A Pioneering Advocate for Boston’s Black Communities

From being a student at Tufts in the early 1970s, Mary Goode rose to become one of Massachusetts’ first female Black legislators

Even after three years as a Tufts student, Mary Goode regularly questioned her decision as she crossed the Academic Quad. “Every semester—no, every week, I ask myself, ‘Am I going to waste my time here anymore?’” she told an interviewer in 1973. “As an adult, you feel you’ve got to succeed. If you don’t, you begin to doubt yourself.”

Goode wasn’t just a 40-something mother of three on a campus full of 18-year-olds. She was also a Black woman from Roxbury, a neighborhood in the urban heart of Boston, in a student body that was then predominantly white and privileged. “Our major difficulty in coming to Tufts was learning to cope with a different environment,” she said of herself and the other nine women in the inaugural class of the university’s Continuing Education Program for Urban Women (CEP).

Despite her difficulties, Goode stuck it out and graduated from Tufts in the spring of 1974. By that time, she already had grander plans, which included launching a campaign for state office. That fall, in November 1974, she became only the second Black woman in the history of the commonwealth to be elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

During her political career, she constantly fought for the residents of her Roxbury neighborhood, and their rights to fair housing, transportation, and education.

“When I first met her, she seemed so quiet and unassuming,” says Raymond Jordan, a fellow African American state representative at the time. “As I began to get to know her, I realized that she had always been a fireball in her community—she would do her homework and stand up and get the job done.”

At the same time, her gentle personality often served as a mediating force between the white establishment and the more radical Black activists of the civil rights era, says Barry Lawton, a retired educator and public servant who was then a legislative aide for Roxbury state representative Royal Bolling, Jr. “She was not adversarial, but she was resolved.”

Goode was born in 1927 in Zebulon, Ga., a small town 50 miles south of Atlanta, but her family moved to Boston just before she started to high school. As a young woman, she secretly dreamed of being a doctor. Instead, she got married, and worked one menial job after another—stenographer, press operator, meat factory worker.

“I worked any job I could get—skinning frankfurters, as a stitcher cutting threads,” she later told Ms. magazine. She had two daughters before divorcing and remarrying and having a son. At the time, Roxbury was a low-income African-American neighborhood—subject to years of redlining and lack of investment that starved the neighborhood of services. 

Community Worker to College Student

After the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, however, the federal government, for a time, flooded poorer neighborhoods with funds for urban renewal, and Goode was hired as a neighborhood worker, connecting fellow residents to health and education services.

“I found housing for people, helped them with their welfare morass, got Black children into schools,” she said. “I was doing what a social worker does—maybe better, because I knew my people.”

It was a time of increasing racial tension, as Boston’s long-neglected citizens of color pushed for improved services. When a group of mothers receiving government assistance staged a sit-in at the Roxbury welfare office in the summer of 1967, police moved in, beating them as they dispersed them, and sparking a three-day neighborhood riot that burned 10 blocks of Blue Hill Avenue. 

Around the same time, President Johnson pushed federal funds to poor urban neighborhoods in the Model Cities Program, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development tapped a neighborhood board of 18 members in Roxbury to advise on how to spend the funds.

Goode ran for a position on the board and won the most votes in her precinct. She co-chaired the education committee, drawing up a plan to give more control to community members in making decisions for their children—a plan that was unanimously rejected by the Boston school board.

Despite such frustrations, Goode helped create the Model Cities Higher Education Program, a consortium of 10 colleges, including Tufts, to give a second chance at attending college to neighborhood adults who hadn’t had the opportunity.

One of those adults turned out to be Goode. She had wanted to work in the public schools to help parents, but despite her formidable neighborhood experience, her lack of a college diploma got in the way.

“No matter what I did out there, unless I had that little piece of paper, a B.A., I’d never make it in the school system. No way,” she said. “I was over 40 and hadn’t been to school in 25 years. When I heard about the Tufts program, I said, ‘It’s now or never for me.’” After talking it over with her husband, a day laborer out on disability, she arrived at the Hill at age 43.

Unlike most college programs for urban adults, Tufts’ CEP program integrated its students directly into the undergrad population. Goode charmed her classmates and teachers with a contagious smile and a youthful look.

“In those days, it was usually younger women who wore Afros,” remembers Lawton. “She had a salt-and-pepper Afro that wouldn’t quit.” Goode impressed her fellow students in a first-year biology class with her dissecting skills—thanks to years of cutting up chickens for her family in Georgia.

Even so, she struggled for four years in a “constant tug of war” to straddle the two very different worlds of home and school. “I’m not home much, and some days when my youngest child, who is 16, cuts school, or when my husband complains because I have my nose in a book instead of baking a cake, I’m tempted to quit,” she told Ms. Despite financial aid from Tufts, the family was barely getting by. “Some months we can’t pay the light bill; a dollar has to stretch to five.” 

