Last year, during a visit to Lavietes Pavilion at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass.,
I spotted a woman on a basketball team photo dated 1924 and wondered, “Who
is the lone black woman in this picture?” I must admit I was surprised
to learn that a woman of color attended Radcliffe during that time, but I also
thought that she must have been someone special. Little did I know how remarkable
this woman was.
At Harvard, one can imagine the rich history and tradition in each square foot
of land the illustrious institution sits upon. At one time or another, some
of the most famous scholars and leaders of our nation walked the hallowed grounds
in Cambridge. Of course the face of Harvard has changed dramatically over the
years, but I could not help but imagine what it was like 81 years ago when women
were not permitted to attend Harvard, and a black Charleston, S.C. native entered
into Radcliffe College, full of promise and hope not only for her family, but
for an entire race of people.
Being accepted into a college or university is never a small feat for anyone,
but for an African-American during the 1920s, opportunities for higher education
were virtually impossible at white institutions.
Which makes the story of Dr. Theodora Roosevelt Boyd all the more extraordinary.
Theodora was born to James and Jeannette Boyd on June 6, 1906 in Charleston.
Her parents found out early on that their daughter was an extremely gifted child.
She was educated in the public schools of Newton, Mass., and by 1923, Theodora
had been afforded an opportunity few African-Americans would be able to partake
in, and she seized it with fervor and great determination.
It was only three years after women had won the right to vote, the jazz age
was catching on, and the Harlem Renaissance was producing a growing number of
talented black writers, poets, and musicians. That was when the young Theodora
would enter Radcliffe, blazing an indelible trail.
Despite some of the advances made by women and African-Americans, it was still
1923, and the plight of women and minorities in general was severely ignored.
Theodora was faced with social taboos, racism, sexism, and the biased views
of other African-Americans, yet she remained focused and driven.
Majoring in Romance Languages, Theodora excelled academically, and listed the
Spanish club as one of her extracurricular activities. But there was also another
area in which she excelled – athletics.
took up basketball and field hockey, in both of which she was outstandingly
skilled. Members of the "Seven Sisters," competing against one another,
were comprised of Radcliffe, Barnard (New York, N.Y.), Bryn Mawr (Bryn Mawr, Pa.),
Mount Holyoke (South Hadley, Mass.), Smith (Northampton, Mass.), Vassar (Poughkeepsie,
N.Y.) and Wellesley Colleges (Wellesley, Mass.). A brief statement about her
in the 1927 yearbook, below her photo, read:
“I’d like to know just what our athletic
record as a class would have been if Theodora had chosen some other college
beside Radcliffe. What matters if two or three of the team don’t
show up? We have Theodora. We don’t really need anyone else. At
both hockey and basketball she is a very present help in trouble –
present everywhere. She seems to draw the ball to her like a magnet. The
worse the team is, the better she plays. Three cheers for Theodora!”
After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1927, Theodora began a teaching
career that would span 50 years starting at Clark College in Atlanta, Ga. Spending
two years there, she continued on at Radcliffe, earning a Master’s in
1930. She headed back out into the teaching world, this time, to Texas Teacher’s
College in Tyler, Texas.
Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis, now among the nation's foremost scholars on Afro-Hispanic
studies, made Dr. Boyd's acquaintance as a young girl, but would later cross
paths in 1970. She considered Theodora a close friend, but was unaware of many
of her other accomplishments.
“Dr. Boyd was really ahead of her time,” DeCosta-Willis said. “The
fact that she went to a predominantly white institution, and the fact that she
got her college degree in the 1920s was still fairly rare.”
Also a South Carolina native, DeCosta-Willis knows first-hand the pressures
Theodora faced trying to integrate established white institutions. DeCosta-Willis
integrated the Westover School in Middlebury, Conn., in the 1940s and was one
of few African-Americans attending Wellesley in the 1950s.
“It was hard in the '50s, desegregating these institutions and being the
only black or one of two or three, it was hard for me. But Dr. Boyd came along
30 years earlier, you can imagine just how much more difficult that was.”