Amanda Houston Dies; Helped Shape Black Studies

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Over 250 colleagues, former students and friends gathered last Wednesday in Gasson 100 to remember former Black Studies Program Director Amanda Houston, 69, who died at her home in Boston on Aug. 24.

"Among her many contributions, perhaps the greatest was the confidence she communicated to her students," said University President J. Donald Monan, SJ. "Amanda was supremely confident that she had so much to contribute to others."

Assoc. Prof. Charles Smith Jr. (SOE) served as master of ceremonies for the memorial, at which presenters described the impact Houston made upon the Black Studies Program and the University as a whole. Houston's friends also spoke of her dynamic presence in the struggle to improve the lives of Boston's black people.

Houston is credited with having fashioned for Black Studies a clear identity and a firm role in the University's curriculum. When she retired at the end of the 1992-93 academic year, Black Studies had grown into a 34-course (now 40) curriculum in African-American history, literature, arts, music and political and social issues. The number of students who enroll in the program's courses likewise grew, from a few dozen to some 1,400 undergraduates each year at present.

The Aug. 30 memorial featured several exhibits which recalled Houston's personal and professional life, including family photographs, newspaper clippings and a sampling of political and novelty buttons she had collected, along with slides of additional photos of Houston and taped musical selections to evoke stages of her life.

Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculties William B. Neenan, SJ, said Houston was one of those "distinctive individuals" by which "the life of an institution is characterized." He called her "an inspiring leader," noting her work in organizing the Blacks in Boston Conference series, and "a mentor for many, many students." One such student, 1989 alumnus Dominic Bozzotto, talked of the strength and commitment he saw in Houston when he worked in the Black Studies Program office: "She kept going forward, no matter what."

Melvin Miller, publisher and editor of The Bay State Banner , and former Massachusetts Representative Byron Rushing also spoke during the program. Smith then invited members of the audience to share their recollections of Houston. Among those who did were Fr. Monan, College of Arts and Sciences Dean J. Robert Barth, SJ, Human Resources Director of Employee Relations Richard Jefferson, and Houston's successor, Assoc. Prof. Frank Taylor (History).

Houston first arrived at BC in 1979 to teach a course on black women and was appointed coordinator of the Black Studies Program in the spring of 1981. Through her work at Boston College and in other settings, Houston formed a diverse network of friends and acquaintances she referred to as a "web," from top-level business executives and prominent artists - such as filmmaker Henry Hampton - to neighborhood activists, some of whom were former students.

A native of Boston raised by her mother, a former union organizer, Houston - born Amanda Verdell Averett - received a bachelor of arts degree from Northeastern University in 1946. While a student, she ran an elevator in the Park Square Building and helped the other operators, all black women, obtain benefits from the building's owners. She later served as shop steward at a local branch of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

After attending a Harvard Business School Management Development Program, Houston went on to receive a master's degree in education from Harvard University in 1973. The next year, Gov. Michael Dukakis appointed her chief of the Bureau of Special Needs for the Department of Education, a post she held until 1977.

Houston played an active role in the wave of social and economic initiatives which emerged in the 1960s. Among her achievements, she founded and directed the New Careers Program, which helped women get off welfare and into college, the Homesteaders Neighborhood Association, a tenants and homeowners group in Roxbury, and served as a program director at Action for Boston Community Development. Later, at Simmons College, she revived and directed a program to get economically disadvantaged women into the school and taught in the black studies program.

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