Black like me: Worcester’s Black leaders – a brief history (part 1)

By William S. Coleman III

I will always remember the night of November 4, 2008. On this night America elected a qualified man – a black man – to be the next President of the United States of American and leader of the free world.
That night I joined a packed house of people gathered at a Green Street pub to watch the election returns.

There were all races of people: male and female, 21 and older, digital and analog. We came together to witness history and hoped history would be on our side that night.

The room would erupt, as the election returns would come in first from the East Coast: Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, and then New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, and the big shocker, Florida – all for Barack Obama.

Then the results of the central part of our country began to come in to a very eager gathering.

I thought, I have never witnessed such a gathering of people in Worcester, Massachusetts, turning to each other and saying: I hope he wins, I hope he wins.

When the West Coast results were predicted by the news stations, pandemonium broke out in the room. The tension was building – and then California. The place and the people went nuts.

As I sat on my stool somewhat anonymous to the crowd I thought: this is Worcester, Massachusetts, and these citizens have just witnessed history. More over, they have embraced it and through their vote and support made it happen.

This night moved me to the point that I had to walk outside and take a breath of fresh air.

As I drove away I noticed the traffic lights becoming star like in my eyes and by the third light I had to pull over and just cry. I thought about having been a candidate in the City of Worcester.

I thought about the first time I reached out to shake someone’s hand and how they turned away from me and said: I will not shake your hand – go to one of your own kind. I thought how I felt about that rejection back in 1979. I remembered being referred to as “that black guy who runs for office” during the 1980s and the colored man with good ideas in the ‘90s.

I wanted never to think that people would not shake my hand or vote for me because I was a black man. My reality was shattered when some honest folks said to me that Worcester was not ready to elect a black man in 1990.

Some folks were kind and up front and would say: you are not getting my vote because my family would turn over in their graves and I don’t want to offend them … .

I would ask myself, What do you say to that?

As I sat in my car filled with the emotion of this joyful evening I thought about Worcester’s political history and the people who were a part of it.
Worcester is a unique place. This city has been at the forefront of many a great American movement. We are a city that welcomed the underground movement. There were community leaders during the time of slavery in America who refused to report run-a- way slaves.

The first black man to serve in Worcester’s city government was George Alfred Busby.

He served in 1903 and 1904. Many folks I spoke with in the early days remember Mr. Busby. They described him as a tall, light skinned, very handsome man with a deep voice. Mr. Busby was originally from the island of Barbados. He was married to Jennie (Clough) Busby, Worcester’s first black school teacher [see side bar].

Estella Virginia Rolston and her sister also taught public school. Edith Marietta Rolston became principal of the former East Kendall Street School. Her Brother Walter Rolston was Worcester’s first black firefighter Mr. Busby represented old ward one in the Salisbury Street area.

Mr. Busby’s election received national attention from Black-owned newspapers in Atlanta, New York Washington D. C. and Philadelphia. It was very unique to have a black elected official in those days. Mr. Busby is laid to rest in Hope Cemetery, next to Robert Goddard.

Remember, in most parts of the country woman could not vote. In order to vote, you had to be a white man who owned land. Then their was the poll tax and literacy test for potential voters – more obstacles.

In 1916 Charles E. Scott ran for a seat on the Worcester Common Council. He lost his first election and vowed to never lose again, reports say. He went on to win in 1917 and hold his seat until his death in office, on September 11, 1938. He is buried at St John’s Cemetery.

Mr. Scott was born in Sterling and moved to Worcester as a young man to find work in the shoe mills. He was remembered as a great second base ball player for a minor league baseball team. He worked for Holy Cross as a trainer or back in those days they called Mr. Scott’s job title “a rubber.” He would help the ball players get in shape with rubdowns and body flexing. There were stories that when Babe Ruth would come to see the Holy Cross baseball team play, he would request a rubdown from Mr. Scott.

Charles E. Scott was a businessman and owned a small neighborhood restaurant at one time. The city census listed his job as tailor. Once while doing research in the mid-’80s I discovered Mr. Scott’s house was burned down a couple of times. I found this in the annual report of the fire department.

Mr. Scott loved sports and served on the Golden Rule committee a forerunner of the United Way.

Mr. Harry Stoddard recruited him to that board. Mr. Stoddard was the owner of the Telegram Newspaper and Wyman Gordon Company.
As a member of the Golden Rule Committee Mr. Scott championed for and lived to see showers and other facilities for local high schools and football teams. Mr. Scott was a coach of a semi–pro baseball team called the Cosmopolitans who played at East Park.

