Good Deeds: Black History Month
Register William P. O’Donnell and Hyacinth Cornish, mother of Audie Cornish, at the 225th Anniversary Celebration at the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds in 2018. Courtesy photo.
By William P. O’Donnell
Norfolk County Register of Deeds
Feb. 11, 2022 - Every February the United States of America celebrates Black History Month, it is a way to honor the contributions that African Americans have made throughout history while also recognizing the continuing fight for equality and justice. A founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History organization, Carter G. Woodson, is believed to have had the idea for what would become a month-long celebration. Mr. Woodson, who earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, was born in 1875 to newly-freed Virginia slaves. The motivation for Mr. Woodson to develop this concept of celebrating black history was his belief that African American children were not being taught about their ancestors’ achievements. Mr. Woodson was instrumental in having Negro History Week launched in 1926.
As the decade of the 1960s closed, Negro History Week continued to be celebrated. This was the precursor for what later changed into Black History Month. The month of February was picked for Black History Month because it contained the birthdays of United States President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. President Lincoln was born on February 12. Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became a noted abolitionist, did not know his precise birthday but celebrated his date of birth as February 14. In 1976, some 50 years after the first celebrations of black history, then-United States President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized Black History Month during the celebration of America’s bicentennial. President Ford called on Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
The Norfolk Registry of Deeds, and the land records housed there, date back to 1793. John Hancock, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was then Governor of Massachusetts and on March 26, 1793 signed legislation that established Norfolk County on June 20, 1793. A modernization initiative recently completed at the Norfolk Registry of Deeds transcribed handwritten land records dating from 1793 to 1900 and has made history come alive.
As Black History Month is celebrated, let us be aware of connections to Norfolk County. Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856. His connection to Norfolk County is that he vacationed for several summers at the residence owned by William H. Baldwin, Jr. in South Weymouth at the intersection of Main Street and Columbian Street. Mr. Washington was an educator, author and orator who, during his lifetime, was one of the prominent voices for African Americans in the United States. He established the Tuskegee Institute a school of higher learning for African Americans located in Alabama, and he called for progress through education and entrepreneurship.
As part of the 225th Anniversary Commemoration of Norfolk County in 2018, the Registry of Deeds chose another notable African American -- Audie Cornish, who hails from the Norfolk County community of Randolph -- to be in its Notable Land Records book. Audie Cornish was born in Randolph in 1979. She graduated from Randolph High School, attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and went on to become a journalist for the Associated Press and later a reporter for Boston Public Radio station WBUR. In 2005, she shared first prize in the National Awards for Education Writing for a report entitled “Reading, Writing and Race.” Ms. Cornish became a reporter for National Public Radio, later becoming a host and news chair.
William Maurice “Mo” Cowan lived in the Norfolk County town of Stoughton. He was appointed to serve as the United States Senator for the State of Massachusetts on February 1, 2013. He served along with U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) making it the first time two African Americans served simultaneously in the United States Senate. Prior to his appointment, Senator Cowan earned a law degree at Northeastern University and joined the prestigious law firm of Mintz Levin where he later became partner. Mr. Cowan left the law firm to become counsel to Governor Deval Patrick.
Speaking of Governor Deval Patrick, an African American who was elected as Governor of Massachusetts in 2006 and served two terms: Did you know he lived in the Norfolk County town of Milton?
Florida Ruffin Ridley was an African American civil rights activist, suffragist, teacher, writer and editor born in 1861. She was one of the first black public schoolteachers in Boston and edited the Women’s Era, the country’s first newspaper established by and for African American women. Florida Ruffin Ridley lived in the Norfolk County town of Brookline where, in 1896, she was one of the town’s first African American homeowners. In September 2020, the Florida Ruffin Ridley School in Brookline was re-named in her honor.
The Norfolk Registry of Deeds building is located in Dedham. This Norfolk County community recently honored the life of William B. Gould (1837-1923) by renaming the East Dedham Passive Park in his honor. William B. Gould was born into slavery in North Carolina and escaped in 1862 by boat during the Civil War. Mr. Gould served in the Navy for the Union for the rest of the Civil War chasing Confederate vessels. After the Civil War ended, this Civil War Navy Veteran was a distinguished member of the Dedham community.
Henry W. Diggs was a lifelong resident of my hometown of Norwood from 1906 to 2003. He and his relatives were the first African Americans to settle in Norwood. After graduating from Norwood High School in 1924, Mr. Diggs worked for the Norwood Press and later served as a radio repairman for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. Mr. Diggs was active in town government serving on the Norwood School Committee, Town Meeting and the Blue Hills Regional High School Committee. In a high school graduation address, Mr. Diggs urged graduates to “build a bridge” to one another so that “walls of suspicion, fear, prejudice and hate will disappear.”
Sam Jones was a clutch basketball scorer who won 10 Championships with the Boston Celtics during their dynasty in the late 1950s and 1960s. As a Boston Celtic, Mr. Jones wore the number 24 which was retired by the Celtics in 1969 while he was still an active player. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984 having played all 12 of his NBA seasons with the Boston Celtics. Mr. Jones owned a home, together with his wife Gladys, in the Norfolk County community of Sharon while playing for the Boston Celtics. Mr. Jones died recently at the age of 88.
Black History Month commemorates contributions made by African Americans to our country and to the fabric of what makes up our country. Let us be proud and take notice of all noted contributions and know individuals from our communities here in Norfolk County have been a part of that history.