A neighborhood group that includes a top adviser to former Mayor Marty Walsh, the first chief equity officer at City Hall, a former prosecutor, and a real estate executive has been digging through history records as part of a community project to determine the names and histories of 133 Black women who were quietly buried in Dorchester’s Cedar Grove Cemetery beginning more than one hundred and fifty years ago.
Their effort to give these women the dignity of personal recognition also offers a window into daily life in Boston in the latter half of the 19th century from the perspective of Black women who arrived from the South.
“This project represents an unprecedented opportunity to mark the names and uncover the stories of 133 hardworking, devoted women who provided critical labor to the city of Boston during a time of remarkable change and growth,” said Dr. Karilyn Crockett, an assistant professor of urban history at MIT who served as chief of equity under Walsh, in an interview with the Reporter.
The project had its origin with the Walsh adviser, Joyce Linehan, a regular visitor to the cemetery, which she can see from the back porch of her Adams Street home.
During one of her walks through the burial place with her dogs, Linehan stumbled upon an unkempt grave marker set low to the ground. It was labeled, “The Home for Aged Colored Women,” and next to it was a similar marker, “The Home for Aged Women.” While one word differentiates these two abutting sites, the women have not been memorialized in the same way. The white women were provided with headstones that individually mark their identities while the plot for the “Colored Women” remains empty of headstones and the women are unnamed.
As Linehan’s walk continued, she came across a second plot that was marked “The Home for Aged Colored Women.” At this location, Linehan saw again that the Black women were not given individual headstones.
Full of curiosity, she later reached out to the board of trustees at the cemetery and then to the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) for some guidance. And she shared her findings with a small group of friends, who then began thinking about what Linehan describes as a “research project.”
Through their initial research, the group learned that The Home for Aged Colored Women was founded in 1860 and offered shelter to elderly African American women in Boston. During its operations at various locations around Beacon Hill until 1944, the home arranged to bury some deceased residents at Cedar Grove Cemetery.
The little information that the research team discovered early on inspired Linehan to search for more substantial answers for their quest. “There are lots of books written about how my people, Irish Americans, came to be in Boston,” she said. “There are also some stories about other immigrant groups. But I don't know that there's been a lot of extensive research on this very particular migration of women of color from the South, some of whom, obviously, given the time frame, were going to be formerly enslaved.”
A larger ad hoc neighborhood group was quickly established, its mission to identify the women buried at the cemetery between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the mid-20th century. The effort, titled “Saying Their Names: The Cedar Grove Cemetery Project,” was underway.
Linehan reached out to Prof. Crockett, who had in the spring of 2022 presented the project to a group of her students studying city planning and graduate students taking up architecture, and they spent the next 14 weeks researching biographical information of the 133 women. As the students read documents from MHS, explored Ancestry.com, and combed through the home’s records, more than just the names of the women began to surface. They uncovered information about the day-to-day lives of some of the women, gleaned a sense of their personalities, found out where they received their health care, and where they worshiped.
Linehan and Crockett also sought out Sid Sibley, the superintendent of Cedar Grove, who has been a resident of Dorchester since 1979. He describes his role in the project as a “facilitator” helping to provide whatever information he has on the women and arranging meeting spaces and times for the group.
The first formal meeting of the project team occurred last Tuesday (June 6), when about 50 community members gathered at the cemetery.
Linda Champion, a Suffolk County prosecutor, was one attendee. She became involved in the project through her friendship with Linehan. Before moving to Milton, she had lived on Beaumont Street and ran a law firm on Adams Street.
After hearing about the sorry state of the marker, Champion agreed to help clean up the site, but her own identity led her to greater involvement. She is the daughter of a Korean immigrant and a Black American father, whose family comes from a Georgia plantation. The importance of her family history has heightened her interest in that of the descendants of the women at Cedar Grove. “My hope is that we can take what is unmarked and at least add a tombstone engraved with all of their names,” she said.
Champion believes that there are people looking for the fate of these women and longing to have their stories told. Adding their names to their resting places may give the people wondering about their ancestors an opportunity to discover family members who went North and were never heard from again.
Mattapan’s Aisha Miller, a vice president at the real estate company Related Beal, has also become involved in the project. Like Champion, she wants to see that every woman who has died and is buried in the section for The Home for Aged Colored Women is given tombstone information that identifies who they are.
“So many times in our history, women — Black women especially —have gone uncredited, unnoticed, and then kind of just left by the wayside,” Miller told the Reporter. “These women have names and families, and they came here probably against their will. Nevertheless, they were here, they worked, and they ended up at this home as they aged and just respectfully deserve a name.”
Having a single memorial, without the names of the women, is not what the project members see as appropriate. “They’re just kind of grouped together with one nameplate and, to me, they deserve much better than being grouped together like most Black women. They don’t get … to be known individually,” said Miller.
While the research effort has been successful in that all 133 women have been identified in some way, there is still work to be done. There are a few first names and one last name that are missing.
“Even though I'm sort of the person that started the ball rolling by asking some questions,” said Linehan, “I'm very cognizant of the fact that whatever it is that we do, that needs to be arrived at by some community process. So, we're trying to figure out what to do next.”
Until that decision is made, community members have donated money to plant flowers around the site each spring. “At the meeting last Tuesday,” said Linehan, “two women came up to me and said they had noticed those graves because of the flowers.
“I just think that they brought more attention to the two sites. So, if we were to install something that is a little bit more visible, it would just draw people to the story of how these women came to be there, which I think is an incredibly important story.”