When Mr. Scott died, the city shut down for his funeral at Blessed Sacrament Church. His mass was attended by many of the Holy Cross faculty. It was reported in the morning Telegram Newspaper and Evening Gazette newspapers reported that the dean of the Worcester Common Council had died.

In the mid-1930s Mr. Scott ran for State Senate and won the Democratic nomination.

He and his son were attacked on Harrington Corner while campaigning. The word was that a group of men who were knights of the Ku Klux Klan from Princeton attacked him and his son. This attack left Mr. Scott sick and very weak. He lost the election to his Republican rival.
It would be years later when Worcester would elect a black person to serve in city government.

Through the 1940s there were many ward leaders, church officials and family elders who had the ear of city government. One such person was Everett Gaylord. Mr. Gaylord controlled votes in the city, and every politician who needed votes came to Mr. Gaylord. Mr. Gaylord would hold children’s Christmas parties and provide toys to the children and food to the adults. He was the go-to person in the City of Worcester, if you wanted to get the attention of city government.

During those days of a strong but small black community around the Laurel-Clayton Street areas of Worcester, voting was important. You would get a knock on your door early in the morning and then at lunch and then at dinner time. Mr. Gaylord had a system and the people to get the vote out.

The Black Church leadership in Worcester in that day had a strong voice and supported selected candidates from the white community like Mayor George Wells, a city councilor and mayor who catered to the black community. He was a proud member of the Colored Elks on Chandler Street.

During the 1960s Clark University became the political hot bed for free thought. Students would organize community events around housing issues, job issues and educational opportunities lacking for Worcester’s people of color.

In 1973 the women of Worcester gained political clout on the City Council and saw the school committee elect Mrs. Betty L. Price, the first black person to hold that position.

Betty Price was director of Prospect House, a human services agency helping the poor.

Mrs. Price went on to be elected in 1983 to the Charter Commission.
The 1973 election politically galvanized women in Worcester. For the first time since the Plan E form of government (Manager–Council) was voted in women would be seated on the council. They were Barbara J. Sinnott, Mary Scano and Barbara Kohin. This was a beginning for Worcester women’s political influence.

During the late 1970s and 1980s we see political movement from Worcester new comers – myself included. In 1976, I served as a legislative aide to then United States Senator Edward W. Brooke, R-Massachusetts. He was former Attorney General of Massachusetts and the first African American to be elected to the Senate since Reconstruction.

I first ran for the Worcester School Committee in 1979 and then State Representative in 1980.

The political landscape for blacks running for public office got better when, in 1983, Richard Carpenter and Allan A Brown became candidates for Worcester City Council.

The two highly qualified men got to see what I had seen for a few years. Alan Brown was recruited by Clark University out of a neighborhood center in Easton, Pennsylvania, to become executive director of the University Park Neighborhood Coalition. Mr. Brown’s community work for building bridges in the Main South area of the city and representing Clark University on city boards and committees won him and Clark University community recognition.

Local community activist and Holy Cross grad Leonard P. Cooper would go on to run for city council for an at large seat and give another run for a District 4 seat, newly created by the 1985 charter change. There would be others: Ceaphurs Merrill, Mike McClendon.

It would be the Black women and one Hispanic male who would prevail in elective office in the 1990s. They are Shirley Wright who would go on to win and serve one term on the Worcester School Committee. Then Dr. Ogretta McNeil, Phd, a retired psychology professor at Holy Cross.

Stacey Dubois would be elected to an at large seat on the Worcester City Council and serve one and a half terms, handing her seat over to the next candidate in line Juan Gomez.

Stacey Luster would accept the position of Director of Human Resources for the Worcester Public Schools.

Today we have a dedicated group of city councilors and school committee people.

The sad reality is that our elected political body does not reflect the composition of the people of Worcester. Is it necessary to have a political government reflect what your community looks like?

If some one is think about running for Worcester’s city council or school committee you can call 508-799-1131. This is the city’s election office. They will tell you that you need 300 signatures to run for an at large seat on the city council (get 500) and 100 to run for a district seat (get 200).

The deadline for submitting your signatures is July 28, 2009, at 5 PM.
So don’t just stand there – make a difference in the life of your community and run for public office. If you would like help collecting signatures, call me. I will help any new candidate.

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