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 Learning Our Community's American Lore

Press Release, February 2005

A history to remember
By Nell Escobar Coakley/ ncoakley@cnc.com
Thursday, February 10, 2005

The West Medford African American Remembrance Project has chosen the following residents from four fields, including leaders, pioneers, artists and entrepreneurs. The names were chosen randomly from a field of 30 to 40 notable people who contributed to the community.

These are just the first of several residents to be chosen for the project.

Living nominees: Edward Clayton, the Hon. Marie Jackson, Shirley Kountze and the Rev. Dr. Oscar G. Phillips and his wife, Miriam Phillips.

Deceased nominees: Madeline Dugger Andrews, Alonzo Fields, Walter Isaacs and James and Ada Sherwood.

Tufts, MHS students study West Medford African American notables

The first day was cold and wet. The second, warm and inviting. Students from Tufts University are definitely getting the full experience of life in West Medford.

On Feb. 3, about eight students from Tufts showed up at the West Medford home of Wallace Kountze for a tour of the area. Students are currently studying about life in one of the country's oldest African American communities, in hopes of gaining a better understanding about the history and geography of the area before tackling their big project - interviews with notable members of the community and/or those who knew them.

The work is being done as part of the "Place, Race and Memory: the Afro-American Remembrance Project," which will span three years and focus on individuals who made notable contributions to the city from the late 1800s through the Civil Rights movement.

Thanks to a federal grant of more than $900,000 to be split among five communities, Medford among them, students will be working to rediscover and record the history of African Americans in West Medford.

Kountze, who is the chairman of the committee in charge of making recommendations for the nominees whose stories will be told, said four categories have been targeted for the first round of the project: leaders, pioneers, artists and entrepreneurs.

Last Thursday, he and Tufts students hoped to walk Jerome, Lincoln and part of Arlington streets, where many of the notables lived and worked.

"These are the areas we thought would be of interest," Kountze said. "It wasn't hard to narrow it down because these were the places that come to mind when you think about the things going on here."

Kountze said he and Tufts Professor Rosalind Shaw, whose class is undertaking the first part of the project, took a tour of the area to decide points of interest, such as Dugger Park, Kelley's Riding Stables and the Little Store, among others.

Although the tour was cut short due to inclement weather, students were excited about the prospect of studying history first hand.

"I didn't learn much about it when I was in school," said Courtney Robinson, a Medford resident who is also a senior at Tufts. "Most of the history we learned about was the Brooks Estate or the Royall House. It really interests me that all this was going on. It's more than I ever knew, even though I live in the midst of it."

Sophomore Taryn Miller said she is excited to learn more about the community she's become a part of during her time at Tufts.

"It's a lot of work, but I'm excited because it's a different type of school work," she said. "You're not reading a book, studying it and then taking a test. This is really hands on."

Students were treated to their first glimpse of what their part in doing the oral histories might entail when Kountze and fellow committee member Janice Works gave their own recollections about some of the notables.

An animated Works joked about growing up in West Medford, but said she's looking forward to seeing the legacy of the community continue.

"I'd like to see this go down in history because we're the last to know our past and we don't know that much," she said. "If we lose it, it's all over. No one else will know."

Meeting of the minds

Works' words were echoed for not only students, but community members who attended a special reception at the West Medford Baptist Church on Feb. 5.

Among those in attendance were nominees and family and friends of deceased nominees, who volunteered to be resource people for them. Resource people will speak to students about a nominee, their life and their accomplishments.

Resource people, nominees and students gathered to share schedules for interviews and Shaw said the ice was broken for many.

"We're absolutely thrilled," Shaw said of the gathering. "It was a wonderful start. Students can now build on this experience with the resource people, who now have a sense of the students."

Some of the living nominees said they were excited by talking to students. Shirley Kountze, former principal of the Brooks-Hobbes School, said she was thrilled to be a nominee.

Shirley Kountze was nominated for her work as the first African American principal in the Medford Public Schools.

"I was excited that all this was being recorded," Shirley Kountze said of her reaction when told of the project and her nomination. "I knew it was all being done, but I always thought we should get it all down."

Recalling her years as principal, an animated Shirley Kountze said her years were full of ups and downs, and while there was the feeling that she was the token African American in the beginning, she pushed ahead because she knew she was making a difference.

"I was committed to showing kids about equal opportunity, especially the black kids," she said. "I was coming at this from the conviction that I wanted to do something."

For Dr. Ione Vargus, the pleasure of a nomination is not hers, but for her sister, Madeline Dugger Andrews, for whom a middle school is named. Andrews was the first African American School Committee member in the city.

"I find it ironic that she was never allowed to teach in the community where she lived and there is now a school named after her," Vargus said. "But the superintendent in the 1940s said he would never have a black teacher in the Medford school system."

Andrews, she said, would eventually end up teaching in Boston, but she would make her mark on the Medford schools anyway.

"She was drafted to run," Vargus recalled of Andrews' foray into politics. "They asked my sister, Portia [Byard], but she didn't want to do it so they asked Madeline and she agreed. I think it was the West Medford Improvement Association. They worked to get her elected."

Along with Andrews, Vargus said there is word that their father, Lt. Col. Edward Dugger may also be honored as a nominee. Dugger Park, the first public park and playground in Medford and surrounding cities and towns named for an African American, was dedicated in 1939 for Edward's work with local youth.

"It's almost embarrassing," Vargus said of the attention being given to the family. "There are so many deserving people. My hope is that some people and families aren't overlooked for those better known."

But that doesn't seem to be the case. Kountze said there are many nominees still to come over the next two phases of the project. He said last week's two events prove that West Medford's history will live on.

"The project has gone beyond my wildest dreams," he said. "With the support and collaboration of two of the finest universities in the world, we are able to expose Medford High School and Tufts students to our history. I do lament over the fact that so much has been lost, but we are anxious not to let any more of it happen on our watch."

(This article was taken from the Medford Transcript website.)

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