Since 1630, the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston has been an integral part of the city, first for its farms, then as a strong hold during the Revolutionary War. In the 18th century, Roxbury was a fashionable suburb, and in the 19th century jobs were created and the economy was strengthened by the mill industry. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Roxbury was a thriving commercial district full of department stores, theaters, and hotels. After World War II, African Americans from the South migrated by the thousands into the urban areas of the North, and Roxbury became the center of the African American community in Boston. By the time Boston began its urban renewal program in the early 1960s, Roxbury's economy had fallen into decline causing high unemployment, inadequate housing, and underperforming schools.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy created the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime. Its goal was "to establish a direct link between the Federal Government and city, by-passing the state, to define and relieve urban pathology. The committee sought to work within the context of already established local agencies" ("Natural History of a Professional Reform Organization: Roxbury Multi-Service Center," Box 1, Folder 6). In 1962, Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) grew out of Boston's mayor's office specifically to handle the problems encountered by those communities directly affected by the economic and social problems created by the city's urban renewal projects. Concurrently, the Ford Foundation was actively exploring ways in which to improve the social conditions of underprivileged youth by funding numerous social action programs.
These were the conditions under which representatives from ABCD, the United Way, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the City of Boston, and the Roxbury-North Dorchester community, began to develop " a plan for a direct service project which would provide, from a neighborhood base, a multiplicity of health, welfare and related services" ("Natural History of a Professional Reform Organization"). The result of their work, "The Boston Youth Opportunity Project: a report and a proposal," was submitted by ABCD to the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime in December 1963. In November 1964, Roxbury Multi-Service Center was incorporated. Original incorporators included Elma Lewis, Harry Elam, Louis White, Lois Clemente, and John D. O'Bryant. In December 1964, RMSC opened on 317 Blue Hill Avenue.
During its first three years of operation, RMSC was devoted to stabilizing families in crisis by providing case-by-case intervention for both families and individuals. The goal in 1964 was to demonstrate " that a variety of services could be integrated and coordinated under one roof and one administrative structure, resulting in the elimination of the fragmentation of individuals and families among a variety of social welfare and mental health agencies" ("Proposal for the Development of the Roxbury Multi-Service Center Over the Next Five Years: 1969-174," Box 1, Folder 68). Initial programs were designed to respond to clients' immediate needs. These core programs were employment counseling and training, home development, neighborhood improvement, and assessment and counseling services. The assessment and counseling program provided individual, group, and family therapy, job counseling and training, and emergency financial assistance. In 1967, Hubert Jones, who replaced the first executive director, Gertrude Cuthbert, believed that the completion of the demonstration phase signaled a significant shift from the center's case-by-case intervention approach. Convinced that poverty was the root of the neighborhood's inability to overcome the social and economic barriers it was confronted with, the next generation of the RMSC's leaders began to create programs that focused on both developing the community of Roxbury and responding to the needs of its residents.
In 1968, RMSC initiated its first community based program, the Sav-More Association. The purpose of this program was to improve the 17 block Savin and Moreland Street neighborhood and its residents by helping them develop the skills to compete for the financial and educational resources to which they had been denied access. By including residents in the problem solving process, a major neighborhood clean-up was accomplished and the Sav-More Teen Council was formed. These teen workers became active in many aspects of their neighborhood, including planning and implementing social activities for the neighborhood's youth. The Teen Council grew into the Teen Educational Center and eventually evolved into the Youth Development Center, which is still in existence.
RMSC's philosophy of community and individual self-determinism was put into action through two types of programs: one aimed at community development and the other focused on individual needs. Community development programs included housing rehabilitation and ownership, tenant advocacy programs, and crime and safety programs. Individual needs programs included assessment and counseling, the Day Activity program for residents with mental health needs, the Reading Skills Lab, and a summer camp program.
From the beginning, RMSC was an advocate for the community and for educational opportunity. Working together with the Sav-More Association, RMSC was successful in preventing the Mobile Gas Company from tearing down a six-family house to replace it with a gas station. Concerned about the reports the staff was hearing from parents about their children's experiences in school, RMSC organized the Task Force on Children. For over two years, this group, lead by Hubert Jones, investigated the performance of the Boston Public Schools, and in 1971, they published the report, "The Way We Go To School: the Exclusion of Children in Boston," (LC4093.B6 T3 1971), which was the catalyst for change in local and national education laws. In 1974, RMSC played an important role in school desegregation when it was called upon to staff school buses and to monitor South Boston High and Hyde Park High, the two most volatile schools.
Throughout the 1980s, RMSC continued to implement programs that responded to the needs of individuals and programs to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood. These programs included the Family House Shelter for homeless families (the first shelter of its kind in Massachusetts), the Minority Student Retention Program at Boston Latin and Boston Prep high schools, the Housing Rehabilitation and Sales program, and the Boston Safe Neighborhood program. In 1980, RMSC began to collaborate with the Educational Counseling Committee (EEC), which was begun in 1949 when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People determined that not enough Black high school graduates were attending college because of the high cost of secondary education. From 1949 to 1980, the EEC provided educational counseling and financial assistance to Black students in the Boston area. In 1989, RMSC assumed management of EEC and the EEC college scholarship program became the Roxbury Multi-Service Scholarship.
By the 1990s, the Blue Hill Ave. beautification project Green on Blue was in operation as were the Housing Counseling Program, and Project R.I.G.H.T. (Rebuild and Improve Grove Hall Together), which focused on the revitalization of the Grove Hall area of Roxbury. The John D. O'Bryant Community Youth Center was established in 1993 to provide educational and job training programs, anti-violence programs, and leadership development programs.
Between 1993 and 1997, RMSC experienced five executive and interim directors. This instability, together with reoccurring administrative weaknesses and a financial deficit, caused the Board and staff of RMSC to examine all aspects of the organization. From December 1997 to May 1998, a management team comprised of staff members and led by Vanessa Bell was responsible for day-to-day operations. With the help of management consultants from CommonGround, a transition plan was developed and Brenda Gadson was chosen to lead RMSC into its 40th decade.
Annual Reports, 1965-1989, Box 2, Folders 1-3.
Board of Director Minutes, Boxes 2-4, Folders 17-32.
Boston Landmarks Commission website: http://www.boston-online.com/roxhist.html
Brief Report on the Roxbury Multi-Service Center for 1967, Box 1, Folder 2.
Brief Report on the Roxbury Multi-Service Center for 1968, Box 1, Folder 2.
Roxbury Multi-Service Center, Inc., Report of Operations, January 1-December 31, 1965, Box 1, Folder 8.
Roxbury Multi-Service Center, Inc., Overview, 1994, Box 2, Folder 69.
Swan, Dawn. " Natural History of a Professional Reform Organization: Roxbury Multi-Service Center"," (n.d.) Box 2, Folder 6.