
Bosfield had hoped this time would be different. Arriving with her mother at the sprawling institution — 58 buildings set on hundreds of wooded acres — she likely made a fine impression. Thin and tall, she favored conservative outfits, such as a dark serge skirt with a dotted-swiss print shirtwaist blouse and low-heeled oxfords, and kept her hair pulled back. Bosfield was prepared for this moment, but the hospital superintendent was not prepared for her.
The interview, if it could be called that, lasted only a few minutes. Bosfield’s credentials, her professional look, her demeanor — none of that mattered to Dr. Edward French, not once he saw her. “I couldn’t possibly employ you,” Dr. French told her.
“Why not?” Bosfield asked, confused.
“I didn’t know you were colored,” he blurted out.
Jane Bosfield returned home to Allston and fumed. In prior rejections she’d suspected the worst. But Dr. French, in his bluntness, was the rare prospective employer to confirm she was denied work on the basis of race. And in Massachusetts no less: the “progressive” New England state that had been an antebellum cauldron of antislavery fervor, home to William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator; and Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Catherine Sargent, and so many other men and women who belonged to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
By 1915, however, a sweeping and bloody backlash to the Emancipation Proclamation from a half-century ago was well underway. The 13th and other constitutional amendments may have abolished slavery and guaranteed voting rights, but the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson — two years after Bosfield was born — ruled that so-called racial equality could be separate. Bosfield thought of her older sister, turned away so many times in trying to get hired as a Boston teacher that she’d finally given up and moved south to find work. Meanwhile, oppressive Jim Crow laws legalizing segregation were spreading across the country, along with the lynching of Black people at a horrifying rate.
As Bosfield wondered what to do, Boston itself was a civil rights battleground. Opposition had mobilized against the arrival of Hollywood director D.W. Griffith’s three-hour blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation, a retelling of the Civil War in which white-hooded Klansmen were portrayed as heroes riding to the rescue during Reconstruction, restoring order to the chaos brought on by the formerly enslaved.
In Boston, protest was in the air and in the streets, and leading the way was William Monroe Trotter, the fiery editor of the weekly newspaper The Guardian, who had been championing direct action to combat racism, in contrast to the accommodation strategies promoted by Booker T. Washington. Griffith’s film had opened at the downtown Tremont Theater on April 10, two weeks before Bosfield’s interview in Medfield. Trotter had been at the forefront of rallies ever since — at the State House and Faneuil Hall, in the courts, and getting arrested outside the theater during one raucous protest. A local activist wrote in awe to Washington, “Not since the Civil War times have such demonstrations been seen here in Boston.”
News coverage of the protests had gone national — impossible to ignore, either in the Bosfield household or elsewhere. Bosfield, a few days after her humiliating interview with Dr. French, attended an evening rally at Symphony Hall featuring Governor David I. Walsh. A Democrat and the state’s first Irish and Catholic governor, Walsh had come out in support of opposition to Griffith’s film, working to find ways legislatively to block the racist movie’s continued screening. In his speech that night, the governor spoke more broadly about equality and pledged to see that every citizen in Massachusetts had a “fair chance.”
Inspired by Walsh’s words, Bosfield returned home and resolved to speak up. She penned a letter to Walsh, describing in detail her unfair treatment at the state hospital. She included Dr. French’s letter inviting her to an interview and recounted how she’d been summarily turned away. Soon afterward she got an encouraging reply. “The Governor is indeed willing to interest himself in your behalf,” Walsh’s secretary wrote. He instructed Bosfield to notify the governor’s office the next time she was certified from the civil service list for a stenographer’s position so that the governor could “take a personal interest in the matter.” In capital letters, the note ended with a promise that the governor was determined “TO SEE TO IT THAT THE POWER OF APPOINTMENT DOES NOT DISCRIMINATE.”
