April 26, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 37
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Memoir project gives a slice of Hub’s history

David Pomerantz

BImagine a sunny Saturday afternoon in Roxbury’s Franklin Park. A group of men are taking a break from a cricket game to drink tea while their wives and children watch them and eat lunch.

“Families spread blankets on the sweet-smelling grass as we children played our own games ... I remember eating rice and peas, coconut bread and chicken.”

One of the men playing cricket would have been the Jamaican-born father of Keitha Hassell, a lifelong Roxbury resident who shared that memory and others with over 100 guests, including Mayor Thomas M. Menino, at the Copley Square branch of the Boston Public Library on Monday night.

The event was part of the Memoir Project, an effort to collect and tell the stories of Boston’s seniors.

The project began a year ago as a collaboration between the city’s Commission on Affairs of the Elderly and Grub Street Inc., a nonprofit writing center based in Boston. The goal was to create a forum for the city’s seniors to learn how to write their memoirs.

Aided by grant money from the Llewellyn Fund and the Calderwood Writing Initiative, the project travels from neighborhood to neighborhood in four-week workshops, bringing seniors in for free instruction from writing coaches on how to record their lives.

So far, the project has hit South Boston, the North End and Roxbury, and is now wrapping up a session in Chinatown that is being conducted in both English and Chinese. A book of the memoirs from these first four neighborhood workshops will be published this fall, according to Eliza Greenberg, commissioner of the Commission on Affairs of the Elderly.

Six participants in the program had a chance to read their memoirs on Monday night in front of the mayor and their peers.

“I’m honored to be here with so many seniors who are here to tell their stories this evening,” Menino said in an introduction. “Their stories are different, but they are united by their talents and their will to share their stories with us.”

Hassell was one of two speakers from Roxbury. Standing at a podium with the gilded Renaissance murals of the library’s Abbey Room as a backdrop, Hassell spun a history of her own, evoking images of a simpler time in Roxbury’s history, when a trip to the Humboldt movie theater cost 12 cents and children played games like hopscotch and kick-the-can.

Hassell grew up on the second floor of a three-decker apartment on Hollander Street. She remembers watching workers walk around lighting the gas-powered streetlights by hand, and remembers when there were still blacksmiths in town.

“I grew up in a house with one radio, one phone, no TV, no DVDs, no iPod, no blueberry or Blackberry, no air conditioning, and, thankfully, no cell phones,” Hassell said, drawing laughs from the crowd. “I was born before plastics.”

Her memoirs evoked an age of innocence. She recalled how her mother would pay a teenager in the grocery market to take her bags home for her, which was never a problem since the doors to her house were rarely locked.

When Hassell and her mother returned from the day’s errands, the groceries were sitting on the counter, and she says she can’t remember a time when anything was ever missing from the house.

Hassell had a long career as a schoolteacher. She taught in Plymouth, Syracuse, New York and Boston, ultimately retiring from the David A. Ellis School in Roxbury, the same one she attended as a child.

Other Roxbury residents had their own stories to tell, each of which revealed a chapter in the neighborhood’s past.

Along with her husband, 86-year-old Mattie Powell owned some of the first black barbershops in Roxbury, including the Star barbershop at Grove Hall. She told the story of how she became one of the first women to earn the title of master barber.

Powell remembered a first test when she was at barber school. She had always been nervous around razor blades, and turned pale when she had to give a man a shave as part of the test.

“I felt faint as I pictured the white lather turning red,” Powell read from her memoir.

“At last, I picked up the razor to do the 14 strokes it took to shave a man’s face … the lather remained as white as snow.”

Ultimately, Powell left the barbershop to go back to school. She graduated from Boston State College with a master’s degree in early childhood education and taught kindergarten for many years in the Boston Public Schools. She still lives in Roxbury today.

Daisy Janey, 85, was another participant in the Roxbury program. She did not deliver a reading on Monday, but she had written several memoirs that captured a snapshot in the city’s civil rights movement. She had with her a picture of her nephew, Daniel Janey, standing with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Michael Haynes of Boston’s Twelfth Baptist Church.

Janey remembers traveling to Newark, N.J., during the riots of the late ‘60s, where she drove by bullet-riddled buildings and rallied to free the poet Amiri Baraka — then still known as LeRoi Jones — from prison.

“We attended workshops, and recommendations were made for the black community to implement,” Janey recalled about her experiences during the civil rights movement. “It’s interesting to note that a lot of them still need to be done.”

Other speakers at the event hailed from the North End and South Boston. On deck for the Memoir Project’s four-week workshop treatment are Charlestown, Mattapan and East Boston.

Mattie Powell (left), and Wilma Browne (right) stand with Memoir Project instructor Michelle Seaton after a public reading at the Copley Square branch of the Boston Public Library on Monday, April 23, 2007. Powell and Browne were both participants in the Roxbury workshops of the Memoir Project. (Photo courtesy of Eileen O’Connor, City of Boston Elderly Commission)

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