Tuesday, May 29, 2012

African-Americans in Brookline: Seeking the First Homeowner

Roland Hayes
Roland Hayes
(Credit: Library of Congress,
Prints & Photographs Division,
Carl Van Vechten Collection)
The Brookline Commission for the Arts honored its 2012 grant recipients in a ceremony at Hunneman Hall in the Public Library on May 15th. Among them was the Roland Hayes Project, which celebrates the legacy of the pioneering African-American concert singer who lived in Brookline from 1925 until his death in 1977. (You can read more about Roland Hayes here.)

I had to leave before the Hayes Project was recognized, but I heard later that Hayes was said to be the first African-American to purchase property in Brookline. I wondered: Is that true?

Many people, places, and events are said to be the first this or the oldest that.  But the facts are often not that clear. There are doubters and disputants, caveats and qualifiers, questions and counter-claims.

First Things First?
Marblehead and Beverly, for example, have had a long-running debate over which is the birthplace of the American Navy. (The Navy says neither one is right.) No less than half a dozen communities (four of them in New England) have been cited as having the oldest public library in the United States. (Brookline’s library makes no such claim, but is said to be “the first to be organized under May 1851 state legislation allowing communities to tax themselves for such purposes.” Whew! There’s a qualifier for you.)

When I was a Boston tour guide, I learned to describe Old Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constitution in Charlestown, as “the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.” There are older warships still afloat, but they are not still commissioned in their nation’s navies, as is the Constitution. There’s an older commissioned warship: Admiral Nelson’s flagship H.M.S. Victory predates the Constitution by 38 years and is still commissioned in the Royal Navy. But it’s not afloat; it’s kept in drydock in Portsmouth, England. Got that?

Now, it doesn’t really matter whether Roland Hayes was the first, the third, the eighth or the 80th African-American to purchase property in Brookline. His legacy is secure, as is the dedication of the Hayes Project and Brookline to celebrate his talent and his musical and social struggles and accomplishments.

But my skepticism about historical firsts and my love of research led me to look deeper, and, as is often the case, my digging turned up much more than the answer to a single question.

Brookline, Race, and the Historical Record
I went through Census records, town directories, property maps, and newspaper archives. I “met” other African-American residents from Brookline’s past.  And I opened a window, if only a crack, into ways of learning more about an aspect of Brookline’s history that is often overlooked.

I started with the 1930 U.S. Census, the first to show Roland Hayes in Brookline. Records from the Census list 296 Brookline residents of the “Negro” race, out of a total population of 47,579 in 1930.  (Racial classification underwent a major change with the 1930 Census.  See this Wikipedia article for a brief overview of race and ethnicity in the U.S. Census' history)

About two-thirds of those listed as Negro in the Census that year were servants of one kind or another, living with other families and thus not homeowners themselves. (A portion of the search results, via Ancestry.com, is shown below.) A few were shown as lodgers or boarders. Most of the rest were heads of households or their family members.

A portion of the list of Brookline residents classified as Negro in the 1930 U.S. Census
A portion of the list of Brookline residents classified as "Negro" in the 1930 U.S. Census, as obtained by a search in Ancestry.com
The 1930 Census also indicated whether each home was owned (O) or rented (R).  If owned, it showed the value of the property; if rented, the amount of the monthly rent.  Of the 35 African-American heads of household in Brookline in 1930, six—two women and four men (including Hayes)—owned their own homes.

Roland Hayes' record in the 1930 U.S. Census
This portion of Roland Hayes' record in the 1930 Census shows that he owned his home at 58 Allerton Road and that it was valued at $15,000.  The third column from the right indicates his race as "Neg."

Samuel Davis and the Coolidge Corner Garage
Brookline town directories are available in Ancestry.com (and in the Brookline Room of the main library).  I went back to 1924, the year before Roland Hayes purchased the home at 58 Allerton Street and moved to Brookline.  I found Samuel A. Davis of 39 Marion Street, one of the six African-American homeowners from 1930, already there.

In fact, directories, maps, and deeds show Davis and his wife Mary at the Marion Street home as early as 1913 and at his adjacent business, the Coolidge Corner Garage, as early as 1907, nearly two decades before Hayes purchased his Brookline home.

