(First of two stories on recent Black history in Bedford)
“We were the first Black family in Bedford,” Dr. Priscilla H. Douglas affirmed. “But in my family, there was no such thing as ‘we are going to accept our place.’”
Her resume testifies to that assertion. An Ed.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Board member of the White House Fellows. Secretariat in a Massachusetts gubernatorial cabinet. Executive positions with General Motors and Xerox. More than 20 years as a consultant and executive coach. A member of distinguished boards — Boston Public Library, American Repertory Theater, Museum of Science. One book on leadership, with a second nearly completed.
She is the founder and president of Somerville-based consulting firm P.H. Douglas & Associates.
Helped by a strong, family-nurtured sense of identity and teachers who saw her potential, Douglas overcame structural obstacles. “You can’t let anybody else define you,” she said. “You can’t let anybody tell you who you are and what you can become.”
She summarized the family history. “My grandfather, Joseph Solomon Douglas, was quite an entrepreneur. He came from the West Indies and worked on the Panama Canal.”
He, his wife, and eight children moved from Cambridge to a produce farm in Lexington during World War II.
“When my grandfather added pigs, that did not fit with the zoning in Lexington,” she continued.
“So he bought property, 10 or 11 acres, near the Bedford-Burlington line – near the current headquarters of iRobot — and began very successfully to raise pigs there.”
Back in the late 1950s, there was no Route 3 corridor, no corporate community around Middlesex Turnpike. There were farms. That’s where Douglas grew up with her five brothers. “It was great; it was beautiful,” she reflected. “We had a cranberry bog on our property and we would hike through the woods.”
She said her mother named their driveway Crosby Road, after the entertainer Bing Crosby, and their home number 49, after her childhood address in Winchester, MA.
The Douglas grandparents lived at number 43. There were no other houses.
“My mother came out of the South, and you didn’t want to be ‘uppity’ because you could get killed. She always worried your mouth is going to get you into trouble,” Douglas related. “I developed an identity because of my mother’s story – we knew about Black culture, we knew what was going on in the world, and we talked about it.”
“The most important thing was the values. I grew up on a farm and it was very clear: if you don’t work, you don’t eat,” she observed. “A farm is a business that operates 24-7. You are very close to the land.”
The town population was around 6,500 when Douglas attended brand-new Page School. She graduated from Bedford High School in 1965. For most of those years, she said, Bedford was “a working-class town with old money.”
Douglas reflected on those formative years. “What that gave me is the power of observation. Living on the margins – being the only Black family, being the only girl in the family – doesn’t mean you live a marginal life. I developed the ability to navigate across boundaries, look at the nuances, move between different groups.”
She vividly remembers first grade when her teacher always held her hand in the halls. “I thought it was an honor,” she said. Only later she discerned that the teacher was protecting her; fellow students wouldn’t take her hand because they feared Blackness was contagious.
Although she was victimized by the structural racism that was built into society, day by day “it wasn’t our Blackness that stigmatized us. That doesn’t mean my brothers weren’t called all sorts of things, but that was just par for the course – they had racist names for everybody!”
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, it must have been so hard and so obvious.’ Yeah – but no. It wasn’t like we were going to get beat up – we could win the fights.” She recalled that kids had nicknames for two of her brothers – “Ace” and “Deacon” – that clearly were pejorative. “My mother went through the roof with that. This is the stuff Black people have lived with in this country all of these years. We have had to accommodate ourselves to this everywhere.”
There were Italians, Irish, WASPS, rich and poor, she continued. “There was one Jewish family, and their religion made them more of an outlier than our Blackness. My mother was incredibly generous. She had a special affinity for the Irish. She knew how the Irish had been treated, how they were ostracized. We had one Portuguese family and they had a lot of trouble because it wasn’t their first language. My mother always reached out to treat them special.”
She described a significant occurrence in the sixth grade at Page: the arrival of a family from India. “That changed my life – she was brown like me.” Later, in high school, another Black family moved to town. “Her father was a physicist at Lincoln Lab. We were pig farmers. To this day we are still friends.”
Click each image in the BHS Reunion gallery to see it at full size.
Every week as a child, she and her mother went to the library (now the police station). “I would take books out and that’s how I learned about the world. I had a really vivid imagination.”
In high school, “teachers told me I would never go to college. I got steered to the typing course – thank goodness I learned how to type. That was how the world was—you’re Black, you’re never going to go to college, you need some business skills.”
“I always wanted to be a cheerleader, but there was no such thing as a Black cheerleader,” Douglas continued. “They wouldn’t let me try out.” Years later, she said, she became the first Black cheerleader at Northeastern, and while a post-grad at Harvard she was one of the Patriots cheerleaders.
Individual teachers at BHS helped her break through the stereotyping. Guidance counselors, including one African-American, helped her apply. She won a full scholarship to Northeastern as one of 100 Ford Foundation Black Scholars. Keith Phinney assigned her a role in The Mikado; “he was the most inclusive teacher and he respected everybody.” As class vice president she was chosen to take part in Massachusetts Girls State, and “that was one of the things that made me so interested in government.”
More Black students joined the high school population beginning in 1964, when the town agreed to provide education for military dependents from Hanscom Field.
Douglas described the two accomplishments of which she is most proud, both as assistant secretary of public safety in the administration of Gov. William Weld.
“I put in place the Governor’s Task Force on Domestic Violence.” The model was followed by many other states, she noted. And working with the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts, she assembled a Hate Crimes Task Force and instituted tracking of hate crimes.
Later, as Weld’s secretary of consumer affairs and business regulation, she became the first African-American woman to be named to a gubernatorial cabinet in Bay State history.
She also fulfilled a dream by visiting many Historically Black Colleges and Universities as funding liaison for the General Motors Foundation.
Douglas said she was “an Edward Brooke Republican,” but “I always voted for the best candidate.” She said she has great admiration for Weld and even more for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
“It’s a given that Black people anywhere faced discrimination or structural racism,” Douglas said. “The time that I was growing up in was one in which there was still a belief in meritocracy – that’s what propelled me. Hard work would pay off. That was what I was taught.”
She added, “I tell people now, ‘Look at my career. In terms of the economics – can you imagine if I had been white?”