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Moseley, Margaret (1901-1997)

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Margaret Moseley

Biographical Introduction

A community peace and civil rights activist, Moseley was born in Dedham, Massachusetts in 1901, and graduated from high school in Dorchester in 1919. Unable to pursue a career in nursing or business because of racial discrimination, Moseley was a founding member of a consumers’ cooperative in Boston in the 1940s, served on the board of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Freedom House in Roxbury. She was president of the Community Church in Boston, and Massachusetts legislative chair for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which established the Margaret Moseley Memorial Peace Education Fund in her honor in 1989. After moving to Cape Cod in 1961, she helped form local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and WILPF. She was a founding member of the Community Action Committee of Cape Cod, and the Fair Housing Committee on Cape Cod. She was also active in the Unitarian Church of Barnstable, becoming a founding member of the Social Responsibility Committee, and the first woman to chair the Prudential Committee; the governing body of the church. She was also on the boards of the Cape Cod Section, Mass. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands. Moseley died in 1997.

— History Notes from the Margaret Moseley Papers 1943-1997, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.

Memoirs As Told by Margaret Moseley

Moseley at age 4

Moseley at age 4, in a play dress made by her grandmother.

There were about 3,200 students in Dorchester High School when I was there. (I graduated in 1919.) The year I entered, one black fellow had graduated in June and there was one other black girl in my class. So for three years, she and I were the only two. I had lots of friends in school but when there was a party, such as a birthday party, when the other girls in the group would be invited and I was not invited, it made me come to the realization that I was not socially accepted in their families. And it began to build a sense of difference and injustice, to be ostracized in that fashion for no reason, really, except one was of a somewhat different complexion. As time went on, even at school events, there were so many instances of hurt that began to deepen more and more.

Finally, in my last year, the other young woman—the one who was the only other person of color—and I thought it would be nice if we were to do something together such as studying nursing. So we determined that as soon as we graduated, we would study nursing. In those days you didn’t have to go to college, you could do three years of training and be a qualified R.N. I saw no way to get the money to go to college. I thought nursing would be something I could do. But because college was looming larger and larger in my thinking, in the event I could find a way to raise the money to go to college, my fourth year I changed the courses I was taking to get in more college courses. I even went back a fifth year after I had my diploma to get, free, more of the mathematics and Latin and that kind of thing that would be helpful. I wanted the extra credits for college subjects even if I went into training.

Ruth and I tried Massachusetts General and other hospitals in Boston to be accepted for training. There wasn’t a hospital in Boston that would take us. They told us very candidly that they did not accept colored people for training. Ruth’s people were from the Washington D.C. area, so there wasn’t too much of a problem with her. Her mother said, “If they won’t take you in Boston, you don’t have to feel bad. You can work at a Freedman’s Hospital in Washington. You’ll get just as good training and you won’t have to be putting up with discrimination.”

Moseley's grandfather

Elias Hall, Margaret’s grandfather, shown in the uniform of the union army, served during the Civil War and was at one time the water boy for Ulysses S. Grant.

I asked my parents if I could go, too, but they wouldn’t let me. To them I might as well say I was going to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, anywhere in the Deep South. They had such a horror of life in the South that my mother said, “Indeed, we will not let you go down there.”

And so I was blocked. Ruth went to Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. and thirty years later she was still there. She had promotion after promotion and became one of the head people at the hospital. Her parents didn’t have the kind of fear my parents had. So there I was. I tried looking for jobs, thinking I could perhaps study part-time and work part-time. It was just the same thing looking for a job as it was trying to get into a hospital as a trainee. I even had a couple of employers tell me that if I would say I was a foreigner, they would even suggest places I might say my family was from, they would hire me. But I told them I would not do it under such pretenses and I asked them what would happen to someone else who could not pass as a foreigner but was equally competent and they wouldn’t wish to hire them because they would be too obviously black. They said that would be that person’s misfortune. I said I could not accept work under those conditions.

And this went on and on and on and on. They would let me take tests and then would explain with embarrassment that no one would want to work with me. I began learning a lesson more and more that the only intelligent thing to do was not to let it be a bother because I could see that I could destroy myself with bitterness and hatred and vindictiveness. I would have to direct my energies in ways that would be helpful not only to me—but even if it did not help me—to other people so that another generation coming along wouldn’t have to experience the kinds of things I did.

