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Coretta Scott King quietly blazed trails of her own before meeting her future husband in Boston

Coretta Scott King.jpg
Courtesy of New England Conservatory of Music
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Coretta Scott King in the early 1950s.

In 1951, two young Black women stood in line to enroll for courses at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music. Each gifted with the voice of a nightingale, they’d arrived separately, with a common goal of pursuing a dream in Boston.

One of the women, La Verne Weston, who has since changed her name to La Verne Weston Briddell Eagleson, had journeyed by train from Houston.

“I just happened to turn around. And there was this Black girl standing next to me,” said Eagleson, now 92, speaking to GBH News from her home in Maryland. “And I said, ‘My name is La Verne Weston.’ And she said, 'Well, my name is...’ And it took her 15 minutes to say her name, and she told me she was from Ohio.”

That woman, distant at first, was Coretta Scott. Eagleson said she could not tell if her hesitancy to talk about herself was due to shyness or another reason.

“I was already 21 and she was older than I. And I think that might have had something to do with it, And the fact that she did not live in the dormitory. So, we didn’t have that in common. But we were friendly. All of us [Black students] were friendly. When we’d see one another, if we were in the cafeteria, we would sit with one another. She was nice, but she was not the kind of person you could really get that close to,” Eagleson said.

Eagleson said she felt more comfortable in the presence of other Black people, particularly women.

Coretta Scott was originally from the Deep South — the tiny town of Heiberger, Alabama — and had attended Antioch College in Ohio before transferring to the New England Conservatory at the suggestion of one of her instructors. She lived in a room on the fifth floor of a home at 1 Chestnut Street on Beacon Hill owned by a member of the Cabot family. She paid for room and board working as a maid, shadowing Irish American housekeepers.

Clennon King, a documentarian and historian who tracked down and interviewed Eagleson for his work years ago, attributes Coretta Scott’s initial isolation and seeming “aloofness” to living downtown — alone and off campus. Her work schedule also left little time for socializing among the tiny community of Black college students in post-war Boston.

Clennon King, who shares no relation to the civil rights giant he writes about, also believes that she was severely impacted by the bigotry she experienced at Antioch College and the surrounding town, Yellow Springs, which motivated her transfer to the Conservatory.

She had hoped to land a teaching position in Ohio, but that was not to be. Racially discriminatory policies by town officials thwarted Coretta Scott’s plans, and when she protested, she said school officials at Antioch refused to back her up. So, she looked eastward, a journey that brought her to Boston and her place of prominence in the civil rights movement.

Sacrifice, determination chart a student's path

“She ended up leaving Antioch because she confronted some really hideous instances of racism. She was not allowed to teach in white classrooms,” said Andrea Kalyn, the president of the New England Conservatory. “And so, she came to NEC, and she started out as a voice major. It was a struggle for her financially. She was pursuing something she loved at some considerable sacrifice.”

Though she was awarded a full scholarship at the Conservatory, Coretta Scott was destitute, according to Clennon King.

“I mean, she was scrubbing floors because all she had was that scholarship and she had to eat,” the documentarian said. “She had to get down from Beacon Hill, down to that campus, and she had to study. And at the same time have a roof over her head.”

Yet Coretta Scott, according to Kalyn, was an outstanding student.

During an interview with GBH News in the university library, Kalyn sifted through various items connected to Coretta Scott, including her student ID and class schedule.

“It was not an easy thing to get into the Conservatory. It isn’t now, it wasn’t then,” Kalyn said. “And so she was very talented and multifaceted in her approach. She was also a seasoned singer.”

Over the course of her life, Coretta Scott maintained a close relationship with the Conservatory of Music, even donating $100 in 1966 to the school, which was accompanied by a note expressing disappointment that she could not give more.

