Life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the ‘50s
By MOLLIE FINCH BELT
The Dallas Examiner
Our family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1952, when I was in the 3rd grade. My father was accepted at Harvard Law School and my mother was accepted at Radcliffe College to work on her masters in math. The GI Bill paid for my father’s tuition. However, my mother did not have enough financial assistance to go to Radcliffe, so she was a housewife for three years.
My father promised her that later she would have an opportunity to get her masters in math. He kept that promise.
Cambridge was very different from Tuskegee. I saw very few Negroes there. Cambridge was across the river from Boston and was not a large city.
I attended public schools in Cambridge until I was in the 5th grade. The schools were very different from the Catholic school I attended in Alabama. There was one Negro girl in my class and our families became friends. Her father was a policeman and her mother didn’t work. All of the families in the Harvard graduate school apartments where we lived were White.
My playmates were White girls whose parents were in graduate school at Harvard. I remember one friend whose parents were from Sweden and her father was working on his Ph.D. in Physics.
I became my mother’s best friend. I remember we went to the library every Saturday and checked out about three books each. She taught me to love reading books. Every night I read to my mother. She made me read books about famous Negroes like Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver in addition to reading series books about little girls my age.
I will never forget when I read the life of Phyllis Wheatley. Her life ended so sad. I cried and told my mother I did not want to read the book anymore. My mother told me to keep reading; that life was not always happy, and that people suffered. I will never forget her words.
Some weekends we went to Boston to visit a friend of my father’s, who was in a fellowship program at Harvard Medical School, and his family. He had two children my age that I enjoyed playing with. They lived in a high-rise apartment building with no elevator. We would play outside across the street at a park. I did not like Boston, at least the part I saw. High rise buildings and very little unoccupied land.
After my father’s first year in law school, we went back to Tuskegee for the summer. My father had not resigned from his position at the VA and returned to work that summer. We lived with an older lady, Mrs. Campfield, who lived alone in a large house. Her grandson, Hamilton Holmes, who lived in Atlanta and was a couple of years older than me, spent that summer with her. We played army together in the back yard every day. There was nothing else for us to do. Hamilton later was the first African American along with Charlayne Hunter, to attend the University of Georgia in 1961 and he was the first African American to attend Emory School of Medicine and to serve on the board of trustees of the University of Georgia. Hamilton was an orthopedic surgeon who died at the age of 54. I often wonder if the stress he went through integrating the university contributed to his early death.
In December 1953, for the Christmas holiday we drove from Cambridge to New York. My father had a close friend, Lynette Mack, who went to Wiley with him and lived in Hyde Park, New York. He had gone into the Navy when my father went into the Air Force after college. He was a cook in the Navy. He and his family lived in Hyde Park, New York, where he worked for the Roosevelts. I remember meeting Eleanor Roosevelt. I didn’t appreciate her at the time, she was just another lady. I got to tour the Roosevelt and Vanderbilt mansions and to go to Radio City in New York City to see the Christmas show. I saw very few Negroes – just Lynette’s family. They were glad to see us.
While we were in Cambridge, certain “Black” things were not available – for instance, collard greens were not available at the grocery store.
I remember in Cambridge there was always a copy of the Pittsburg Courier newspaper on our coffee table. It was a large tabloid paper with a salmon color cover. Negroes were very dependent on Black newspapers and magazines for news, products and information about Negro life.
In Ebony magazine my mother found all kinds of things for us, she ordered our hair grease, straightening comb and she ordered a safe travel plan for us to drive from Cambridge to Dallas.
I now know that my mother’s safe travel plan driving from Cambridge to Dallas was actually from The Green Book.
The Negro Motorist Green Book was published by Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966. In 1954 there was discrimination against African Americans. We could not stay at any hotel or eat at any restaurant.
In 1954 when my father graduated from Harvard we drove to Texas. I remember the map had us drive from Cambridge to Ohio, where there was a Black owned hotel and we spent the night. Then we drove to Texas.
I realize now that traveling across country at that time could be dangerous.
Mollie Finch Belt is the publisher of The Dallas Examiner and the daughter of the newspaper’s founder.