Voices of West Medford

Oral Histories of the African-American Community

by Sharon Kennedy

design and photography by Paul D. Lehrman

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The African-American Community of West Medford

This unique community is less than one square mile in area. It is bound on two sides, the Southeast and Southwest, by the Mystic River. Its Northwest boundary is High Street or Route 60, and its Northeast boundary is the Boston and Maine railroad tracks. But originally, in the 1860s through 1890s, when Black people began to move here, they lived mostly on three streets: Lincoln Street, Jerome Street, and the first block of Arlington Street, next to High Street. Some time at the very beginning of the 20th century, the state made plans to build a parkway along the Mystic River in that area, similar to the one on the Arlington side. The houses on Arlington Street were all moved, mostly to plots on Jerome and Lincoln. But the parkway was never built.

So for a long time, Lincoln and Jerome Streets were the major locations for African-Americans. It has only been in the last three decades, as Oscar Greene and Whitfield Jeffers detail in their interviews, that African-American families have moved to streets such as Sharon, Monument, and Arlington. However, it is also true that in the last 30 years, many offspring of Black families have chosen not to stay in the neighborhood. In fact, to some extent, that has been true all along. Often this decision was made because of the lack of job opportunities for African-Americans in the Boston area. Today, this neighborhood is seeing more and more Caucasian families moving in all the time as well as Black families from the Caribbean and Africa.

So when was the heyday of this community? Most people would probably say that it was from 1880 to 1965 or 1970. Some would say that the changes started with World War II, when many men left for the service and didn’t return to the neighborhood. The automobile also changed life considerably. More and better education led to a need to travel further, to get the jobs that that education was supposed to lead to. So did the Civil Rights movement—which meant that opportunity was out there somewhere, if you could just find it! So by the late 1960s, younger generations were moving away in much larger numbers.

Today, most everyone over the age of 60 agrees that the wonderful, cohesive neighborhood they loved so much is gone. The phrases I heard most often are: “I don’t know my neighbors anymore;” “It used to be that if I went to the store and saw another Black person, I knew them. Now I don’t;” “The new White people don’t say ‘Hello’, they’re not friendly;” “This neighborhood was so tight-knit, so supportive;” and “It was like an extended family.” To some extent, most of these changes have occurred everywhere in the United States. They are, perhaps, particularly hard on this community because of its small size, its color, and its ability over the last 120 years to raise and nurture African-American “pioneers” and send them, well-prepared, out into the larger community. The elders of West Medford know how lucky they were, and how lucky their children were to grow up here. They read or listen to stories about the lives of people of color in the big cities of this country, and they shake their heads.
While this book is about the elder members of the community, those who grew up in West Medford in the postwar era feel just as strongly as their parents and grandparents that this community was a very special place.

Bobbye Booker lived on Jerome Street, Harvard Avenue, and Mystic River Road. She went through the Medford Public School System, received her B.A. from Bishop College, her M.Ed. from Atlanta University, and her Ph.D. from Georgia State University. She is now Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Bobbye’s resumé alone is testimony to the close-knit nature of her old neighborhood. She had dropped out of college and it was Reverend Oscar Phillips who suggested that she try attending Bishop College, his own alma mater. It was exactly the right fit. She says:

The Bookers were one of West Medford’s old families. The Furrs were another old family, and my grandmother was a Furr. I remember so clearly how everyone helped each other. There were so many craftspeople in the neighborhood that, when you bought a new house, someone would come over to paint, someone else would come over to put in new floors. That’s just the way it always was. I remember going through the Brownies and Girl Scouts at the Community Center with Mrs. Wilma Senhouse and Mrs. Marguerite Pinkston as the leaders. I remember Mr. Cecil Isaacs and Mr. Charles Tyner and some of the other men cooking us wonderful spaghetti dinners down there. They’d cook for the church too.

We didn’t have any sidewalks, you know. Mr. Tyner used to say to me, “How can you tell a West Medfordite? Because they always walk in the middle of the street.”

Did anybody tell you about “The Little Store?” Well, it was on the corner of Jerome and Harvard Ave., and Mr. Henry ran it in the 40s and 50s. It was just a little red shack. But inside, you could get ice cream in the scoops, and there was a pickle jar you put your hand into! I’m trying to remember if Mr. Henry actually cooked hamburgs and hotdogs in that store. Anyway, he had a bulletin board and that was very important. You see, the men who were away in the service would send postcards and photos back home to “The Little Store.” We’d go to that store to get the news. We’d find out where the men were and how they were doing. I remember seeing Charlie Paris’s picture up on the board, and so many others. There also was a mailbox right near the store, so there were lots of reasons to congregate at that corner. You could do your errands and find out the news and talk to your neighbors, all at the same time. And at Christmas time, Mr. Snowden sold Christmas trees at that same corner.

The African-American community of West Medford was unique. Whenever I tell other Black people about some of the advantages I grew up with in a Black community, they can’t believe it. We had a riding stable, we had a sandy beach, and we had tennis courts. We were playing tennis at eight, nine years old, because of Mr. Clarence Rhone. These are opportunities that are very unusual for a Black community.

However it was the close-knit, neighborly feel of the community which was most important to Bobbye as she was growing up and, in fact, remains very important to her to this day. She says:

I always get strength from going home.

In memory of Rev. Oscar G. Phillips, first pastor of
Shiloh Baptist Church, 1914-2005

© 1998, 2005, 2022 Sharon Kennedy. All rights reserved.