Francena Roberson was known unofficially as the South End’s Poet Laureate. She published several poetry collections: Echos from the Ghetto, 1979; Easy Rocking, 1980; and Universally Yours, 1997; and wrote skits and plays, including Where the Crayfish Run and The Saga of Frankie Silva, Jr., which were performed at the Mass. School of Art in the late 1980s. The cast included Pat Cusick, then director of SNAP. I remember a lot of loud prompting from the wings.
Born in South Carolina in 1916, Roberson was living in Columbus, Ohio, before coming to the South End with her two daughters in the early 1950s. After various South End addresses, she settled around Mass. Ave./St. Botolph Street, where the local scene-big drinkers, bookies, pool rooms, jive talk, hipsters, and dice games on every corner-fascinated her. "Oh, my God, what a place!" she would say, laughing. She always claimed that Wally, owner of Wally’s Café, was the first person she met when she arrived; his family became family to Roberson.
Among other jobs, Roberson worked at the NAACP. She was active with Union United Methodist Church. Returning to school later in life, she earned degrees from UMass-Boston and BU and received an honorary doctorate.
I knew Roberson a little bit through her poetry, but it was an event at the Mills Gallery in 1980 that made me truly appreciate her spirit and originality. A friend came up from New York and sang her poems.
Many other interesting events followed. There was Roberson’s Black History Special in 1994, "The Train and the Story Teller," which included a tour of the Back Bay-South End train station and a demonstration of the "cultural art of gameing" [sic]. Founder of the Knights of the Rail Society, she was enormously proud of the station’s display on the history of black railroad workers. There was "Hear that Lonesome Whistle: a personal narrative of the Old South End," written and performed by Roberson in 1999, and "Once Upon a Neighborhood"-a title I coveted.
If her spelling and punctuation weren’t always the best, Roberson made up for it with a definite flair.
I can be in any country I want to be,
in the South End in summer,
my imagination and me.
If I stroll down Tremont Street
in the early morn,
it’s the Champs d’Elysees
I’m walking on...
I meet Syria Lebanon, England...
Ireland, Portugal, Africa, Spain
West Indians, Caribbeans,
Chinese and other Easterners too.
Just a second ago,
I passed a royal Hindu.
"Summer in the South End of Boston"
She was quirky. Once, when I went to a Universally Yours reading and asked her to sign my book, she told me to sign it myself. Now I have a copy autographed to me by me-probably worth a fortune! She was known to be stern and, according to grandson Christopher, whom she raised, possessive and strict: "She wouldn’t let me out of the house until I was sixteen."
Once I went to hear her speak at BU. After she gave her talk, I saw her walking down Commonwealth Avenue. I caught up with her and suggested going out for coffee. She stopped dead in her tracks, stared at me, and said brusquely, "How about a drink?" We went to the old Newbury Steak House and had a great time.
The Globe’s Judith Gaines, then a neighbor, wrote a story about our Tall Tales of the Old South End session in 2000. "Calling the roll" of former South End businesses, Roberson was quoted as saying, dramatically, "They do not answer."
What ever happened
To the people?
Who used to live,
On this street.
Miss Gertie, Saul Freedman,
And Henry Sasafreet.
Toward the end of her life, Roberson substitute taught in the Boston Public Schools, usually at the Blackstone. I’d see her walking home in the afternoon looking as beat as a person could possibly look. Still, I had no idea how old she was and was surprised to find out she was 89 when she died in 2005.
But soon one discovers a subdued dignity here among the dreamers who came and never got anywhere.
Here philosophers, PhD’s and theses writers too, can tell you after five drinks just what you ought to do.
You find fellow citizens here who are, likewise, caught in the same bind, making the most of what they have and putting the dream behind in the South End of Boston.
"Ode to the South End"
Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about it for almost as long.