Not many neighborhoods can boast that a Nobel Peace Prize winner was born there—no more than 101 in the world, to be exact; that’s how many people have won the prize since it was established in 1901.
Jamaica Plain can make such a claim, but looking around, one wouldn’t know it. Little in the neighborhood bears the person’s name except a family grave in Forest Hills Cemetery and two small plaques on a building and bench in Pondside. Although lots of squares and a landmark monument honor military dead here, no significant public memorial or namesake pays tribute to our peace prize winner. Many residents probably don’t know the laureate’s name.
Emily Greene Balch, born on Prince Street in 1867, would fit in very well in JP today. She lived her life in every way as what we now would call “progressive.” She worked for women’s suffrage, workers’ and immigrants’ rights, and racial justice. Cooperating at times with another future Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jane Addams, she championed services for poor people. Balch was a social worker in Boston for a while, helping to found a settlement house. She traveled the world.
Most importantly, Balch, an ardent pacifist, was a founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in 1915, for which she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946. She shared the prize that year with a leader of the YMCA.
Balch is credited by some sources, including WILPF, as having first said, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”
The Bryn Mawr graduate taught economics and sociology at Wellesley College beginning in 1896. But in 1919, when she asked to take a leave to concentrate on what were called “reform” activities, the Wellesley board, said to be embarrassed by her pacifism, refused to renew her contract.
The JP native, who lived to age 94, is memorialized at her alma mater with the Emily Balch Seminars, required for first-year students, who take a “probing, thoughtful approach to the world and our roles in it.”
Continuing the local connection, JP resident Virginia Pratt is the head of the Boston branch of WILPF. Last year, JP Forum, the JP Historical Society and the Boston branch of WILPF hosted a talk by Balch biographer Kristen Gwinn at First Church.
The Nobel Peace Prize award statement praised Balch’s persistence: “She has taught us that the reality we seek must be earned by hard and unrelenting toil in the world in which we live…”
Surely, a room, a scholarship, a youth program, something deserving in JP, should be named in honor of our peace and justice hero.
In 1955, Balch wrote a poem addressed “Dear People of China” that could be directed to most of the world today, including JP. The last stanza reads:
Let us be patient with one another,
And even patient with ourselves.
We have a long, long way to go.
So let us hasten along the road,
The road of human tenderness and generosity.
Groping, we may find one another’s hands in the dark.