1913 Ward Map showing the property of Samuel A. and Mary E. Davis on Marion Street
This 1913 map shows the property of Samuel A. Davis on Marion Street.  The yellow (woodframe) building is the home of Davis and his wife Mary at 39 Marion Street.  The pink (brick) building at the back of the property is his business, the Coolidge Corner Garage.
Credit: WardMaps.com

Davis is intriguing.  Neither well-known or well-documented, he was an African-American homeowner and the proprietor of an auto garage at a time when very few African-Americans owned homes or businesses in Brookline. (Auto garages were a new but growing presence on the scene in 1907. Four years later, Davis' garage was one of eight in town providing charging stations for electric vehicles.  See my earlier post.) I'm doing further research and hope to tell more of Davis' story soon.

But Samuel and Mary Davis were not the first African-Americans to own property in Brookline either.

A Home on Kent Street at the Turn of the Century
131 Kent Street
131 Kent Street was the home
of Ulysses and Florida Ridley
 from the 1890s to the 1920s.
Credit: Town of Brookline
Ulysses A. Ridley and Florida Ruffin Ridley, purchased a home at 131 Kent Street around 1896, a decade before the Davises arrived in town and nearly 30 years before Roland Hayes. The Ridleys were the only African-American homeowners listed in Brookline in the 1900 U.S. Census.

Ulysses Ridley was a successful Boston tailor. Florida Ruffin Ridley was a member of a prominent African-American family in Boston. Her father, George Lewis Ruffin, was the first black graduate of Harvard Law School and served as a judge and a member of both the Massachusetts legislature and the Boston Common Council. Her mother, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, was a writer, editor, and organizer who became especially active on behalf of women's rights, education, and the advancement of African-Americans after the death of her husband in 1886.

1894 sketch of Florida Ruffin Ridley
This sketch of Florida Ruffin
Ridley appeared with an
article written by her in
the Boston Globe in 1894.
Credit: Boston Globe
Florida Ruffin Ridley followed in her parents' footsteps as an activist and a pioneer. She was educated at Boston Teachers College and Boston University and was the second African-American woman to teach in the Boston public schools.  She was a co-founder, with her mother and others, of the Women's Era Club in Boston, a precursor to the National Association of Colored Women. She was a major contributor to the Club's journal, Women's Era, and other publications. In Brookline, she was an active member of the Equal Suffrage Association and a co-founder of the Second Unitarian Church on Sewall Avenue. (You can read more about the Ruffin family here.)

The First?  ... Or Not?
So...

...were the Ridleys, who lived on Kent Street from 1896 until the early 1920s, the first African-American homeowners in Brookline?

Well, maybe. I could not find any others in the U.S. Census records from 1850-1880.  (The 1890 records were destroyed in a fire.) But there is not enough information in pre-1850 Census records and, of course, the Census records do not cover the years between each decennial Census. Plus, Brookline existed as an independent town for 85 years before the first Census in 1790.

Were there other African-American homeowners in Brookline before the Ridleys? I'll have to dig deeper to try to find out. I may or may not succeed. But like most such efforts, that research is bound to lead to other paths and other discoveries along the way.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Charging Electric Cars in Brookline: Then and Now


Electric car charging stations were installed in two locations in Brookline in October 2011.  But did you know that 100 years ago there were four times as many such stations in town?

Photo of electric car being charged at Corey Hill Garage, 1915
This photo of an electric car being charged at the Corey Hill Garage on Winchester Street appeared in the April 3, 1915 issue of Electrical Review and Western Electrician

The Boston Globe, under the headline "Charging Stations in Bay State," on December 10, 1911 listed all of the locations in Massachusetts for charging electric vehicles.

"That the electric vehicle is destined to have a large sale in this section is evidenced by the large number of charging stations now available in Massachusetts for them," [reported the Globe].

Brookline, with eight stations, was second only to Boston in the number of charging stations in the state. (Boston had 14.) Most of the facilities in the state were provided by electric utilities and municipal power plants, but all eight in Brookline (and all but one in Boston) were at commercial garages.

