The Black History Behind the Country’s Oldest Women’s Center

(Courtesy of the Cambridge Women’s Center)

This spring, the Cambridge Women’s Center, the US’s oldest women’s center, celebrated its 50th anniversary. Public commemorations included press attention and a documentary film, Left on Pearl, by Susan Rivo that documents the Harvard University occupation that led to the center’s founding. Sometimes told as a story of white feminists’ inspiration, there were clear ways in which the history of the Cambridge Women’s Center intersects with Black history, and, seen through that lens, it raises important questions about the politics of solidarity.

In 1970, white socialist feminists associated with the group Bread and Roses had been looking into creating a women’s center for Boston-area feminists, who often had to rent places in order to hold events and meetings. Meanwhile, revolutionary excitement was growing across the country in that fall after the Black Panther Party’s Revolutionary Constitutional Convention. Several Boston feminists attended the convention, and they returned to the city, as former Bread and Roses member Marla Erlien remembers, looking eagerly ahead to International Women’s Day in 1971 and thinking “we need [to do] something dramatic.” The Revolutionary Constitutional Convention inspired them to think and act on a big scale, connecting local struggles to national and international ones. So, over the next many months, a group of about twenty women met secretly to plan a takeover of a little-used Harvard building that they hoped would become their women’s center. They included Erlien and other Bread and Roses members as well as Laura Whitehorn, a former member of the white-led, anti-imperialist Weatherman (later known as the Weather Underground).1

On March 6, 1971, following a rally and lively march from the Massachusetts State House, occupation planners led the 150-strong march to 888 Memorial Drive. There they declared the building as the new women’s center of Cambridge. Whitehorn read a statement expressing “solidarity with the people of Vietnam, and especially the women of Vietnam.”2 Organizers made four demands, which, a few days later, were reduced to three and re-issued by other women who had become involved in the occupation:

  • That Harvard build low-income housing on this…site, in accordance with the demands of the Riverside community.
  • That Harvard provide a women’s center to serve the needs of women in the Boston area.
  • That Harvard give us full use of this building, with full facilities (heat, plumbing, electricity, etc.), until it is necessary to tear it down in order to break ground for the Riverside low-income housing.

Though it is unclear why it was not included in this set of demands, the demand that had been left out was that “Harvard cease its war research.”3 Together, these demands gestured toward solidarity with local and international struggles—from Riverside to Vietnam.

Indeed, Riverside assumed an important place in the occupation, literally and figuratively. Occupation organizers knew about on-going efforts to secure affordable housing by residents of Riverside, a racially-mixed working-class community adjacent to Harvard. Black Riverside residents had been concerned about Harvard’s encroachment on their neighborhood for years. The neighborhood’s long history of housing insecurity began with red-lining by federal agencies in the 1930s and 40s after Black families moved to the area in large numbers. By the 1950s the community was slated for “urban renewal.” Locals protested the plans, noting that many families would be displaced. Moreover, Harvard University’s proximity threatened both the availability and cost of housing. Its employees inhabited an estimated 10% of all housing in Cambridge in the year 1969, and increasing numbers sought residence in Riverside. What’s more, Harvard had been purchasing hundreds of housing units, demolishing some and raising the rents on others.

Leading Riverside’s housing efforts in the early 1970s was Saundra Graham. A lifelong resident of Riverside, Graham learned resistance from her mother. “You know, when I was just a little girl growing up here,” she told the Harvard Crimson in 1971, “my mother always had to drag me in for fighting. Well I’m still a fighter, and somebody’s going to have to do something pretty drastic to keep me from getting things changed in this city.” Graham was elected President of the Riverside Planning Team, served as an organizer with Concerned Citizens for Better Police, and was a board member of the Cambridge Community Center. Pushing against police brutality and for community-controlled daycare, as well as for affordable housing, she became one of Cambridge’s most high-profile Black leaders.

