Melnea Agnes Cass (née Jones; June 16, 1896–December 16, 1978) was an American community and civil rights activist. She was deeply involved in many community projects and volunteer groups in the South End and Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston and helped found the Boston local of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Cass also assisted women with voter registration after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. She was affectionately known as the "First Lady of Roxbury."
Cass' father was a janitor and her mother a domestic worker. The family moved to the South End of Boston when Cass was five years old. When Cass was eight, her mother died. Thereafter, she and her sisters were raised by their father and their Aunt Ella, who, as Cass said, "stepped in as a second mother." After a few years their aunt moved the girls to Newburyport, Massachusetts, and placed them in the care of Amy Smith.
Cass began her education in the Boston public schools. After graduating from grammar school in Newburyport, she attended Girls' High School in Boston for one year. Her aunt then enrolled her in St. Frances de Sales Convent School, a Catholic school for black and Indian girls in Rock Castle, Virginia. Cass graduated in 1914 as valedictorian of her class. She returned to Boston to the home that her Aunt Ella had established for the girls.
Cass looked for work as a salesgirl in Boston, but found that there were no opportunities for blacks. She decided to become a domestic worker. She did this type of work until her marriage in December, 1917 to Marshall Cass. While her husband was in the service, their first child, Marshall, was born. After his return from the war, they had two other children, Marianne and Melanie. Her husband died in 1958.
Cass became involved in community projects. She helped to organize people to register to vote after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920. Cass organized black women to cast their first vote. She was involved in women's suffrage activities for the rest of her life. As a young woman, she attended William Monroe Trotter's lectures and protest meetings and was a faithful reader of the Boston Guardian.
It was in the 1930s that Melnea Cass began a lifetime of volunteer work on the local, state, and national level. She first contributed her services to the Robert Gould Shaw House, a settlement house and community center. She was the founder of the Kindergarten Mothers. Her community activities over the years were numerous and varied: Pansy Embroidery Club, Harriet Tubman Mothers' Club, and the Sojourner Truth Club, worked in the Northeastern Region of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs as a secretary, helped form the Boston local of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to name a few. During World War II she was one of the organizers of Women In Community Service, which later became Boston's sponsor of the Job Corps. In 1949 she was a founder and charter member of Freedom House, which was conceived by Muriel and Otto Snowden. A year later, Boston Mayor John Collins appointed her as the only female charter member to Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), which assisted people who lost their homes to urban renewal efforts. From 1962 to 1964, Cass was president of the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). From 1975 to 1976, Cass was chairperson for the Massachusetts Advisory Committee for the Elderly.
Her other community activities are too numerous to mention. Melnea Cass was always at the forefront of making opportunities for the improvement in the quality of life for blacks in Boston. Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood bears her name along with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation's (DCR) Melnea A. Cass Swimming Pool and Indoor Recreation Arena dedicated by Gov. John Volpe.
May 22, 1966 was declared Melnea Cass Day. Generations of Black Boston schoolchildren[who?] recall her practice of giving them money upon their school graduations.
Melnea Cass died in 1978.
- Melnea A. Cass papers, 1954-1979, located in the Northeastern University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections Department, Boston, MA
- "On This Day: June 19, 1968: Melnea Cass", Mass Moments, Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. "She was a charter member of Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), which helped people displaced by urban renewal."
- Dietz, Jean, "Celebrating the Life of Melnea Cass", The Boston Globe (Boston, MA), July 3, 1988
- Larson, Sandra, "Tour hails historic women of Roxbury", Bay State Banner, April 2, 2009.
- The Freedom House Photographs collection contains images of Melnea Cass (Archives and Special Collections of the Northeastern University Libraries in Boston, MA).