The second in The Bedford Citizen’s series honoring Black History Month, 2021
The fledgling U.S. Air Force began moving toward racial equality even before President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order integrating the armed forces.
Two decades later, active and retired African-American Air Force personnel and contractors enriched the town of Bedford, diversifying the population to a level unlike most other Boston area suburbs.
Growing up Black in Bedford could be challenging, as the town was not immune from the racism that permeated much of society. But a sampling of voices from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s also testify to experiences that were rewarding – thanks to family, community, and enlightened educators.
“The military was the driving force behind just about every Black family coming into Bedford,” observed Brian Smith, a 1989 Bedford High School graduate. The new residents “had been stationed at Hanscom or on a pass-through there and coming off an assignment. Everyone that I knew came from Hanscom. They all had access to the PX, the NCO Club, the Officers Club.” His parents Claudia and Willie were among them.
Indeed, there were even celebrities. Dr. Milton Hopkins, a meteorologist with the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, was a Bedford resident for many years. So was John O. Boone Sr., a reformer who as Massachusetts commissioner of corrections was the first African-American to head a major state prison system in the United States.
The Air Force brought Ed and Rachel Murphy to places like Texas and California and Maine before they landed in Bedford. Rachel Murphy still remembers the day the family moved into the house at the end of Hilda Road: Feb. 8, 1968: “One of the neighbors went around with a petition trying to stop us from moving in.”
How did she find out? Other residents who welcomed them talked about it – and how they refused to sign. Murphy specifically remembers Mandy Manderino on Sheridan Road, who owned Mandy’s in the Bedford Shopping Center; she dropped off homemade Italian bread and string cheese.
Murphy said she “made it my business to get to know other Black families. When I went to First Baptist Church I got to know them and others that they knew, and since Ed was still connected with the Air Force I was in touch with the Officers Wives Club, and I got to know Black families that lived in Bedford with a spouse stationed at Hanscom.”
Willie Smith was a systems guidance engineer at the Air Force facility at White Sands, NM, when he was transferred to Hanscom to work with Raytheon Co. in the late 1960s. He grew up in Mississippi and his wife Claudia was from Louisiana, but once they experienced a New England autumn they decided to stay, their son said. “I met Claudia when Ed was stationed in Sacramento,” Murphy noted.
Yvette Thomas, who graduated from BHS in 1978, said she has strong memories of time spent with friends. And many of those recollections are with fellow BHS students at the Hanscom Air Force Base youth center. She lived with her family in Bedford Center, but the base was much more accessible before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Yvette’s father Manny Parker was an Air Force veteran. Her mother Irene was Bedford’s Metco coordinator for 20 years. “Irene Parker, through just her work in the schools, lifted me up for sure,” said Sheila McCravy Ghazarian, whose father George McCravy was an engineer working on Air Force missile contracts for Raytheon
Robert P. Wasson Jr., who said his father also came to Bedford through the military, ran for a seat on the Bedford School Committee in 1974 when he was a sophomore in college. “In retrospect, it’s a good thing I lost – I never would have had time,” said Wasson, who now lives in Michigan.
“Things have changed in Bedford. My children had to go through the brunt of it. Was it bad? Yes and no,” Murphy commented. “When something happened, I dealt with it head on. Ed and I taught our kids to speak up, even if it’s a teacher or principal. You must always be respectful and we will stand by you. It was not easy. Dating was…well….one mother was very upset when she found out her son was dating my daughter Crystal and made some nasty remarks.”
Brian Smith recalled that there was “an unspoken, unwritten law” precluding an interracial relationship involving high-school kids. He still remembers returning from a movie and his date requesting that he drop her off at the corner and not in front of the house.
When the Smiths lived on Curve Street, Willie “would lend a hand wherever he could. To be known within the community was important to him,” Brian Smith said. “But it was a tumultuous time, and some weren’t accepting of African-Americans in what was essentially an all-white town. He always said to me that racism in the Northeast is very subtle.”
Those subtleties were “still degrading from a human factor, he continued, and their father “always impressed upon my brother and me that you don’t start anything. You turn and walk the other way.”
“My nearest and dearest friends are from the town,” Smith affirmed. But growing up in Bedford at times was hurtful. “I definitely experienced it. My parents and my friends’ parents helped shield us. But you’re going to be exposed to it.”
Ghazarian, who graduated from Bedford High School in 1987, commented. “At the time I didn’t know any better. Now I look back and see things that were not necessarily fair, that were hurtful, that affected my self-esteem. My parents just wanted us to just be good people.”
Thomas, now a mediator at Lowell High School, said she has only scattered recollections of personal racial incidents in Bedford. And any that she does recall involved adults, she added. Ghazarian said, “There might have been discrimination, but it just wasn’t something emphasized. We acknowledged when it happened but we moved on.”
