African-American history project launched at cemetery

Sandra Storey

Nominations sought from the community to identify notables buried at Forest Hills in 19th, 20th centuries

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FOREST HILLS—MassHumanities has awarded the Forest Hills Educational Trust (FHET) a Scholar-in-Residence Grant for “Finding Voices in the Silence,” a project that is beginning to identify more African-Americans among the 100,000 people buried at Forest Hills Cemetery and to compile their stories.

Sylvia McDowell has been appointed Scholar-in-Residence for Finding Voices in the Silence; Cecily Miller, executive director of FHET, is the project director. A committee of advisors—including state Rep. Byron Rushing, historian Susan Wilson, jazz club owner Elynor Walcott, Rev. Ray Hammond, Eliot School director Abigail Norman and poet Danielle Legros Georges—is providing guidance and support for the project.

Miller said the idea for the project was born when she was developing the visitor guide to the cemetery in 2003 showing the graves of 50 people buried there. “I was thinking about all the people interred, and I wanted to reflect the history of Boston,” she said in an interview. “I realized there were not that many African-Americans I knew of to include.”

She said she and Norman, on the staff of FHET at the time, decided to start seeking funding for research then, recognizing that an important constituency of the cemetery is the nearby African-American community.

“I thought about the importance of who writes history,” Miller said. “What are the biases? They are always present.”

Among the prominent people interred in the cemetery are: the “Father of Industry” Francis Cabot Lowell, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, pioneering surgeon Susan Dimock and poets E.E. Cummings and Anne Sexton. These well-known individuals, although diverse, are all white and of Western European descent, Miller pointed out.
Finding Voices in the Silence is identifying people with African heritage interred at Forest Hills during its 160-year history in order to include their stories in tours and interpretative materials and to celebrate their contributions to Boston history.

The goals of the project are to: present visitors with a more complex, inclusive and truthful picture of Boston’s history; enable the Trust to better serve the African-American community; enlist community participation in the project by using a “nomination” process to collect names of people buried at Forest Hills as well as informal biographical information; and make Forest Hills a more meaningful resource for all.

The cemetery’s interment records do not specify race. The memories of the living, collected through interviews, will be combined with archival research to recover the stories of identified individuals. Up to 20 new biographical portraits will be added to Forest Hills’ interpretive resources, with more to follow as further funding permits. The current grant runs until the end of 2009. Finding Voices in the Silence expects to continue offering crucial research and source materials at the pre-college, college and graduate program levels for years to come.

Nominations are being collected from friends, families and agencies and cross-referenced against cemetery records. Forest Hills Educational Trust is inviting and encouraging nominations. Forms may be completed online or downloaded at, requested via e-mail ([email protected]) or by calling 364-2449.

Forest Hills Cemetery is a 250-acre park, arboretum and burial ground founded in 1848. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its picturesque landscape design, important 19th-century sculpture and the many famous figures buried in its grounds.

FHET is a nonprofit organization that seeks to increase public appreciation and use of the cemetery by organizing cultural and educational programs including walking tours, concerts and poetry readings, innovative exhibitions of contemporary art and an annual Lantern Festival.

Some African-Americans Buried at Forest Hills

• Elma Lewis (1921-2004), winner of a MacArthur “genius” Grant and an extraordinary cultural activist who founded the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, Elma Lewis Playhouse, and the National Center of Afro-American Artists.

• William Cooper Nell 1816-1874), an abolitionist and historian who was an office manager and journalist for William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, and a leader in the earliest efforts to desegregate the Boston Public Schools.

• US District Judge David S. Nelson (1933-1998), the first black man appointed to the federal bench in Boston.

• Jimmy Slyde (1927-2008), known as the King of Slides, a world-renowned tap dancer especially famous for his innovative tap style mixed with jazz.

• Muriel and Otto Snowden, co-founders of the non-profit Freedom House, a vibrant and influential center for community activism and neighborhood revitalization.

• Joseph “Wally” Walcott (1897-1998), founder of the famous South End jazz club where Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker performed.

• Butler Wilson, a graduate of Boston University School of Law who was the co-founder of the Boston branch of the NAACP, and his wife, Mary Evans Wilson, an activist who organized the Women’s Service Club of Boston during World War I. Initially the club’s members met to knit scarves and gloves for soldiers; hundreds of these women became active in the NAACP.

• Howard Armstrong (1909-2003), a virtuoso who played 22 instruments (although best known as a fiddle and mandolin player) whose repertory included blues, standards, country tunes, rags, work songs, jigs, reels, polkas, spirituals, Hawaiian songs and international songs in the seven languages he spoke.

• Dr. Cornelius Garland (1878-1952), a physician who founded the Plymouth Hospital in the South End in 1908 where African American doctors, nurses and other medical personnel could treat patients. A Nurses Training Program was part of the offerings for women who were not accepted at other institutions.
Provided by Forest Hills Educational Trust.

From press materials.

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