A couple that cares

ABOUT 38 years ago, Otto and Muriel Snowden walked the streets of Roxbury, pleading with residents to help them ''save our community.'' It was a year after World War II, and Roxbury was in a period of transition. Once a proud ''carriage'' suburb of Boston, the community was declining. Affluent families were moving to newer homes in other neighborhoods, and Roxbury was feeling the neglect.

This young couple, married five years earlier while Otto Snowden was serving in the Army, finally decided they had ''had enough'' of squabbling with people - black and white - over how to improve education, housing, and job opportunities for black citizens here.

''Our only solution was to go out on our own,'' says Mr. Snowden, relaxing in the family living room in Roxbury, a community the couple never left. ''That meant quit our jobs, and sell the community on what we wanted to accomplish.''

Thus the idea for Boston's Freedom House evolved. In February 1949, 17 people , black and white, met at the Snowdens' home to formally launch a neighborhood civic improvement center. Almost immediately, Freedom House opened as a one-room office on Roxbury's bustling Humboldt Avenue.

Response to the move was skeptical.

Muriel Snowden recalls many people here thought she and her husband were ''starry-eyed visionaries.'' Others said: ''What's their angle? Nobody works for nothing!''

Despite these doubts, Freedom House blossomed. In the next 35 years, it played a vital role in improving Boston's race relations and helping to upgrade the quality of life in Roxbury.

Freedom House is now a three-story facility with an auditorium-banquet hall and a variety of meeting rooms. Located at 14 Crawford Street, it is used by the public for a variety of activities - mostly for education, employment training, and senior-citizen programs. And Freedom House is one place in Roxbury where people of all races and ethnic groups are free to meet and discuss issues ranging from race relations to finding a job.

Now Otto and Muriel Snowden, co-directors of the Freedom House, are planning to retire by September.

''No, we don't plan to close Freedom House,'' Mr. Snowden says. ''And we're not going to merge or sell out to some other organization because we are retiring,'' his wife chimes in.

Both want the work of Freedom House to continue. And the search is on for a new director.

''Our board (of directors) has already agreed to continue our program as an independent agency,'' Mrs. Snowden says. ''And it is planning to meet contemplated needs of the 21st century.''

This route was chosen after the board of directors considered two other options: close down, or merge with another organization. ''Neither alternative would preserve the unique quality, flexibility, and value of the present Freedom House,'' she adds.

The Snowdens have been described as pace-setters because they tackled problems long before others did.

Mrs. Snowden likes to recall a date she had ''with Otto'' before they were married. ''He took me to a little store with dairy products. He smiled and surprised me with, 'This is mine.' He was part of a group that formed Dabney Milk Company, a black dairy. They processed the milk and bought supplies from dairy farmers.''

''In those days, local dairies refused to hire blacks as drivers or salesmen, '' Mr. Snowden adds.

In 1942, the US Army ended his dairy career. Otto and Muriel married in 1944. Their only child, Gail, was born in 1945. Mr. Snowden came home in 1946, and the couple's twin careers as social workers began.

But in 1948, Mr. Snowden quit his job as director of the neighborhood St. Mark Congregational Church gymnasium and social center. ''Otto couldn't do the things he wanted to do in his job,'' Mrs. Snowden remembers. ''To him the critical needs of the community were education, housing, and jobs. He raised enough money to open his own office, cramped though it was.''

She resigned as executive director of the Cambridge Civic Unity Committee in 1950 to join her husband at the tiny ''Freedom Room,'' as she jokingly calls it today.

Mr. Snowden recalls some of the ''rugged struggles'' at Freedom House:

* In 1974, the courts ordered school desegregation in Boston. The next two years were filled with violence and racial tension as school buses, escorted by police, ferried students to schools in hostile neighborhoods.

Freedom House organized two groups to contend with the crisis: the Institute on Schools and Education, an internal group; and the Freedom House Coalition, an affiliate body representing community agencies, black and white clergy, and other allies.

