Her Story: Influences
Family: Her Purpose, Her Strength
Ruth Marion (Watson) Batson was a lifelong resident of Boston was born August 3, 1921 in Roxbury, to Jamaican immigrants, Joel R. Watson and Cassandra D. Buchanan. Her beginnings were rather humble. Ruth and her brother were raised by their single mother, who struggled to make ends meet for her family. In spite of their circumstances, Mrs. Watson managed to provide a stable home and laid the foundation of lifelong values regarding education and civil rights, which became the springboard for Batson’s accomplishments. At age nineteen, Ruth Watson married John C. Batson, and together they became the parents of three daughters, Cassandra, Susan and Dorothy. When Batson’s daughters were in elementary school she noticed stark differences in their assignments as compared to the children of her white friends. An unfruitful meeting with her daughters’ principal started Ruth down a path of activism. Batson’s family supported her endeavors, even though her work sometimes took her away from home, required long hours, or provoked anger that was hurled her way. John Batson was founder and co-director of the Ruth M. Batson Educational Foundation, a scholarship foundation that supports needy students, and Batson’s daughters assisted her on several projects documenting the desegregation era.
Early Years: Laying a Foundation
Batson was exposed to civil rights issues at a young age (although the phrase ‘civil rights’ was not in common use at the time). Batson’s mother became involved with a group who followed the teachings of Marcus Garvey, an international Pan-African movement leader and a fellow Jamaican, who espoused the idea that all people of African descent should demand their rights to dignity and equal treatment. On Sundays, Batson’s mother took her to “Garveyite” meetings where these issues were discussed at these meetings, young Ruth became acutely aware of how unfairly black people were treated. Growing up in Boston, Batson was exposed to discrimination. During the interviewing process for a PBS series called Eyes on the Prize, Batson recalled a day she and her girlfriends stopped into a diner. The man at the counter served them uncooked hotdogs, which surprised and shocked the young girls. Instead of complaining, young Batson ate her hotdog saying she liked her hotdogs raw; but she recalled feeling ashamed.
In contrast, as a girl, Batson also experienced integration in education. Photos she collected, coupled with the kind words written by friends in her autograph book from the Everett school and her high school yearbook, indicate that she had many culturally diverse friendships and that the schools she attended were integrated. Her early negative and positive experiences with the rhetoric of the Garveyites, racial discrimination, and years in integrated schools helped to provide the foundation upon which Batson built a career fighting for basic civil rights for all.
Education: Life’s Most Important Lessons
Batson grew up in Roxbury and attended the Everett School in Dorchester, graduating in 1935. Knowing that the future success of her children depended upon a good education. Batson’s mother stressed the significance of education and reportedly often quipped, “no one can take your education away from you" . To prove her point, when Batson was eleven years old, her mother returned to Elementary School (Ruth’s school) to complete her own grammar school education. Batson attended the Girl’s Latin School in Roxbury graduating in 1940. When her youngest child was about three years old, Batson attended The Nursery Training School of Boston (ca. 1948) for two years, but it was not until Batson was in her late forties that she sought out a formal college education. She eventually earned a Master’s in Education in 1976 from Boston University.
Politics: Learning to Lobby
In the 1950s Ruth Batson began to take an active interest in politics. Following an unsuccessful run for the Boston School Committee in 1951, she worked behind the scenes for John Kennedy’s 1952 senatorial election campaign. Shortly thereafter, she was encouraged to run as a Delegate to the Democratic State Committee. She ran in Ward 12; her election in 1956, made her the first black woman to serve in this capacity. Batson attended the National Democratic Convention in 1960 to work behind the scenes in JFK’s civil rights office. She went on to become a delegate for the 1964 and 1972 conventions. She worked tirelessly for many campaigns on both local and national levels. Some of the high profile campaigns she supported included Mel King’s run for the Boston School Committee, Edward Kennedy’s senatorial campaign, and the presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and George McGovern. Working behind the scenes of many of these campaigns, Batson learned valuable skills in lobbying and campaigning; set a solid base for her future work advocating for education and civil rights.
Career: From Volunteer to Professional
Ruth Batson’s lifelong interest in education guided her career both as a volunteer and as a salaried professional. This interest led her to take classes at The Nursery Training School of Boston. Also, as a young mother, she joined The Parent’s Federation of Greater Boston, a parent group dedicated to improving the public schools in Boston. It was there she learned about the Strayer Report’s 1944 recommendations and she took the issues it raised to John Hynes, the Mayor of Boston, in 1950. In 1953, she became the chairman of the Public Education Sub-Committee of the NAACP Boston Branch. In April 1957 she became the chairwoman of the New England Regional Conference of the NAACP, where she worked as a Civil Rights lobbyist. She served in this capacity for three years, stepping down in 1960.
Because of her work at the NAACP, in December of 1963 Massachusetts governor, Endicott Peabody, appointed Batson to a paid position at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. In this position, Batson championed better employment opportunities for African Americans. She traveled to Mississippi and Washington DC to join non-violent protests for civil rights; additionally, she participated in demonstrations in Boston. By 1966 Batson took a job helping to establish METCO. Here, she was once again advocated for education for Boston’s African-American children. In 1970, Batson accepted a position at Boston University School of Medicine. Serving as a director of the “Consultation and Education” program in the division of Mental Health, she ran a community counseling outreach and education program. She educated people regarding their rights within the mental health system and worked to eliminate fears and stereotypes that surrounded mental health. In 1975 she became the coordinator of Boston University’s Clinical Task Force as well as an Associate Professor at the School of Medicine’s Division of Psychiatry. From 1987 to 1990 she served as President & Director of the Museum of Afro American history where she promoted African American History programs and oversaw the renovation and rededication of the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill.
Golden Years: After the Crisis, Still in the Game
Ruth never fully retired. She did enjoy spending more free time with her family and took many trips abroad, but she remained a visible force in the civil rights movement. She was frequently asked for interviews from local media outlets about the desegregation era, and she obliged happily. She wrote several articles for Boston Newspapers about the desegregation struggle. Ruth M. Batson died October 28, 2003 in her Beacon Hill Home. Through out her life, Batson championed her beliefs, spoke out against social injustice, and refused to back down in the face of inequity. Batson’s tireless efforts over decades helped improve the Boston School system for all of Boston’s children.
1. Ruth M. Batson, The Black Educational Movement in Boston: A Sequence of Historical Events; A Chronology, Batson, Ruth M. (Boston: Northeastern University, School of Education, 2001), 2.
“Peabody Fails Again to Name New DPW Heads.” The Boston Traveler (December 1963): 42.
Shannon, Katherine M. “Transcript of a Recorded Interview with Mrs. Ruth Batson; Executive Director of the Metropolitan Council for Education Opportunities, Boston, MA,” The Civil Rights Documentation Project. Washington, DC; December 27, 1967
Shearer, Jackie. “Eyes on the Prize II Interviews: Interview with Ruth Batson.” Washington University Digital Gateway Texts, conducted by Blackside, Inc., for Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection, Seattle, WA. November 8, 1988.
Stern, Sheldon. “Oral Interview with Ruth M. Batson” for the John F Kennedy Library, Boston, MA. January 24, 1979.