On to the State House

She persevered, however, with a passion to help other women like herself. “I’m hanging in there because I have something special to offer,” she said. “I want to work in a community school, and I can help parents deal with teachers, and vice versa, because I know both sides.”

During her time at Tufts, she helped to create a new organization called Women’s Inner City Educational Resource Service (WINNERS), staffed by women to help other urban women return to college. After graduating, she became associate director of the program.

Goode barely had time to settle into the position, however, before a seat opened up in Massachusetts’ 10th Suffolk District. Goode ran unopposed and won. 

At the time, only about three dozen women had ever been elected to the Massachusetts State House—only one of them an African American, Doris Bunte, who was elected two years earlier. Goode joined Bunte and five other Black legislators in the new Massachusetts Black Caucus (MBC), with Goode as its chair.

She was scarcely installed on the transportation committee before she was pushing then-Governor Michael Dukakis to hold to his campaign promise to appoint more people of color in his administration. “She would make it very clear that Representative Goode was in the house,” says Jordan.

“Her personality was electric,” says Lawton, who frequently worked with other members of the Black Caucus. “Of all the legislators down there, she was the most approachable.”

In a profession not lacking in egos, Goode was always down-to-earth. “She took the time to mentor me, to ask questions, to teach me things—it just elevated me,” says Lawton. Goode, it seemed, was always trying to lift others in the neighborhood. At a forum on women in politics she led in 1976, she advocated that women start early by “entering politics on a neighborhood level and built a constituency for use in campaigns for higher office.” 

Just before Goode entered office, a Boston judge had pushed through a controversial busing program to integrate the school system, by busing students from different neighborhoods to achieve racial equity.

The move sparked massive protests from white families in Charlestown and South Boston. In 1975, white protestors beat a Black man, Ted Landsmark, at Boston City Hall, famously assaulting him with an American flag, as caught in Pulitzer Prize–winning picture by the Boston Herald.

After the incident, Goode and her fellow MBC members demanded then-mayor Kevin White act more decisively to defuse the violence. When White and the Boston School Committee petitioned the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the busing order, Goode led the opposition to the move, breaking into tears in the legislative chamber during a debate, and quashing attempts by the legislature to support the move. When the U.S. attorney decided not to intervene, Goode called it a “wise decision that should diminish violence, not escalate it.”

Staying Active

At a Kwanzaa ceremony in 1976, Goode and her fellow Black legislators took a public vow “to fight for the Black community’s right to self-determination and improvement.” In 1977, she pushed for the construction of a new Roxbury Community College in a location ready for construction in Boston’s Southwest Corridor.

Together with group of community parents, she staged a surprise visit to the garage containing the city’s school buses, revealing a third of the buses to be inadequate, and leading them to be pulled off the road.

That same year, the state legislature underwent redistricting, reducing the number of seats in the house from 240 to 160 seats—placing Goode into a new majority-white district, pitted against a white incumbent from Jamaica Plain. 

As expected, she lost her race for the seat in September 1978, leading the new chair of the Black Caucus, Saundra Graham, to lament the “absence this year of a number of fine legislators who, without question, were positive influences on the body,” including “hardworking urban representatives such as . . . Mary Goode of Roxbury.”

Now over 50, with little chance of winning another seat, Goode nevertheless continued to stay active in education and politics. In the late 1970s, she served as an area chairperson of Tufts Annual Fund; in 1980, the administration of Governor Ed King appointed her a legislative analyst for a new Department of Social Services; and in 1983, she was appointed a research analyst for the House Committee on Transportation.

Years later, in 1997, the Boston Globe caught up with Goode voting at the polls in Roxbury along with her daughter, Pamela Modlin-Smith. Goode, then age 70, had voted in every election since she was old enough, she said.

Her daughter, a Boston schoolteacher, clearly followed in her mother’s footsteps. “I vote because it’s the right things to do," Modlin-Smith said. "A lot of people died for the right to vote. As a Black person, I take this very seriously.”

Though Mary Goode passed away five years later, in 2002, the legacy of her and her fellow state legislators lives on in the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, which now has 14 members.

“The structures [the MBC] created helped institutionalize progress for African Americans,” says Lawton, who is currently working on a campaign to rename Boston’s Faneuil Hall, which is named after slave trader Peter Faneuil. “They created the conditions for change, for taking things that once seemed ridiculous and making them plausible. That’s what I learned from all of those people.” 

Michael Blanding is a Boston-based freelance writer and author of the forthcoming North by Shakespeare: A Rogue Scholar's Quest for the Truth Behind the Bard’s Work.

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