''We set up an information center - a 24-telephone 'round-the-clock hot line - and a group of peace watchdogs who hit the streets, the bus routes, and the trouble spots to prevent violence. Ministers of both races and youth workers were vital to the success of this effort,'' Mr. Snowden says.

The Snowdens say they are not sure the education crisis is over in Boston, even though US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity is planning to withdraw from his supervisory role.

Today, Freedom House conducts workshops teaching students how to take various scholastic aptitude tests - whether to enter Boston's three test high schools, to be admitted to college, or to be part of a $65,000 scholarship program to study engineering.

* Between 1960 and '68, Freedom House was involved in urban renewal to reduce blight in Roxbury.

''When we opened,'' Mr. Snowden says, ''it was obvious that Roxbury was declining because of neglected and inadequate housing. We became a part of the federal urban renewal program, and we worked with (Boston) Mayor John Collins in an effort that rebuilt the Washington Park area and opened Academy Homes, the first subsidized moderate-priced housing in our community.'' He has served on the Boston Housing Authority.

This effort (he calls it ''creating links with City Hall'') also included new facilities for the Roxbury Boys and Girls Club, the Roxbury YMCA, the Cass swimming pool and skating rink, the Franklin Field swimming pool and skating rink, and even the new, integrated Trotter School, the only school built in Roxbury in the '60s.

''And these developments created new jobs for blacks,'' Mr. Snowden adds.

* In tandem with urban renewal, the Snowdens helped create neighborhood organizations.

''We discovered that we needed people renewal as well as urban renewal,'' Mr. Snowden continues. ''We looked at block programs that had succeeded so well in St. Louis and Chicago, and decided to try this out in Boston.''

The idea succeeded. Some of the block groups are still functioning, although Roxbury communities are not as stable as they once were, he says. The Freedom House model, however, survives in today's neighborhood organizations that have been formed to combat crime.

Freedom House has other ongoing programs as well.

Two years ago, Freedom House ''adopted'' the Jeremiah E. Burke High School, a virtually black high school teeming with problems. Freedom House hosts job fairs , college days, testing programs, and a variety of other activities designed to bring students into contact with ''blacks as successful role models other than as athletes and entertainers,'' Mrs. Snowden says.

In addition, the Freedom House Goldenaires is one of the city's most successful senior-citizen organizations. Members are involved in educational, recreational, service, and travel projects that take them beyond Roxbury and Boston. Mrs. Snowden is a member of the Boston Steering Committee on Careers for Older Americans.

By opening its doors to rallies and new ideas, Freedom House has seen the formation of spinoff groups such as the Boston Community Media Coalition, the Roxbury Multi-Service Center, the Coordinated Civic/Educational Community Council, and others.

Black teachers, black firemen, and black police officers have called public meetings at Freedom House to inform Roxbury residents of their hiring predicaments.

Both Snowdens agree that racism is still a major problem in the Hub. Mr. Snowden recalls growing up in Boston: ''In 1928 I rebelled against racism at the old Lewis School and led the track team - nearly all black - on strike.'' He was the only black in the Class of 1933 at Dorchester High School, now predominantly black.

Mrs. Snowden recalls that she was not allowed to live in a dormitory in her freshman year at Radcliffe College in 1934. ''I made lifetime friends at Whitman Hall the three years I lived there,'' she recalls. ''And I have my mother to thank for insisting (to university officials) that I live on campus.

''We haven't accomplished all we dreamed of,'' says Mrs. Snowden, ''but we know race relations in Boston have improved. Our board (of directors) has always been integrated. We're proud of that.''

''Yet, we feel there's more work to be done,'' her husband adds.

After retirement? They're not saying.

''We shall keep an open telephone number,'' Mrs. Snowden says. ''Otto has refused to keep an unlisted number. He says someone may be calling for help.''

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