New Bedford’s Lydia Grinnell Brown (1892-1945) became the first African American graduate of Simmons College in Boston. Her commitment to the study of languages led to her becoming a translator of French, German and Spanish for the Pan-African Congress. Lydia represented America as a delegate to the Second Pan African Congress in Paris along with W. E. B. Dubois and others, in 1921.
Lydia Grinnell Brown (1892-1945) was the first African American graduate of Simmons College in Boston. Although there is little direct information about her personal experience while attending Simmons, Lydia excelled there. She graduated in 1915 with a bachelor’s degree in Secretarial Studies. While at Simmons, Lydia worked for the Homestead Commission at the State House in Boston. She eventually became a translator during World War I for one of the war emergency boards in Washington, D.C., and after the war she worked as a public high school teacher. Lydia was also a translator of French, German and Spanish for the Pan-African Congress in Paris, London and Brussels. In 1921, Lydia represented America as a delegate to the Second Pan African Congress in Paris along with W. E. B. Dubois and others. The Pan-African Congress discussed issues facing Africa as a result of European colonization and was committed to ending colonial rule and racial discrimination.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island to Lavinia Clark Brown, a skilled seamstress, and Dallas Brown Sr., a butler and caretaker, her family moved to New Bedford early enough for Lydia to attend New Bedford Public Schools. For many years, the family resided at 184 Rockland Street. Lydia’s father was employed as a butler for well-known inventor Frederick Grinnell at 379 County Street. Lydia was named after Lydia Grinnell Knowles, Frederick’s daughter. Lydia’s brother Dallas Brown Jr. graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and served as an engineer during World War I.
The Brown Family Papers at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library include Lydia’s notebooks, graded papers and exams from fourth grade up through New Bedford High School and Simmons College. The surviving schoolwork shows her steadfast dedication to academic excellence. Her 1905 notebook from the Harrington School on Dartmouth Street contains math, spelling, grammar, two original poems, New Bedford geography, and pencil sketches. In a notebook from grade four, Lydia copied a short story in German, complete with a sketch. She kept meticulous notes in French from at least grade eight at the Ingraham School through New Bedford High School. Her notes in French included neat columns of French vocabulary with English translations, conversations, copied stories and conjugations.
A notebook from the S. A. Howland School Kitchen with 19 lessons shows Lydia’s interest in cooking. Her class schedules from New Bedford High School, from 1906 through her graduation with honors in 1910, list College Preparatory courses and years of French and German. An autograph book from New Bedford High School is filled with signatures and quotations from friends. Two of her notebooks from Simmons College, one for French and the other for stenography, show her continued interest in and dedication to languages. At Simmons College, Lydia’s years of careful notetaking paid off in straight A’s on graded papers and exams. While attending, Lydia lived in Boston and was on the basketball and track teams.
Through letters from her brother Dallas Jr. (also archived with the Brown Family Papers), Lydia was reminded of civil rights and employment issues, but she pressed on to build a life, from her meaningful work, of financial independence.
Lydia died in New York City on June 19, 1945. She is buried at New Bedford’s Rural Cemetery in the Brown family plot.
Ann O’Leary, Emily Bourne Research Fellow
with revisions from Carl J. Cruz, New Bedford Historical Society
Black History@Simmons. Simmons University, https://beatleyweb.simmons.edu/blackhistory/exhibits/show/blackhistory/introduction. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.
New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library Mss 110. Brown Family Papers. https://www.whalingmuseum.org/collections/highlights/manuscripts/mss-110/#series1
Simmons College. “Lydia Brown (1914).” Black History@Simmons, https://beatleyweb.simmons.edu/blackhistory/items/show/45. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.