The stenographer’s job at the Medfield hospital remained unfilled throughout the summer of 1915. In early fall, Bosfield was once again certified from the civil service list and submitted her application. She notified the governor’s secretary and traveled to the State House on Beacon Hill in late October for an appointment with Walsh and his staff. She recapped her situation and included a new fact: On October 12, she’d not only passed another civil service examination but, having scored highest among test-takers, was first on the hiring list. The information made the governor’s next move easier. With Bosfield still seated in his office, he dictated a letter on her behalf to Dr. Michael J. O’Meara, chairman of the State Board of Insanity and Dr. French’s superior. In turn, as Bosfield would learn in the days following, Dr. O’Meara wrote to French, saying the superintendent should hire Bosfield for the stenographer position.
Dr. French now had in hand not only his superior’s recommendation but also a copy of the governor’s letter lobbying for Bosfield. The hospital superintendent was boxed in. He’d told others he was intent on hiring a white woman, but now wrote reluctantly to Bosfield requesting that she telephone him. When she did, Dr. French was hardly welcoming; he explained that her duties would be mostly clerical, such as copying and filing, with very little of the stenography for which she was trained. But, if she still wanted it, the job at the Medfield State Hospital was hers. She could start in October, earning a weekly salary of $7, roughly the equivalent of $200 today.
Without hesitation, Bosfield accepted. Fairness had won out — or so it seemed.
The hospital employed about 400 workers, most of whom lived on the grounds to avoid long commutes. Bosfield expected to do the same, until Dr. French informed her she could not. Every room at the facility was occupied, he explained. She would have to board in town — and he’d found a place for her, with a woman who had a spare room and who’d cook her a noonday meal.
Bosfield packed her things and left her family’s home in Allston for Medfield. She stayed in town and walked the half-mile to work. Although she’d soon learn Dr. French was lying about not having space for her in employee housing, she gave the setup a go. But the arrangement barely lasted a week: The landlady complained to Dr. French about having to prepare a meal each day, saying she did not do that for other boarders. She wanted Bosfield gone.
The landlady forced Dr. French’s hand, and he had to find sleeping quarters on the grounds. He’d keep beds in established employee housing off-limits, however, and had something else in mind for her. He moved her around, first into a room in the gardener’s house, then into a room above the hospital’s morgue, then into a room in the chapel building. He also barred her from eating with co-workers in the main dining room; she’d be served meals on a tray at her desk and eat alone. When Bosfield asked why she couldn’t eat with the others, Dr. French would merely say he “had reasons for it.” Only later would he admit, under pressure, that he had to consider workplace harmony.
The superintendent’s rationale echoed that of then President Woodrow Wilson’s segregation of workers in federal agencies. Boston’s own William Monroe Trotter had even led a delegation to the White House in the fall to protest Wilson’s embrace of Jim Crow, only to hear the president insist he was doing Black people a favor by imposing race separation at federal workplace eating tables, restrooms, locker rooms, and dressing rooms. Wilson insisted his goal was honorable, “to prevent any kind of friction between the white employees and the Negro employees.” Trotter would have none of it; to the president’s face, he called Wilson’s policies degrading and said he was “sorely disappointed that you take the position that the separation itself is not wrong, is not injurious, is not rightly offensive to you.” Wilson, rattled, ordered Trotter to leave, saying his manner was “offensive.’’
Bosfield, too, found race separation degrading — ”humiliating,” she later said. She’d become friendly with a number of her female co-workers. “We met in church; we were equal there,” she observed. “At the hospital we were separated.” Near the end of December, she went to challenge Dr. French a second time, maintaining that her female co-workers were not bothered if she ate with them in the dining room. But Dr. French refused to budge, and he ordered her to abide by the conditions he’d set for her employment.
Bosfield left and went back to work. But she would not let the matter go. In early January 1916, while visiting home one weekend, she and her parents met with an attorney they knew. Jordan P. Williams was one of about two dozen Black lawyers practicing in the Boston area in the early 1900s, many of whom assisted Black businesses and litigated civil rights, either in conjunction with the local branch of the NAACP, which had started just five years earlier, or with Trotter. Heeding Williams’ advice, Bosfield returned to the hospital with a new plan. She took her meals in the dining room the next day with everybody else. She did the same the next day, and again the day after that.