An index card, yellowed over the decades, shows she studied French and Italian, all prerequisites to graduating from one of the most prestigious music schools in the world — which she did on June 15, 1954. By the time of her graduation, 24-year-old Coretta Scott had changed her name on the index card to Coretta Scott King, the culmination of a romance that began two years earlier.

The ‘small world’ of Black college life in 1950s Boston

For years, Clennon King stared at the two photos in front of him to imagine Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. in Boston in the early 1950s.

One of the black-and-white photos shows the young couple alongside another pair: Eagleson and her soon-to-be husband, David Briddell, Martin Luther King Jr.’s classmate at Boston University.

“That photograph really fascinated me,” Clennon King said. “And I had to use Google Earth to figure out exactly where they were standing in the Public Garden. I figured that it was within a stone’s throw of the bench where, you know, the famous movie ‘Good Will Hunting’ takes place between Robin Williams and Matt Damon. And you can see in the background the footbridge and the lanterns on the footbridge, which are unmistakable.”

Clennon King is the producer of the award-winning documentary, “Passage at St. Augustine,” which focuses on Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign in St. Augustine, Florida, that helped end Jim Crow-era racial authoritarianism in the South.

Some of Eagleson’s memories, like the photo itself, have faded. When GBH News talked to the 92-year-old at her home in Maryland, she struggled to recall that day in the spring of 1954 in the Public Garden with her fiancé and the Kings. Both couples often began their Sunday at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, where theologian Howard Thurman presided.

“I went to meet David, as I often did on a Sunday morning, and we’d go to the chapel together to hear Thurman. Perhaps the four of us were there at the chapel and went out together,” Eagleson said.

What she remembers with clarity is the joy of that day. She also remembers the serendipitous circumstances leading up to that moment in the Public Garden.

Eagleson chuckles over what she calls the “small world” occupied by Boston’s Black college students in the 1950s, a realm that connected her to the Kings before they knew each other.

Eagleson was not only Coretta Scott King’s classmate at the Conservatory; for a brief time, she was also in a romantic relationship with Martin Luther King Jr., whom she had met at Sharif's Cafeteria in the South End years earlier. A popular meeting place for African Americans, the restaurant had a reputation for good food and conversation.

“This guy sat across from me, very well dressed in a three-piece suit, and he kept staring at me and I said, ‘Oh, my goodness,’” Eagleson said. “Finally he picked up his tray and he sat with me and he says, ‘I’m a shy guy and I don’t generally do anything like this.’ And of course, I knew that wasn’t true. He said, ‘You ordered the same thing I did.’ And we chatted. And on that particular Sunday, he told me he was going to kill Jim Crow.”

Eagleson came to realize his comment decades ago was not a prediction. It was a plan.

Unlike Coretta Scott, Martin Luther King was relatively well off, owned a car and resided in comfortable apartments on Massachusetts Avenue and St. Botolph Street. In her 1993 autobiography, she said she came to Boston from Ohio with $15 in her pocket.

According to Clennon King — who also once worked as a reporter for WGBH TV — Martin Luther King Jr. was struggling to complete his doctoral degree in divinity at Boston University when he joined the Sigma chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, a solidly middle-class group.

“This was his way of trying to socially connect and be in the mix,” Clennon King said. “And of course, Coretta couldn’t afford that. She just couldn’t. She didn’t have it. While he’s pledging, she’s scrubbing floors. And then, of course, you know, these two trains on parallel tracks with no station in sight, they finally connect courtesy of [Mary Louise] Powell.”

Clennon King said the life of the young talented soprano from rural Alabama was forever changed “when she caught the eye of Mike, otherwise known as Martin Luther King.”

His life, too, was changed for the better by Coretta Scott, said BU professor John Cartwright in a 2003 interview with the Boston Globe. Cartwright was a graduate student in the 1950s and a King contemporary. He went on to become the Martin Luther King Jr. professor emeritus of social ethics at BU.

