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The Four Provinces Orchestra performed during a 1957 senatorial fund-raiser for John F. Kennedy at Hibernian Hall in on Dudley Street in Roxbury.
The Four Provinces Orchestra performed during a 1957 senatorial fund-raiser for John F. Kennedy at Hibernian Hall in on Dudley Street in Roxbury. (Courtesy The Library Of Frank Storer Photo / Joe and Karin Joyce)

Roxbury's Hibernian

Dance hall past to unite with educational mission

It was a Saturday night in April, 1958, when Mary McEleney put on her fancy blouse and ankle-length skirt and took the train to Dudley Station in Roxbury. As thousands of other Irish immigrants in Boston did at the time, the 19-year-old headed to Hibernian Hall, where big bands played, people danced, and, on that particular night, McEleney met her future husband.

Fifteen years later, the grand dance hall had been transformed into classrooms filled with typewriters and office equipment. The neighborhood had changed, too. Irish residents had largely moved away, and many African-Americans had moved in.

One of them was Mukiya Baker-Gomez, who went every day to Hibernian Hall to help run a massive job training center for blacks and other racial minorities. Hundreds of men and women lined up outside to get their names on the waiting list for classes.

''It was an extremely exciting time," Baker-Gomez said yesterday. ''It was during a time when black people in this town were really getting clued in on how to stand up and fight for themselves in a way that was not negatively aggressive, not by having confrontations with other races, but positively aggressive."

The two eras are starkly different slices of Boston's history. Now, the Roxbury Center for the Arts, housed in the old Hibernian Hall, is staging a reunion to bring together Irish and blacks whose lives were indelibly marked there.

On Sunday, jazz and traditional Irish music will mix, and organizers hope that two communities that once clashed in Boston will share common bonds in the historic building that transformed each of them.

''There's an awful lot of fond memories there for a lot of people," said Thomas Keown, spokesman for the Irish Immigration Center in Boston, which is sponsoring the event, along with the Roxbury arts center, the Consulate General of Ireland, the Irish Cultural Centre in Canton and the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

''We try to recognize that in Boston, throughout its history, people fail to understand their similarities and what we have in common," Keown said. ''It seems for the past hundred years we've all used the same resource, the hall."

The building was constructed in 1913 by the Hibernians, and it soon became a social center on Dudley Street, where there were five Irish dance halls in all. Those who socialized at the Hibernian said the three decades after its opening were great times to be Irish in Boston.

On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, the neighborhood was jumping, said 75-year-old Joe Derrane, who played accordion as part of a 10-piece band at the Hibernian and other dance halls in Roxbury. Irish immigrants from across the city rode the train that once served Dudley Square. They spent nights jigging and reeling inside an elegant ballroom that reminded them of home, he said.

''It was going full blast in the '30s, but what happened was World War II came along, and all the young men gone off to the war," Derrane said.

Dancing at the Hibernian waned for a time, but when the war ended, a new wave of immigrants from Ireland arrived in Boston. Homesick, many yearned for the comforts of home. They found some of them on Dudley Street at Hibernian Hall.

''All those pretty Irish girls," Derrane reminisced. ''On a Saturday night you can have anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 people dancing away like crazy."

It was a time when women dressed to the nines, and men in tuxedos were on their best behavior. There was no liquor served at the hall, Derrane said, ''but that wasn't a problem at all, because you can go a block on either direction and hit a bar."

Mary and Cornelius McEleney of Medford remember it well.

''I was going out with a fellow, but he couldn't go out that night, so I said, then I'll go ahead and go with my girlfriends. And I danced with a man who I married," said Mary, who still has an Irish accent.

Calling it the ''ballroom of romance," Cornelius McEleney said he longs for the old days when folks knew how to live it up.

''Back then when you went out on the dance floor, you went all the way around the dance floor," he said. ''Today, you stay in one place all night."

Roxbury's Irish dance hall era faded when people began moving to suburbs, when young people started listening to Elvis and hanging out in pubs, and when the city's demographics shifted and more and more blacks, and Hispanics began moving into the neighborhood.

The Hibernians lost the hall in 1960, when a bank foreclosed. It was used sporadically for union meetings and banquets. But not until 1972 did it regain a full-time use as headquarters for blacks seeking job training in Boston.

The Opportunities Industrialization Center, a Philadelphia-based organization founded in 1964 at the height of the civil rights movement, bought the building and took it over. The four-story building was renovated, creating classrooms where black men and women learned clerical skills, office equipment repair, banking, and bookkeeping. Some received high school equivalency diplomas. Thousands were trained in Boston over the next 20 years.

''There was a lot of civil rights activity around that time, and we really thought freedom was going to be tomorrow," said Sarah Ann Shaw, a member of the OIC's board of directors in the early 1970s. ''People were pressing for better housing, NAACP was very active, and the OIC was right there with its job-training program trying to change attitudes and gather up opportunities."

While the city was in the throes of racial tensions over school desegregation and busing, the OIC was making partnerships with businesses such as Bank of Boston and securing jobs for blacks in places where racial minorities were few.

''When you walked into the OIC building, you felt the energy immediately," said Baker-Gomez, a former OIC worker who is now chief of staff for state Representative Gloria Fox, Democrat of Boston. ''You saw the interaction of human being to human being that was very positive and very motivating. It was similar to a family environment, because everything you needed to get focused and your life on track was right there."

For more than a decade, instructors at the OIC trained people to get jobs and handle difficult workplace situations. Counselors for OIC would check in on their clients, mediate problems with their bosses, and make sure they were successful.

''There was still racism, but there were small things opening up," said Shaw, WBZ-TV's first black reporter and a longtime community activist. ''You started to see black reporters, black bus drivers, and technicians."

The OIC continued through the 1980s and purchased additional buildings on Dudley Street for conversion to affordable housing. But it struggled financially. The program shut down in the early 1990s, when its executive director, Clarence Donelan, became ill.

''It was a very difficult period," said Baker-Gomez. ''It was like the pulling of your heart. No one wanted to see it go."

The building sat empty until recently. Baker-Gomez said she sees people here and there in Boston who had some affiliation with the training program, but that members of the Boston chapter have not formally stayed in touch. But she hoped she would see some of them Sunday at the Hiberian.

''I really hope they come and bring their stories and any memorabilia," she said.

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