Moseley family

Margaret, 7, right, with her sister Dorothea, three and one-half; brother Thomas, six months; her mother, Nellie Elizabeth Hall Smith; and her father, Thomas Buxton Smith.

I finally got married when I was twenty-one (most women were married much younger in those days) and was twenty-two when my son, Frederick, was born. For the first fourteen years when I was married I lived in the country. It was even more country than Dorchester had been when I was a girl. We lived in Norwell, thirty miles from Boston. In those days, traveling in the first cars on primitive roads was more time consuming than going to Boston from the Cape today.

But I went back to greater Boston and found a small home to live in. After a while we were so cramped I wanted a bigger place and found a very lovely home in a two-family house. I hadn’t been living there many months when the elderly woman who was the landlady sold it. Immediately the new owner evicted me and when I pressed him, he said he didn’t have to give a reason, that there was nothing in the law that compelled him to give a reason for eviction. I said, “It isn’t because of nonpayment, because you haven’t had to wait for a penny, it isn’t because of nonupkeep of the property.” I said, “There can only be one reason. You don’t want to answer but I’m going to keep pressing you until you give me an answer. Is it based on race?”

He said, “Yes. I don’t feel happy about your making me answer this, I didn’t intend to give a reason. But this is too nice a neighborhood for black people.” Too nice a neighborhood! He said, “I bought this house as an investment—I’m not going to live here—and I’ve got to protect my investment.”

I tried to argue but it didn’t do any good. I said, “I’m sorry to have to tell you that this isn’t just the end. I’m paying the rent as though I expected to be here beyond this coming month. But I shall go to a lawyer and see what recourse I have.”

And so I did. I was shocked when I was told that according to the laws of Massachusetts at that time, a landlord could evict a tenant for any reason he wished. The owner of property—usually a man—could do anything he pleased with the property. The tenant had no protection in the law. Race or religion or any other difference was not protected. I said to the lawyer, “I shall watch my chance for the first bill that comes before the Massachusetts Senate or House, to fight this because this is inhuman.”

Moseley Memorial

Margaret photographed on the day the Margaret Moseley Memorial Peace Education Fund was established by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

I walked around in the cold winter weather trying to find a place and the only places landlords would show me were rat and vermin infested places which I would not take my children into. I had an awful time and the time was running out. One day I was walking down a street and happened to see a man on the second floor of an apartment house. I never had liked apartments but when you’re pushed you look. He was painting around the window. There wasn’t a For Sale or To Let sign but I went and rang the bell. I asked him if by chance he was preparing the apartment to be let.

He said, “Yes I’m not ready to put a sign up yet.” I told him I was looking for a place. He invited me in, showed me around the place and we talked. I explained to him very candidly what had happened.

He said, “Do you like this place?” I replied, “Yes”, and he said, “Then you can have it.” So I gave him a deposit. He finished the painting in time for me to move in before the rent I had paid in the other house was up. But in the meantime, I had become very, very sick walking in the cold, icy, snow after working day after day. Going out nights in all kinds of weather and over tired. We moved in on a Saturday. Sunday I cleaned windows, put up curtains, arranged the rooms. That night I was desperately ill. The next morning I had one of the children call my mother and a sister because I had such a very, very high fever, I was apt to become delirious. I was having convulsive chills. They called a doctor. I was taken to the hospital. I was there for six weeks. They told me I wavered between life and death for six days. I had to have kidney specialists and everything.

I did a lot of thinking during those weeks of illness and convalescence.

Becoming an Activist

It wasn’t too long after that I read in a Boston paper that a representative was presenting a bill in the State House on housing. I don’t think I need tell you that I was there. I went every day to the hearings. At that time I was Massachusetts legislative chairman for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). I testified for them, but I also put in my own testimony because I wanted to be recorded both ways.

The bill was originally fairly acceptable but by the time they got through with it, it was watered down, was wishy-washy. I said “You’re going to have to one day have a meaningful bill. Why do you do it step by step, why don’t you do it in one jump? It would save you energy and time.”

They looked at me as though I were crazy. They said they would never get it passed if they were to make it stronger. So every year, for three years they had to keep stepping up the provisions and every year I would be there to testify. I said this is one thing I’m not going to give up until there is justice.