Her sudden appearance raised a number of doctors’ eyebrows, but not so much her co-workers’. Only the head nurse stood up and left the table where Bosfield was seated. When Dr. French heard what Bosfield was up to, he was angry. He was also likely emboldened. Governor Walsh had recently lost his reelection bid to Samuel W. McCall, a moderate Republican who’d courted progressives to oust the Democratic incumbent from office. The election’s outcome meant Bosfield had lost a powerful political ally, and Dr. French would have recognized his advantage. On January 14, without even the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting, he had a note delivered to Bosfield at work. He was firing her for insubordination, and her last day would be in two weeks.
Separately, Dr. French prepared a requisition order for a replacement, making explicit in writing what he had previously only spoken of. He wanted “a young white woman who writes a plain hand,” he wrote. For emphasis, he underscored the words white woman.
Bosfield and her lawyer were not surprised, and they were ready. Within days of her termination date, they went to the Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest court, and filed legal paperwork asking a single justice of the SJC for an emergency order to compel Dr. French to reinstate Bosfield. Their protest strategy did not begin and end with the courts, however; her lawyer simultaneously alerted activists and the press — most notably, Trotter, who was both. The affront to Jane Bosfield was in Trotter’s wheelhouse, and at a Saturday night meeting, on February 5, his Equal Rights League passed a resolution objecting to Bosfield’s dismissal. The vote caught the attention of the mainstream press, with The Boston Globe running a brief item about Trotter and his civil rights organization, which “some months ago protested against segregation of negroes in the Government service at Washington,” a reference to Trotter’s confrontation with President Wilson.
The Boston Post ran a similar article, quoting from the resolution condemning Bosfield’s firing as “wickedly unjust.” It also dispatched a reporter to interview members of Medfield State Hospital’s board; the trustees — mostly doctors and all white — insisted Dr. French had dealt responsibly with an unruly underling. “I am sure that race prejudice played no part in Dr. French’s decision,’’ trustee Dr. Albert Evans insisted.
The one-day court hearing on February 15 — held a week after Bosfield’s 22nd birthday — proved unremarkable in a legal sense. Justice William Caleb Loring listened to testimony from Bosfield, her mother, Elizabeth, and from Dr. French, and then sidestepped making a ruling on the substantive civil rights issues. Instead, he cited the probationary clause of the state civil service law, which stipulated that during a new employee’s six-month probationary period, the appointing authority had the discretion to fire a worker for any reason. Moreover, the supervisor was not required to disclose the reason. For Loring, the matter was cut and dry, and he denied Bosfield’s request that she be given her job back.
But Bosfield would not give up. “We are going to carry it as far as we can,” she promised in an interview afterward. “All this turmoil will probably do me no good, but it will make the way easier for other girls of my race.”
The matter was indeed far from over; in fact, the civil rights claims that went unaddressed in Justice Loring’s ruling only ensured further controversy — for, as one state official commented, the civil service regulations as worded meant supervisors could get rid of a new worker for the color of their skin and never have to own up to the racial prejudice.
Trotter, Boston’s Black clergy, and civil rights activists were up in arms, as Williams and Bosfield’s other lawyers promised to take the matter to the new governor and push for reform. “This fight is for the girl’s bread and butter,” one lawyer said. She and her lawyers thought they were on the right side of the law. The state Legislature, pushing back against encroaching Jim Crow, had just passed a law prohibiting private businesses, such as restaurants, from refusing to serve Black patrons. It would be the height of hypocrisy if public officials were permitted to discriminate at institutions run by the state.
The fight became a crusade for Trotter and the city’s civil rights community. Trotter turned over much of his Guardian’s front page that week in February to coverage of Loring’s ruling, under a banner headline: “Court Rules Against Miss Bosfield on Technicalities.” In his editorial, Trotter described Bosfield’s firing as “clear color prejudice and color segregation” and called on readers to write Governor McCall to insist that he intercede. He then described leading a group of activists to the State House to make sure the governor understood the frustration of the state’s Black community.