Fifty-three-year-old Tony Young, now in southern California, said he had plenty of time to reminisce about his teenage years in Bedford. He has been undergoing dialysis, an unfortunate outcome of his bout with Covid-19 a few weeks ago.
Young, a 1986 BHS alumnus, said he came to Bedford as part of an Air Force family in the late 1970s. During his years in the town, he said, “I didn’t experience any of the things other Black people were going through. From Davis School to John Glenn Middle School to Bedford High, my experience was great.”
Young allowed that some of that may have been due to the family’s resilience. “I think it comes with our upbringing. My mom and dad had a lot of faith. And the military background added a certain strength. So things that might affect some people didn’t apply to us.”
The foundation, he said, is friendship. He said he and his sisters “could go to any neighborhood – all our friends were everywhere. We knew there were ‘roughnecks’ and ‘rats’ — we tended to get along with everybody.”
“Bedford has something that most communities don’t have, I would call it like a hidden gem,” Young declared. “Some of my friends who I went through school with – we are all friends to this day. We built bonds that are unbreakable.”
Murphy was a founder of Concerned Black Citizens of Bedford around 1970. “I decided that Black people in Bedford didn’t know each other. I made a list of the people I knew, and I got on the phone and invited them to my house on a Sunday afternoon. I only invited the women because I knew if the women agree, the men would follow.”
“We decided to get together the fourth Saturday of the month in the evening and rotate houses. It took a while because everybody had their own ideas and their own likes dislikes and there were people who were very concerned about rocking the boat. Their neighbors and friends and coworkers were concerned that we were organizing and that we were going to become militant. I had to constantly reassure that the main reason was that we knew each other and our children would know each other and we could help our children get the best education they could.”
The organization “encouraged me and had an impact on my life,” Ghazarian reflected. “They tried to build up the Black kids without ever letting us know that we were being beaten down. They all did a really good job. They wanted to see some good come from the community.”
Murphy said that over the years, Concerned Black Citizens occasionally intervened regarding “different things that happened in the schools with children, sometimes with a parent, teachers, and principals. We always insisted that Black and white parents and children be there – everyone that was involved. Children and their parents needed to clarify things – what happened, why, and how we could better approach this.”
“There were times when we had to go to a school meeting and Bernard Pendleton always would say, ‘Okay, Rachel, calm down.’ He was a gentle person, strong and gentle.”
There were white residents who were by their side, Murphy said: Lois and Brown Pulliam, Nancy Winter, Carol and Art Smith, Marietta and Arthur Ellis, Nancy Moore. “From Nancy I learned that, rather than think of people as a soup with all flavors blended together, think of them as a tossed salad in which each vegetable keeps its own favor.”
She remembers some of the educators with whom she worked. There was Davis School Principal Robert Couture – “I adored that man.” And John Glenn Middle School Principal James Kinneen. “He was perceptive and compassionate, and I want people to know that.” Ghazarian lauded legendary BHS music teacher Keith Phinney.
Smith, who lives in Hopkinton and works for State Street Bank, explained that “the Black families that made up Bedford lived in a kind of vacuum within a larger bedroom community and rally relief on one another. And I saw this through the eyes of my parents.”
That doesn’t mean they weren’t part of the larger community, he continued, where “they had credibility and accountability – PTAs, League of Women Voters, Lions Club, Masons. It just ran the gamut. But it always came back to this grouping of families.” Smith has vivid memories of Concerned Black Citizens’ annual cookouts at the Air Force FamCamp. The group invited personnel from the base and Lincoln Laboratories.
“A group of us got together — a mixture of Black and white – and we did a Black awareness course” for use in schools, Murphy recounted. “We deliberately did not do entertainers and sports figures. We wanted to let people know there are other areas as well. That course ended up in the Merrimack Valley Regional Education Center. We didn’t copyright it – I heard it was used in California.”
“We wanted to get it in the Bedford school system. We went to the School Committee to have them accept it, which it was. It started out once a week in Davis School. A copy of it is in the library.”
Murphy, who grew up in North Carolina, noted that her father was part Native American, and she was an advocate for that cause as well. “It’s amazing the ideas people have that all Native Americans were lazy and dirty and savages. A lot of them were historians, they knew how to make things natural. Many of them taught white settlers.”
Murphy, who last year was on a respirator for three weeks before recovering from Covid-19, now lives in Franklin, not far from Crystal.
Ghazarian, an attorney who now is a manager with Eliot Community Health, said her parents encouraged her to attend a Historically Black College. She said when she arrived at Spelman College in Atlanta, “that was my moment about what it really meant to be Black and proud to be Black.”
But now she’s back in Greater Boston. “There really is a big difference between the North and South – and I just didn’t like the South. I didn’t mesh well with the personalities. I am thankful that I had my experience in Atlanta because that prepared me to be able to be in a world with a bunch of different people – what it means to be Black and how fantastic it really is.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763