Every now and then, a great story can appear right in front of you, staring you in the face. That's what happened with Theodora Roosevelt Boyd, who played sports at Radcliffe in the 1920s.
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.
She 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."
While the Great Depression had crippled the nation, after one year in Texas, Theodora continued to find work, and jumped at an opportunity to teach physical education and French at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C. Also during this time, she sought her Doctorate at Radcliffe and became head of the French department at St. Augustine's. From 1931 to 1935, she spent her summers attending Harvard University summer school, but it was not until 1943 that she received her Ph.D, Phi Beta Kappa. She also went on to earn a Certificate de La Langue Française, de Civilization Française from the Sorbonne (The University of Paris).
Although Theodora received her three degrees from a white institution, she was only allowed to teach at black colleges.
"All those people who earned doctorates in the '30s and '40s -- the only place they could teach were historically black colleges," DeCosta-Willis said. "Even in high schools like Dunbar High in Washington, D.C., half of their faculty members had Ph.D's. It was unheard of. The education those kids received was phenomenal. They couldn't teach anywhere else."
According to alumnae records, athletics was always a mainstay in Theodora's life. By 1937, she reported that she had taken up tennis and archery.
Following her stint at St. Augustine's, she taught at a number of places, including, Alabama State Teacher's College, Delaware State College, and St. Paul's University before her final stop, Howard University.
It was there in 1961 Theodora taught French and Humanities and by 1969, she became the first female to serve as Chair of the Department of Romance Languages at Howard.
As a professor, she was actively involved in the growth and development of her students, serving on different committees over the years. She was the Chairman of the Joint Graduate Reading Exam committee, a member of the faculty committee for Study of Evaluation of Teachers and on the Freshman Advisory Board.
In addition, she held many prestigious memberships, including American Council of Teachers of English, American Association of University Women, Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Kappa Mu National Honor Society. She was also listed in Who's Who of American Women and Holders of Doctorates Among American Negroes.
She took on the challenge of being the first woman to head up Howard's Department of Romance Languages, succeeding internationally renowned scholars like Dr. Valaurez Spratlin and Dr. Mercer Cook. Spratlin is noted for being the first African-American to earn a doctorate in Spanish as well as serving as Chair at Howard from 1927-1961. Cook, who immediately preceded Theodora, was appointed ambassador to the Republic of Niger by President Kennedy in 1961. He held that post for three years.
In 1970, Theodora sent a letter to DeCosta-Willis, whose father Dr. Frank DeCosta, Sr., she had known quite well. DeCosta-Willis was teaching at Memphis State University in Memphis, Tenn., at the time and was the first African-American to teach there in 1967. She was there when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968.
Theodora had contacted DeCosta-Willis to see if she would be interested in joining her at Howard. She accepted the offer and fondly remembered her time there.
"She came behind illustrious professors and scholars and at the end of the Black Power Movement at Howard. She was a soothing influence coming behind all of that upheaval."
"She was a very interesting person, very dignified and reserved. Her teaching style was very strict and formal. She was an exacting teacher, and required a lot of work from her students. She taught French and expected them to perfect the language. She was much sought after as a professor."
DeCosta-Willis enjoyed a great working relationship with Theodora and said that she even attended DeCosta-Willis' wedding, but she was always withdrawn and reserved.
"She wasn't socially inclined, but she came to my wedding. I remember her sitting there, very quiet, soft-spoken and reserved. I was so pleased to have her there because that meant she supported me in my marriage and my personal life."
When 68-year-old Theodora stepped down from her role as Chair in 1974, she left the door wide open for the 40-year-old DeCosta-Willis to follow her lead. Theodora stayed on board as a part-time professor until 1976.
Theodora never married or had any children, and by 1977, her health had deteriorated. She moved back to her family's home in South Carolina and was cared for by relatives until she died on December 26.
Many people who knew Theodora knew she was an intensely private person, and were not aware of her many accomplishments. DeCosta-Willis said that she knew she attended Radcliffe, but never had any knowledge of her athletic prowess or the many accolades she had received.
"She lived modestly and frugally," DeCosta-Willis said. "She was very supportive of other people – she was always reaching out to others."
"She was just a really fascinating person who never really got her due, primarily because she was so modest and unassuming."
Born during the Progressive Era, survived the Great Depression, World War I and II, and saw the birth of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as other vast moments in history, Dr. Theodora Roosevelt Boyd is a hidden jewel in both women's and black history.
It wasn't enough that she was granted the chance to go to college, there was the pressure of being one of the chosen few. Not only was she representing her family and race, but she had to be two times better than her white counterparts and in the process, make it easier for the black women who would later come after her.
When I saw Theodora on the wall at Lavietes, I knew that it hadn't been impossible for African-Americans to attend an institution like Radcliffe, for some of her predecessors attended Ivy institutions. Just looking at a face, one can imagine the triumphs, disappointments and the life that person must have led. But it was not until I put a name with a face, could I fathom such an amazing story.
— LaKesha Whitaker