On Sunday night, February 20, Trotter and Bosfield’s attorney were keynote speakers at a rally held at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. Bosfield was there with her father; although she did not speak, she took in all the support from the hundreds in attendance, as Trotter and other speakers demanded that the governor convene a hearing and that Dr. French be the one to be fired.
The Globe, the Boston Traveler, and the Boston Herald newspapers had by now jumped in to cover demonstrations of support for Bosfield and the lobbying to change Massachusetts laws to prevent race discrimination. A Globe reporter described the gathering at the church as “the largest meeting of protest held by the colored people of the city since they arraigned the Government for permitting the film drama, ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ several months ago.”
The press also covered a meeting of the state’s Civil Service Commission in early March during which Trotter, Bosfield’s attorneys, and activists including the Rev. Benjamin W. Swain and William D. Brigham pressed the commission to rectify a law allowing state employers to fire new workers for any reason. During a banquet on March 5 — honoring Crispus Attucks on the anniversary of his death in the 1770 Boston Massacre — one of the speakers mentioned Bosfield’s fight for fairness, and that’s what newspapers noted in stories the next day.
Public pressure began to get results. The governor’s Executive Council, responding to a request by Bosfield’s lawyers, announced it would hold a hearing to look into her firing.
Governor McCall and members of his Executive Council opened the session on Thursday, April 20, in a hearing room packed with more than 150 observers. Bosfield was the first to testify; she started at the beginning — nearly a year ago to the day, on April 24, 1915, when she and her mother traveled to the hospital in Medfield to interview with Dr. French. She talked about her eventual hiring, with the help of then-Governor Walsh, and the conditions Dr. French had imposed. She testified that “sometimes she would go without food because it was cold and brought to her on a tray.”
Dr. French spoke next. As he had throughout the controversy, the hospital superintendent said that he’d fired Bosfield for insubordination, plain and simple. “The question of Miss Bosfield’s color has nothing to do with the case,” he insisted. Yet, he acknowledged once again, as he’d been forced to at previous hearings, that he did not want a Black person working for him: “I would prefer a white person on account of harmony, that is quite true.”
The remaining handful of witnesses all spoke in support of Bosfield. They included her lawyers — one of whom noted that if Governor Walsh were still in office, Bosfield would still be working at the hospital — as well as Trotter, who challenged what one newspaper account later described as hospital officials’ “feeble claim of insubordination.” Culminating the call for action was a Black woman a newspaper described as “one of the oldest Race women in the state, who remembered the abolition riots in Boston.’’ Then 92, Eliza Gardner, the much-admired civil rights leader and founding member of the city’s first Black women’s club, told the governor that the future of the young men and women of her race depended on justice for Jane Bosfield.
The governor and his councilors went into executive session. They ultimately decided they did not have the power to give Bosfield her job back, but they passed an order saying that’s what they wanted. The order, released publicly, read: “It is the opinion of the Governor and council that Miss Jane R. Bosfield should be reinstated forthwith in the position from which she was discharged at the Medfield State Hospital; that notices of this order be transmitted to the trustees of said hospital and any other officer having jurisdiction, in order that the requisite steps may be be forthwith taken to secure such reinstatement.”
The outcome made the front page of The Boston Post and was covered by the city’s half-dozen other daily newspapers. (The Globe relegated the news to page 20.) The Post published a photograph of Bosfield along with its story, her hair pulled back and her young face looking pensively into the camera.
The newspaper also ran a letter to the editor written by Bosfield’s father, Samuel. He praised his daughter’s “courage to try and try again” and thanked the Post and the other newspapers for the “strong editorial expressions which did much to crystalize public sentiment to uphold Massachusetts ideals and traditions against the insidious encroachments of the ‘Southern virus.’”
