The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on March 31, 2016.
Last week, the Townsman published a front page article on the likely upcoming demolition of the historic house at 24 Linden Street to accommodate a subdivision of its land. This news story briefly recounted the property’s history, but left much of it untold. So let’s take this opportunity to provide some of that missing information.
What’s important can be reduced to two separate stories: the first involving the early history of the Village Church, the other about a private school with connections to preeminent Civil Rights pioneer Booker T. Washington.
Records indicate that the Wellesley Congregational Society purchased the recently constructed house for $4800 in April 1869 for use as a parsonage. Just another event in the church’s long history? Think again. For decades, the Village Church had financial problems, as most of its parishioners were quite poor. There just wasn’t much money flowing into the church’s coffers.
Two men, however, would help change that during the 1860s. The first is someone you may know: Henry Durant, whose son’s death in 1863 sparked his religious awakening and subsequent involvement within the church and establishment of Wellesley College. The other is more obscure: Charles Dana. Also a man of significant wealth — having accrued it through his affiliation with the East India Company — Dana was able to use some of these resources to assist the church during times of need. He also oversaw the improvement in the church’s financial standing through his service as treasurer of the Congregational Society from 1865 to 1874. It was largely because of his work that the church undertook its two most costly projects up to that time, namely, the 1869 acquisition of 24 Linden Street and the construction of the third church edifice in 1872.
The purchase of this parsonage is more significant than it seems. During the 19th Century, meetings, lectures, and Bible studies were often held at parsonages, not churches themselves, which were usually reserved for full religious services. The parsonage was therefore very much a key part of church life. But for the Village Church, there was no official parsonage; it was just wherever the pastor resided. Thus, the acquisition of 24 Linden Street in 1869 marked an important step forward for the church.
Its relatively distant location from the church, however, resulted in the Congregational Society’s sale of the parsonage in 1892 to Rev. Edward Benner, a teacher who had come to Wellesley from Lowell to start a private school.
This boarding school — the Wellesley School for Boys — was one of a handful of small private schools within the town. Overall its history appears rather indistinct from the others, with the notable exception that one of its students was Baker Washington, the eldest son of Booker T. Washington.
Any building connected to both Booker T. Washington and education is a big deal. Washington believed that learning and self-improvement — not civil disobedience — provided the single greatest pathway for black men and women to obtain equal rights. It was the rationale for his founding in 1881 of the all-black Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, and it was why he attracted support from many white politicians and influential members of the public.
This belief also explains why Washington sent his son to school in Wellesley in March 1902. Baker was neither academically focused nor self-disciplined. Perhaps a change of scenery, closer to his older sister, Portia, who was enrolled at Wellesley College, could help Baker succeed.
This seems to have worked; plus, there was an added benefit. Portia was having her own troubles, as she was struggling both academically and socially, with many of her classmates not accepting her because of her race. National media coverage of the story only made the situation worse. Solace, however, came to her off-campus, where she resided among several progressive faculty members on Howe Street in College Heights right up the hill from Baker at the Wellesley School for Boys. Here she was able to see her brother regularly, relieving much of her homesickness.
Portia, nevertheless, left Wellesley College for an academy in Haverhill later that year. Baker, however, would stay at Rev. Benner’s school until transferring to Tuskegee in 1904.
Despite that rich history, it looks like the three-story mansard-roofed house at 24 Linden Street will be torn down soon. This would be a shame. Its ties to the Village Church are important, but really its association to Booker T. Washington is what makes this house special. Wellesley has little in the way of connections to black history. Let’s hope the new owner now understands this.