West Medford, Massachusetts has been home to a thriving African American community, where families have lived for generations since the end of the Civil War. The stories of its residents have been fading as elders die and families move away. Most of the history of this neighborhood resides within the memories of these few remaining elders. The discovery of over one hundred funeral programs, saved and collected by residents since the mid-twentieth century, tell the stories of residents who have passed on but made countless contributions to the community. These funeral programs, along with supplemental interviews, illustrate how past residents developed community resources and used ingenuity to help create a strong neighborhood of their own. Within these pages are stories of personal perseverance and tenacity, humor and resiliency. Through portraits of individuals, West Medford’s African-American neighborhood of the past is documented, through the sharing of the lives of men and women, and how they interfaced to create a solid community, despite societal and economic obstacles.
Carrie Hoyt Frye 1895-1979 Carrie Hoyt Frye was born on January 6, 1895 in West Medford, just three years after the area became incorporated as a city. Her life coincided with the city’s development, particularly the rich African American community that thrived in West Medford. Carrie raised a large family mostly on her own in a time when few women worked. In addition, she became a fixture in many community and women’s organizations and clubs. At the Shiloh Baptist Church, where she served as a Deacon, she was a harmonious presence as a longtime member of the senior choir. Her nickname “Big Mama” may have referred in part to her robust physique, but truly nothing compared to the size and warmth of her heart. Always seeking to help people and bring them together, she led by example in her family and in the community. She raised a vibrant family in their tight-knit, unified African American community in West Medford. When she passed away in 1979, Carrie was the beloved matriarch of one of Medford’s largest extended families, leaving behind numerous children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The mother of thirteen of her own, she raised eight to adulthood. Her first husband, Robert Booker died before any of their children were grown, so Carrie was faced with the daunting prospect of single-motherhood. She turned out to be more than equal to the task. To make ends meet, she began washing laundry by hand for people from other neighborhoods. Her children and grandchildren recall her giant wash-basin and board, the loads of clothes she would iron and starch and hang to dry on her line in the yard. But Carrie did much more than simply wash clothes. An exceptional seamstress and knitter, she would make and mend clothes for the entire community. Dresses, uniforms for the bowling league, sweaters, gloves, hats—you could count on Carrie Frye to sew it or knit it. She herself had a neat and elegant sense of style: long dresses, big black shoes and bonnets for church. Family and God represented the two pillars of strength Carrie relied on to overcome the challenges life put in her and her family’s path. The unity of family, church and community found its voice in the Senior Choir where she sang as for many years as a soprano. For all the generations of the Frye family, it was a matter of great honor and excitement to qualify to sing with her in the choir. Family unity and togetherness were Carrie Frye’s first priorities and she worked hard to make all of her activities inclusive. By the time she married Harold Frye in 1951, most of her children were already grown and her job became to serve as the center and the rallying point for her now extended family. She considered her four daughter-in-laws as daughters themselves and she devoted herself to all the new members of the Fry family. Each year for about ten years at one stretch, she would organize a trip to for all her grandchildren to Nantasket Beach in Hull, MA. The grandchildren, numbering in the double digits, were accompanied by their mothers for this enormous tri-generational getaway by the sea. Fond memories find themselves nestled amid the picnics, merry-go-rounds and surf of those yearly trips. Gatherings with Carrie were memorable for another reason. Her style was to take the lead, to gather people in boisterous good humor; she taught her family to stick together in good times and in bad. Always frank, sincere, and interested in sharing people’s lives, she instituted the tradition of weekly summer “bean suppers.” Comfort food filled the tables on these nights, with beans, frankfurters, corn bread and salad. It was during times like this that “Big Mama” kept everyone in the family talking. She loved to hear what was going on and to give advice—even unsolicited. “I don’t want to get in your business, but…” she used to say. And people would smile and listen. Her wit and sincere good humor could diffuse the tension of many a problem. “That’s the way the mop flops,” she would say, or another of her many amusing, but sometimes inscrutable sayings. Advice from Carrie Frye was invaluable because you knew it would honest and from the heart, compassionate, but direct. At the head of a big family, you couldn’t ask for anything better. Norma E. Jeffers 1927-1990 From her early life, Norma E. Jeffers was truly invested in the lives of others, putting herself second to those around her. Some say this unassuming generosity and kindness was just an inherent part of her, and that is what shows the most throughout all of her life. Norma was born September 5, 1927 on Nantucket Island and moved to West Medford as a young child. The town quickly grew on her, and it was here that she lived out the rest of her life and made a great impact on others. A graduate of Medford High School, Norma was the widow of Warren Parris and the wife of Whitfield Jeffers. She dedicated much of her life to helping out her community and volunteering her time in various ways. She was devoted and passionate about the Girl Scouts, serving as a troop leader for more than 35 years of her life, and chairing many events for Medford and for the council. Norma was a delegate to the National Girl Scout Convention, taking part in decision-making around important policies. She was graced with the “Thanks Badge” of 1988, the highest award given by the Girl Scouts for “continued interest and dedication in the promotion of ideals for girls now and in the future.”
This book has been created by a small group of community residents, two Tufts University students from the Tisch Citizenship and Public Service Scholars Program, and Tufts University advisors to memorialize the African American community of West Medford.