Mary Louise Powell, the go-between, studied alongside Coretta Scott at the New England Conservatory and attended church at Twelfth Street Baptist where Martin Luther King Jr. preached. Powell made the initial introductions to what would become a legendary romantic pairing. She slipped Coretta Scott’s number to Martin Luther King Jr. and he called.

On a cloudy day in 1952, Coretta Scott waited for her date outside the Conservatory’s Jordon Hall.

“He drives up in a green Chevy and she’s meeting him for lunch and is very disappointed with what she sees in this short man,” Clennon King said. “But he blew her socks off. Ultimately, they go in less than a mile around the corner on Massachusetts Avenue to Sharif’s. And he went to the cafeteria there and he turned on his charm.”

Sixteen months later, on June 18, 1953, Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King Jr. were married on the lawn of her family’s home in Marion, Alabama. The senior Martin Luther King, his minister father affectionately known as Daddy King, officiated.

The significance of Boston

Clennon King said the love story is not just a feel-good tale of romance but also a story about Boston’s civil rights legacy. He said while he embraces the artistic vision of The Embrace sculpture, which is being ceremonially unveiled Friday on Boston Common, he is also on a mission to correct inaccuracies that accompany their story.

For one thing, contrary to some popular beliefs, their first date was not on the BU campus but in the shadow of the Conservatory of Music.

And though considerably better than the brutality of the Jim Crow South, Boston was not the cradle of openness so often suggested, said Clennon King. It wrestled with its own deeply-rooted racism.

“Houston was extremely segregated, but arriving in Boston, we were segregated in the dormitory on Hemingway Street,” Eagleson said, recalling her move from Texas. “We were put in the corner of the dormitory. So that part was nothing new.”

Clennon King also laments what he calls Boston’s failure to acknowledge the significant role of Powell in this history. Powell died in 1991 and is buried in an unmarked grave in West Roxbury.

Importantly, said Clennon King, while The Embrace will rest on the Boston Common along the path of the Freedom Trail, it is the South End — the former epicenter of the city’s Black community — where the Kings met and lived.

Clennon King is working with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation to place 12 plaques on landmark sites of importance for the Kings, including the apartments in the South End and Beacon Hill where the two lived individually and together.

Other plaques will be placed at the Conservatory of Music and at the former site of Twelfth Street Baptist located at Shawmut Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, named for a local civil rights leader. Cars and pedestrians passing by the building at that location today are greeted by a mural of the Kings.

Clennon King would also like to see a permanent marker placed on the ground in the Public Garden where the couple stood in the moment captured in a photo, taken on a Sunday nearly 70 years ago.

Across the country, many monuments, bridges and highways have long honored the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. But increasingly, tributes are also dedicated to Coretta Scott King as more people discover her pivotal role in the civil rights movement.

She did not become an opera singer as she had originally intended upon that 1951 move to Boston. But in the fall of 1963, she used her velvety, soprano voice to render a touching version of the hymn, “A Balm In Gilead,” at the funeral of four Black girls murdered in the terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

After her husband's assassination in 1968, Coretta Scott King stepped up to fiercely protect his legacy — and more importantly, the causes he had championed while still alive. She was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. A mere two months after his murder, she spoke to Harvard’s graduating senior class — all men and mostly white — urging them to speak out “with righteous indignation” against bigotry.

She created the King Center, a memorial dedicated to her late husband’s work. And it was through her tireless advocacy that the federal government finally established the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in 1983.

In Boston, a bust of Coretta Scott King stands prominently in the library of the New England Conservatory of Music, a place of creativity and excellence. Kalyn, the institution’s president, says her influence changed the world.

“She had an incredible impact,” Kalyn said. “She used her voice quite literally.”

Andrea Kalyn standing beside a bust of Coretta Scott King
Phillip Martin / GBH News
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Conservatory President Andrea Kalyn standing beside a bust of Coretta Scott King, which is displayed prominently in the library of the New England Conservatory of Music.

This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by GBH.