In 1970, her fight for affordable housing catapulted her to local fame. That year she organized a takeover of Harvard’s commencement celebrations. Camping in tents in Harvard Yard on the night of June 10, a group of 30-40 adults and children disrupted the following day’s activities with signs reading “Get out of Riverside” and “Power to the People.” When they ascended the stage, Graham declared: “We are the oppressed . . . give us land and we will build housing on it. We are going to get some kind of commitment today or we are not leaving.” Embarrassed, Harvard quickly agreed although it dragged its feet in developing the project in the fall of 1970.  Graham’s group demanded Harvard build 150 housing units, but the parcel of land the university donated in early 1971—a little more than 1.5 acres on Howard Street—ended up housing far fewer.

Thus, at the same time that a group of mostly white women’s liberationists were planning an occupation of the Harvard building at 888 Memorial Drive in Riverside, that community was in the midst of a long battle with Harvard. Occupation organizers knew about this battle. They met with a representative of a local tenants’ association prior to the action, and during the occupation they released statements and created flyers expressing solidarity with Riverside.4

But a number of Riverside residents—most of whom had not been informed of the occupation beforehand—were skeptical and frustrated. One local characterized the occupation as “a very typical example of white middle-class cooptation” and asserted that the occupiers were “taking the very real issue of housing for poor blacks, and using it in an exploitative manner for their own purposes.” For her part, Graham denied that an “allegiance” had formed between the occupiers and Riverside, but she visited 888 Memorial Drive to see the occupation for herself. What took place during her visit is unclear, but years later she told filmmakers that she appreciated that white feminists sought to lift up the struggle for affordable housing.

That is so despite the fact that occupiers ultimately dropped their demand for affordable housing in Riverside. On March 16 amid mounting fears of a police raid, they voted to end the occupation. A few activists had begun negotiations with high-powered figures at Radcliffe that resulted in Susan Lyman, the chair of Radcliffe’s Board of Trustees, donating $5000 towards the purchase of a building for a new women’s center. This money and its loose connections to Harvard prompted many to declare a victory, despite the fact that Harvard made no concessions regarding Riverside housing.

Years later, Whitehorn admitted that the organizers could have done much more to reach out to area residents prior to the occupation. She recalled that their meeting with the representative of the tenants’ council in Riverside was “fairly perfunctory—in other words, we made sure to let them know, but did not talk to enough [people], nor make enough of an effort to do so” out of fear of jeopardizing the occupation.5 Indeed, it may well have been because of this “perfunctory” meeting that Graham expressed a tentative, rather than allied, relationship with the occupiers.

As Left on Pearl documents in rich detail, the takeover of a disused Harvard building on International Women’s Day in March of 1971 led directly to the founding of the Cambridge Women’s Center, and in that documentary, the history of Riverside’s interaction with the occupation comes through. Further pushing the question of how Black history intersected with this moment prompts hard questions. How did Riverside residents stand to benefit from a women’s center? Why was the demand for low-income housing in Riverside not seen through and dropped so quickly? Were Riverside residents keen for the occupiers to maintain that demand?

Having been inspired to do “something dramatic,” in Erlien’s words, by the expression of Black radicalism and people power that was the Revolutionary People’s Convention, occupation organizers might have articulated the connections between affordable housing for Black women, a dearth of space for feminist organizing, and how Harvard contributed to both problems. We cannot know what would have been had the occupation maintained its demand for Riverside housing; perhaps there would be no Cambridge Women’s Center if they had. But in dropping the demand, Black Riverside’s wariness towards the feminists’ expressions of solidarity proves justifiable. As Whitehorn implied, without greater relationship-building, that solidarity was not white feminists’ to claim, but Black Riverside’s to grant.

  1. Laura Whitehorn, phone interview with the author, 27 July 2011.
  2. Laura Whitehorn, email interview with the author, 26 March 2013.
  3. Whitehorn, email interview with the author.
  4. Whitehorn, email interview with the author.
  5. Laura Whitehorn, email interview with the author, 25 March 2013.
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Say Burgin

Say Burgin is an assistant professor of history at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her essay on George Crockett is forthcoming in a collection with NYU Press. She is also the co-developer, along with Jeanne Theoharis, of the ​educational website on Rosa Parks. Follow her on Twitter @sayburgin.​

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