And that was what I kept doing with various things that I personally experienced that gave me an insight into what large numbers of people were suffering. And perhaps most of them wouldn’t have the ability, the courage, even the know-how to go and publicly fight for it. Most people are frightened to death of anything like that unless they’re in an organized group that gives them the organization to do it. So I did the same with all kinds of lapses in civil liberties, human rights, civil rights, writing letters at a distance, calling in personal opinions and whenever possible going in to lobby. When Annalee Stewart was the national chairperson for the legislative effort of WILPF, if I was in Washington, I would go with Annalee to the legislative hearings. Annalee felt so strongly about these things that one time when she had broken a leg, she had herself taken in on a stretcher to testify on a bill WILPF was supporting. People who feel strongly about these things recognize the need for a personal presence at such times, regardless of personal inconvenience.

And when the United Nations first started, I went to the UN as often as I could. A number of times I attended sessions of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Commission on Human Rights. It was a wonderful experience. At that time Gladys Walser was WILPF representative to the UN. She introduced me to people from abroad representing their countries at the UN. I don’t know anybody who started life with as many strikes against her as I, who has had as many opportunities in life to meet important and interesting people who were doing things to make a better world.

Moseley family

Margaret’s grandmother, Susan Potter Hall, was celebrating her 97th birthday when this family portrait was taken. Pictured, left to right, Margaret, Margo Helene Lee (Frederick’s daughter), Margaret’s grandmother, Margaret’s mother Nellie Elizabeth Hall Smith, and Frederick Douglas Lee Jr., holding Frederick Douglas Lee III.

And I feel very greatly honored and I have been so fortunate in the kinds of things I have been able to do as well as the people I’ve met. At the UN, we were there as an organization from its inception. I saw so many of the formative things that were happening at the UN. There was nothing that I saw that was greater than the Commission on Human Rights. Because to me that was very basic. If we could get the nations of the world to subscribe to it, so they would have to bring their societies up to the point of living up to the requirements of the Universal Declaration, we would go such a long way to making the world much more peaceful, much more harmonious and much more just for humans. So I used to almost always go when they were in session.

After the ratification of the Universal Declaration, I went around a good deal giving talks on it, sometimes to church groups. One of our very ardent advocates in Massachusetts was the wife of a Methodist minister. She invited me to come to their church to talk to their women’s organization. I used charts to describe it. Everywhere I would go, one of the first challenges I would get was why I put so much confidence in the declaration, why I did not think that the United States Declaration of Independence and our Constitution weren’t greater. I would try to say that up until the time the Universal Declaration was developed, perhaps they were the greatest but in my estimation, this went beyond it, because it was international, whereas ours was national; and the Universal Declaration had economic and social rights which ours did not have. Ours was more civil and political. We brought democracy into those areas of life but we did not carry it into economic areas. It was a hard thing to get people to accept. It’s a little easier today when people have a broader perspective. But in those days, it was practically like declaring that you were a traitor, because why would you put some other document above the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?

Then I would try to show what we had contributed and what the communist countries had contributed. You can’t have a unified world if you only have reflected in its pronouncements things from one part of the world. If we’re going to have a United Nations, which represents people on other continents, Africa, Asia, and so forth, we need to include the things they need as well. By combining these you get something that has to be superior to what either offers their own people.

At one time when I was store manager of a consumers’ cooperative store, I had the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the window, and then I had the Consumers’ Cooperative Principles which are so democratic, and yet this was a store selling groceries. People would come in and ask me if I was a communist. A local minister there came in one day and walked around and around, looking at the displays. I knew that he was trying to size things up. He finally came to the counter with one lemon, that was his total purchase. I smiled and asked what I could do for him. He bought the lemon and then said, “By the way, is this a communist outfit?” I said, “No, it’s exactly the opposite.” He said, “Well, where do you ever see a store that has educational things in the window?” I said, “I feel my job is as much a job of education as it is to sell commodities.” So he asked a whole lot of questions. While I waited on customers he would stand there and then ask questions between customers. So he said, “You have meetings here sometimes at night don’t you?” And I said, yes. He asked, “Aren’t you a bit cramped?” I was. Emerson would set up chairs in the store and people would come. He said, “Would you like to come to our parish hall?” I said that would be lovely. He said, “All right. Since this is an educational venture, I’m happy to let you use the space.” I felt that was a real victory from asking me if I and the people I was working with were communists to offering me his parish hall. I told him the state had even sent me a check to put on one course because they were trying to encourage through the federal government understanding of cooperation for low-income communities.