If the wording in the Executive Council’s order had seemed muted due to its government-speak, reporters understood the governor’s intent: He may not have had the authority to rehire Bosfield, but he did have control over the heads of state agencies — control he was standing ready to use to remove hospital trustees and anyone else who did not pursue the necessary actions to reinstate Bosfield. The Post said as much in its headline: “Miss Bosfield to Get Her Job Back: Governor and Council Vote She Should Be Reinstated Even if Trustees Are ‘Fired.’”
Hospital officials clearly got the message. Four days later, the seven trustees convened and voted that Dr. French reemploy Bosfield. The hospital superintendent then quickly fell in line. He wrote two letters the very next day, on Tuesday, April 25, the first to Bosfield offering her job back, and the second to Governor McCall, explaining that “I have in this same mail written Jane R. Bosfield, late an employee of the Medfield State Hospital, offering to reinstate her in her old position and with the same privileges accorded to the other stenographers and clerks.”
Bosfield accepted, and the next day a reporter from the Boston Traveler came to her family’s Allston house. The reporter, seated in the living room when Bosfield came downstairs, noticed dark half-moons under her eyes. “She has fought a long fight,’’ the reporter wrote afterward, “and looked tired.” Bosfield was indeed feeling worn out but said she was ready to start work as soon as she was called. “I could hardly fight for something and then disdain it,” she explained.
In the days leading up to her return to Medfield, Bosfield worried she might face “unfriendliness” at the hospital but, as she said in another interview in early May, “that is one of the things I shall have to bear and live down.” It’s hard to know if she did face any hostility at the hospital. Press coverage virtually ended after her return, whereas, during the height of her protests, stories ran regularly in the Boston newspapers and also in the Chicago Defender and the NAACP’s monthly magazine, The Crisis. Further conflict would likely have been reported. She and Dr. French seemed to manage in the short term.
Besides, Dr. French was replaced as superintendent in 1917, and soon enough Bosfield herself was on the move. By 1920, she had relocated to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a stenographer at the US Treasury Department and for the dean of Howard Medical School. She never married, and by 1945 had headed west, working for the Board of Education in Los Angeles. That spring, local civil rights activist Dr. Vada Somerville, who, with her husband, in 1914 had founded the LA chapter of the NAACP, wrote to W.E.B. Du Bois recommending that Jane Bosfield serve as his stenographer at an upcoming conference in San Francisco. Somerville called Bosfield, now 51, “a woman of considerable experience.” It’s unclear from the scant record whether Bosfield attended the historic United Nations Conference on International Organization, where Du Bois was the NAACP’s representative; later, he’d present a petition to the newly created UN demanding human rights for Black people and accountability for centuries of civil rights abuses and worse in the United States.
What is known is that, by 1960, Jane had returned home to Boston, where she worked as a medical secretary, and where, by 1976, she was retired and living in an apartment on Norway Street in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. Five years later, in January 1981, she died at the age of 86.
Only a brief notice about her death ran in The Boston Globe, and it made no mention of her year-long crusade earlier in the century when she’d refused to abide by the color line at work — a crusade that not only succeeded in restoring her to her job, but also contributed to improvements to the rules of state civil service. Supervisors could no longer dismiss a worker for any reason and without explanation. Instead, they had to provide workers written notice “stating in detail the particulars” of dismissal. Coupled with other statutory provisions making unlawful any discrimination based on race, color, religious creed, national origin, ancestry, or sex, the prejudice Jane had experienced was banned, at least by the rule of law.
Jane Bosfield deserved more, an obituary capturing her legacy, possibly including her own words. After her reinstatement at the state hospital, she didn’t demur when speaking to a reporter, but instead made a forceful challenge to white people in the North.
“You fought hard for us not very long ago, but you aren’t — you aren’t living up to the contract you made,” she said. “We pay equal taxes — we do not have equal rights. We are given an education — but not a chance to apply that education. And we are asking ourselves — and you: Is this fair?”
Dick Lehr, a former member of the Globe Spotlight Team, is a professor of journalism at Boston University and the author of nine books, including The Birth of a Movement, which became the basis of a PBS/Independent Lens documentary. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.