When she was widowed and left with six children to feed, only to see fire ravage her home just days after her husband died, Frances Redd faced more challenges than most suddenly single mothers in their mid-40s.
“I worked hard,” she told the Globe in 1984. “I was born with two strikes: being black and poor.”
Laboring at a job away from home at night, and as a mother night and day, she sent all six of her children to college, and then she went back to school herself. Graduating from college and graduate school, she worked into her 80s teaching special needs children.
“You don’t realize the magnitude of an individual until they pass on,” said her daughter Forrestine Coombs of Horsham, Pa. “The outpouring of letters and phone calls and text messages that we’ve been getting is just amazing. Even with six kids, she still had enough strength and love and understanding to pass along to others.”
Mrs. Redd, whose commitment to education and unswerving Catholic faith inspired generations in her own family and the families of children she taught, died Nov. 9 in Sherrill House in Jamaica Plain of complications from a stroke. She was 95 and had lived in Roxbury for more than 60 years.
At its annual banquet in 1984, the Massachusetts Black Legislative Caucus honored Mrs. Redd for her commitment to family, and for personifying that year’s “we do make a difference” theme. Having left Tennessee to settle in Boston, she had faced overt and subtle racism throughout her life, in addition to the financial hardships brought about by the back-to-back tragedies of her husband’s death and a devastating fire. She knew how to persevere.
“Black people from the South are used to improvising,” she said in the 1984 interview. “We always know how to improvise.”
One of 12 children, Mrs. Redd was born on March 5, 1922, and grew up in South Pittsburg, Tenn. Her mother was the former Ethel Womack. Her father, John Council, was a barber.
“She had a very modest childhood,” said her son Edward Redd of Roxbury, a retired Roxbury District Court presiding justice. Mrs. Redd always recalled her father as “very bright,” Edward said, and “I knew my mother’s mother as a tough woman who used to fish. She was pretty independent for a black woman in the South at the time.”
Mrs. Redd graduated from South Pittsburg High School, and in 1944 she married Everett Russell Redd, who was in the Navy. They settled in Roxbury in the early 1950s and he retired from the Navy as a chief petty officer before working in different jobs in Boston.
He died of a heart attack in 1969. A week later, the family’s Schuyler Street home burned.
“My mother couldn’t really even mourn because she had to keep on being strong for us,” her daughter Kathleen Redd Taylor of Newton recalled in a 1984 Globe interview. After the fire, Mrs. Redd’s children at first lived with different sets of friends, then were together with her in an apartment while their home was being restored. “This was make it or break it time,” Kathleen added. “I’m sure she cried many nights but she never gave us the ‘poor me’ bit.”
Mrs. Redd “was incredibly tenacious. She was a woman who was extremely tough,” Edward said last week.
“She wasn’t a woman who really tolerated a lot of complaints,” he added. “She didn’t spend a lot of time wallowing in self-pity, and didn’t let any of us, either.”
Instead, Mrs. Redd worked nights for Raytheon Corp., earning enough to pay the mortgage and feed her children. Even though at that point she hadn’t attended college, she pushed them to do so. “I always thought that if they got an education, they could not be denied. College would be the answer,” she said in 1984.
Edward recalled that “her favorite saying was: ‘Get a good education – that’s something no one can take away from you.’ That was her legacy, what she did for her kids.”
The six of them graduated from college, attending Boston College, Brandeis University, Virginia State University, and Simmons College.
“My mother was definitely a woman of strong will,” Forrestine said. “She raised her kids, all six of us, with a sense of determination, and not to just go about life: ‘Once you get your education, that’s something you could build on.’ That’s something she passed on to us to give to our children, so they could understand the sense of education and also the sense of family.”
Another of Mrs. Redd’s oft-repeated phrases was “ ‘blood is thicker than water,’ ” Forrestine added. “With six of us growing up in Grove Hall, and a father who passed at an early age, we learned there was nothing greater than the strength we had with one another.”
As Mrs. Redd’s children grew into adulthood, she began taking classes over a period of several years, often one course at a time, and graduated from what is now Lesley University with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in special education.
In a 1984 interview, Edward recalled that he and his siblings “used to say, ‘How could someone go to school eight or nine years taking one course at a time?’ Now we’re proud of her because she has a substantive job that she worked hard for. She did it on her own.”
Mrs. Redd taught for many years at South Boston’s Joseph P. Tynan Elementary School. “In the South, back in the day, teachers were held in very high regard,” Edward said last week. “She didn’t think she’d have the opportunity to do that, and took great pride in teaching.”
She also “taught all of our children how to read,” he added. “Each of the grandchildren remembers learning how to read from their grandmother.”
A service has been held for Mrs. Redd, who in addition to her children Edward, Kathleen, and Forrestine leaves two daughters, Eva Redd Hornsby and Cassandra, both of Oakland, Calif.; a son, Franklin of Roxbury; a sister, Elizabeth Council of Detroit; 12 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
Last week, the City Council paid tribute to Mrs. Redd, and in a statement Councilor Ayanna Pressley called her “a legend, a pioneer, a role model to her family.” Mrs. Redd’s family said she inspired subsequent generations with her wit, her sense of education’s importance, and the stature she gained in the community.
“She wasn’t just the grandmother, she was Frances Redd. She had worth,” Forrestine said. “She can look down and see she raised six kids, all accomplished, all strong, all passing the word on to other people and trying to make life better for themselves and their kids.Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.