Moseley with Dr. King

Martin Luther King with Margaret Moseley when he visited Boston in 1958. She is presenting him with a check to support his civil rights work. Note reads: To Margaret Moseley, with deep gratitude for what it has meant to Freedom House to have you and Emerson as friends and believers throughout all the years.

That made him feel a lot better. If this was approved by the government it must be acceptable.

I kept expanding and expanding my efforts in doing things. Immediately after I came to the Cape in 1961, I joined a group that was talking about organizing a branch of NAACP. There was a group in Woods Hole and Falmouth waiting for me to come to start a peace group. There were a few people, and Judy Barnet was one of them, who met to talk about what some of the other needs were on the Cape. We wound up developing and becoming charter members of Community Action of Cape Cod.

When we first started the NAACP, Eleanor Sunderman and her husband, who was the art teacher at the high school, and a few of us thought that one of the greatest needs on the Cape was nondiscrimination and nonsegregation in housing. And so we set up the first Fair Housing Committee. Ellie was the first president of the Fair Housing Committee. She became very ill and had to give it up and Judy Barnet became the second president and carried it on for a number of years.

We separated from the NAACP, not because we didn’t approve of the NAACP but we found that by being an independent group we could reach more people than if we said we were a committee of the NAACP. Feelings on the Cape at that time were running quite strong. There was a lot of discrimination. There were a great many people who didn’t like to have things identified with the NAACP or any other interest group of that kind that could be identified with a racial issue. That was in the early ’60s.

It was while Judy was president that a few of us in that group pooled a little money to make a down payment on a government surplus house from the war. We were going to use that house as a demonstration, allowing a very low-income family who had all kinds of strikes against them to occupy it and then as they paid the rent which would be equity, they would own it. We would let them take over the mortgage on it. We only put the initial down payment on it. A man in South Dennis was the one who handled that and collected the rent and made sure the people kept everything up to par.

Judy really took strong leadership and was a wonderful leader. Then the day came that we had such a strong Housing Authority in this town. Through the efforts, mostly, of that Fair Housing Committee, we transformed the Housing Authority. One by one we got some of the old conservatives off and replaced by people who understood social problems better and were sympathetic—expanding that effort for the benefit of the people who needed it. I give Judy a great deal of credit even though a lot of us were working with her.

The members of the Unitarian Church are constantly learning and growing. It is gratifying to see how new thoughts, new ideas and new ways are accepted with pleasure and delight. The outreach to the community is quite outstanding. That is truly a test of one’s convictions.

I have talked to the Sunday School children about Martin Luther King whom I met in 1958. Dr. King never believed in expressing anger or hostility to a person who has committed an offense. Instead, he tried to lead that person to change.

Moseley with her children

Margaret with her children, left to right, Frederick Douglas Lee Jr., Alice Louis Marie Lee and Thomas George Lee.

Moseley with her husband

Margaret and Emerson Moseley photographed at the Barnstable Unitarian Church Fair, summer 1984.

— Abridged from Moving Mountains One Stone at a Time: Memoirs of Margaret Moseley as told to Berry Shea, edited by Judith Barnet.

A Note on Unitarian Connections

In a Prologue to Moving Mountains, Kenneth Warren, Minister, Emeritus, Barnstable Unitarian Church, celebrated the life of Margaret Moseley:

I met Margaret when she and her husband Emerson moved to Cape Cod. We very soon became acquainted, because we shared so many interests and concerns. We worked for the same causes not only in the church but also in the NAACP, the Fair Housing Committee, the Community Action Committee, the peace movement and various groups, organized and ad hoc local and global.

When the so-called “reverse freedom riders” were sent to the Cape, presenting a small community with a large problem, Margaret simply appeared, not waiting to be asked, responding to a need calmly, quietly, naturally. Not only her labors but also her advice and counsel, wisdom gleaned from previous experience, were invaluable.

I and innumerable others learned through the years that this was her personality, her character, her way of life. Wherever she happens to be, she stands against and speaks against prejudice and injustice, stands for and speaks for human rights and human dignity. And always she speaks and acts nonviolently. She holds rational convictions with fervent emotion and acts with the courage of such convictions. Hence the simplicity and serenity.