The full list of Brookline charging stations in the 1911 Globe article included:
  • Beaconsfield Garage, 1731 Beacon Street
  • Brandon Garage, 643 Washington Street
  • Brookline Garage, 50 Washington Street
  • A.E. Carpenter Garage, 112 Corey Road
  • Central Garage, 45 Washington Street
  • Chestnut Hill Auto Garage, 199 Commonwealth Avenue
  • Coolidge Corner Garage, 33 Marion Street
  • Corey Hill Garage, 54 Winchester Street
The two charging stations installed in October 2011 are in the Town Hall parking lot (shown below) and the town parking lot at Babcock and John Streets in Coolidge Corner.

Electric car charging station in Town Hall parking lot Electric car charging station in Town Hall parking lot

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Brookline Bikes: Sites to See on Beacon Street


The annual Brookline Bikes bicycle parade takes place this Sunday, May 20th.  It's a great event and an opportunity to ride the entire length of the historic Beacon Street boulevard in Brookline unimpeded by automobiles.

The Brookline Historical Society will have a table set up in Amory Park, the starting and ending point for the parade, with information about the development of Beacon Street.  Stop by before or after the ride and check it out.

Shown below are some of the architectural and historical sights you'll see as you ride down Beacon Street. (Photos of Beacon Street landmarks in the past can be viewed on the Brookline Historical Society Web site.)

Pelham Hall (Outbound, at Pleasant Street) Pelham Hall was built as a residential hotel in 1926 as part of a burst of new construction in and around Coolidge Corner.

S.S. Pierce Building (Outbound, at Harvard Street). The S.S. Pierce building, the symbol of Coolidge Corner if not of Brookline itself, was built from 1898-99 on the site of the original Coolidge Brothers store.

The second story of the Pierce Building, now offices, was originally Whitney Hall. Named for Beacon Street developer Henry Whitney, it was used for concerts, lectures, dances, meetings, and other events.  The original tower was taller.  Damaged in a 1944 hurricane, it was remodeled afterward to its current design.  The S.S. Pierce Company continued to occupy the lower floor until the 1960s and the building is still generally called the S.S. Pierce Building, even by residents who didn’t arrive in Brookline until much later.


MBTA Shelters (Both sides at Harvard Street) The tile-roofed shelters for the T, at Coolidge Corner, are the original structures built by Henry Whitney’s West End Railway in 1901. Remodeled a few years ago, they are the only original shelters that remain.

The Stoneholm (Outbound, between Short Street and Lancaster Terrace). The Stoneholm is a magnificent French Renaissance chateau style apartment building that opened in 1909 with such amenities as marble fireplaces, parquet floors, and crystal chandeliers. It was designed by Arthur Bowditch, who lived on Pill Hill.




Chinese Christian Church (Inbound, between Strathmore and Dean Roads). This neo-Gothic church was designed by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge in 1910. Built for the Leyden Congregational Church, it was bought by the Chinese Christian Church of New England in 1975.



All Saints Church.  (Inbound, at Dean Road). All Saints Church, designed by the architectural firm of Cram, Wentworth, and Goodhue, replaced a temporary wooden church on the site with the completion of the nave in 1899.

The Beaconsfield Terraces (including Richter Terrace,  Inbound at Dean Road and Frances Terrace, Inbound at Tappan Street). 
The Beaconsfield Terraces were one of the more unusual developments to follow the widening of Beacon Street. Built by Eugene Knapp, a wool merchant, in the early 1890s, the terraces were an early condominium arrangement in which people owned their units but shared ownership of 6-acre park, stables, a playhouse (known as the casino), tennis courts, and a playground. A bell system connected the houses to the stables so that people could call for their horse and carriage. A central heating plant heated all of the buildings. Today, only the residence buildings remain.


Athans Building
 (Inbound at Washington Street). This commercial block was built in 1898 with stores, offices, and a hall for dances and concerts.



Richmond Court. (Inbound, east of St. Paul Street). 
Richmond Court was one of the firstpossibly the firstcourtyard apartment buildings in the country. Built in 1898, it is set back and separated from the noise and bustle of Beacon Street by an iron fence, brick and stone posts, a fountain, and private gardens. Richmond Court was designed by Ralph Adams Cram who went on to design All Saints Church, further out on Beacon Street, as well as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and many buildings at West Point and Princeton University.


Temple Ohabei Shalom (Inbound at Kent Street). Temple Ohabei Shalom was the first Jewish congregation in Boston, formed in 1842 by immigrant German Jews. The congregation moved to Brookline and this domed temple in 1927.