Concert and talk will focus on African-American history

Jonathan Clark

Courtsey Photo Sylvia McDowell, Forest Hills Education Trust scholar in residence, will present her recent discoveries about African-Americans buried at Forest Hills Cemetery, including those about Harriet C. Hall, a politically active woman who was co-founder of the interracial Women’s Republican Club, on Oct. 8.

The sound of legendary Nina Simone will come to Forsyth Chapel through the vocals of Valerie Stephens on Oct. 18 at 2 p.m., whose smoky voice and vibrant presence make her a diva in her own right.

The concert will be presented in conjunction with the Forest Hills Educational Trust’s (FHET) project to recover and record the stories of African-Americans buried at Forest Hills Cemetery during its 160-year history, promising an afternoon of remembrance and discovery.

Sylvia McDowell, the trust’s scholar-in-residence, will present her discoveries with a short talk and slide show.

Forest Hills Cemetery is not just a place of burial; it is a place where the public is invited to remember people and tell their stories. With over 100,000 people laid to rest in its grounds, there are many stories to tell, and many still left untold.
FHET organized “Finding Voices in the Silence” through a grant from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. Its goal is to expand our existing picture of history to better reflect the rich history of Boston’s black community.
Many of the prominent people known to be buried at Forest Hills––such as poet E.E. Cummings, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, composer Amy Beech and playwright Eugene O’Neill––are white. In existing guidebooks, the only noted black resident was William Cooper Nell, an abolitionist and historian.

Now, thanks to the project, McDowell has found people such as James T. “Slyde” Godbolt, an American jazz master tap dancer; David S. Nelson, the first African-American appointed to the federal bench in Boston; and Harriet C. Hall, a politically active woman who was co-founder of the interracial Women’s Republican Club on Beacon Hill in 1920.

FHET and McDowell cannot do it alone. Unfortunately, much traditional history ignores the African-American experience and the people buried at Forest Hills can no longer speak for themselves; the cemetery is a silent place. Therefore, they need the help of the public to identify people for their project.
A nomination form can be found at, where the public can suggest people for McDowell to research–—interesting individuals known to be buried here at Forest Hills. These can be ancestors, friends, artists, musicians, local business people, pioneering professionals or community leaders.

The writer is program coordinator at Forest Hills Educational Trust.

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