by Zoë Cheek

Alexander Hughes in the National Cyclopedia of Colored Persons, 1919

Alexander Hughes was born into slavery on a plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia on January 17th, 1857, to Cyrus Hughes and Sarah (Claxon) Hughes. He was four years old when the Civil War broke out but his family remained on the plantation for the entirety of the war. After the end of the war, his father Cyrus and the plantation owner, John Young, arranged for some of the Hughes children, including Alexander, to remain on the plantation for a few years. He left for Richmond by age 13 where he took several odd jobs throughout the city until at age 24 when he moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, to be with his brother, Alfred W. Hughes, and his sister, Caroline C. (Williams) Hughes.[1]

Once in Springfield, Hughes drove a wagon for a local grocery company, and did several other odd jobs, notably cleaning basements and furnaces. Hughes joined the YMCA in 1882 and took night classes to learn how to read and write. Sometime in 1884, Hughes met the president of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance, John A. Hall, when Hughes took over from Hall’s regular furnace cleaner for a week. Hughes made such an impression on Hall that a few years later, in 1888, when a space in the company’s shipping department opened, Hall invited Hughes to join the company.[2]

In addition to his work with MassMutual, Hughes and his second wife, Pauline Simms, frequently catered events across the city and grew flowers at their home at 16 Munson Street. Hughes was an avid gardener, routinely winning awards from the Springfield Republican for his flowers and lawn, winning the first of many prizes in 1910. He was best known for his many varieties of dahlias, phlox, hydrangeas, and roses. Hughes often catered and decorated company events with his flowers from his garden.[3]

The Hughes’ home at 16 Monson Ave surrounded by flowers. Springfield Republican, Sept 9 1909.

By the 1920s, Hughes was the department manager of the shipping department at MassMutual and tracked all incoming and outgoing deliveries for the company. Unfortunately, in 1927, while fetching ice cream for a company event, Hughes suffered an accident that left him blinded in his left eye and he was forced to retire from the company after 39 years of service.[4]

Throughout his tenure at MassMutual and well after his retirement, Hughes was involved in many different organizations across Springfield. These included The Golden Chain Lodge of Odd Fellows (a fraternal organization), The YMCA, Household of Ruth, the Negro Civic League, Springfield Improvement Association, Union Relief Association, and the Saturday Afternoon Club.[5] In Springfield, Hughes was also recognized in the “National Cyclopedia of the Colored Race” in 1919 as one of the most prominent citizens in the city.[6]

Hughes was also the treasurer of the Mutual Housing Company, a Springfield based co-operative organized by Hughes and other prominent African Americans, like Rev. William DeBerry, that fundraised and purchased homes across the city that would be held by the group until they could be sold to another African American.[7]Founded in 1908, this was one of the oldest organizations of its kind in the city, and by the 1930s it was also holding homes for immigrants from countries like Italy.

He was a member of three different congregations in Springfield, first with the Third Baptist Church, then St. John’s Congregational where he was active as a deacon, Sunday school teacher, and in other charitable activities through the churches. In 1912, Dr. Booker T. Washington visited Springfield, stopping to speak at St. John’s Congregational Church. In his speech, Washington described that he had a photograph of Alexander Hughes’ award winning garden in his office at the Tuskegee Institute as a reminder of how far a man born into slavery was able to go in Springfield. After this speech, Washington, his secretary Charles Chesnutt, and Rev. William N. DeBerry had lunch with Hughes and his wife at their home.[8]Before his death, Hughes became a congregant at Hope Congregational Church, also in Springfield.

Hughes was the second African American to be awarded the Pynchon Medal by the Springfield Advertising Club in 1941 at the age of 83. The medal is awarded to Springfield residents who have contributed meaningful service to the community, which Hughes did in many of his activities.[9] In an interview regarding the award, Hughes stated that “There’s probably no one in the city of Springfield gets more pleasure of life than I do.”[10] Five years later, at the age of 88, Hughes passed away from a brief illness. He was buried in Springfield Cemetery with his wife Pauline and her mother Rebecca Simms.[11]

Alexander Hughes’ home at 16 Monson Avenue is still standing in Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood. Currently, the home is not listed as a historic building, nor does it appear on any tours given by the area’s historic societies, but maybe it deserves its place on the map.

 

Zoë Cheek is an archivist at the Springfield Museums, a board member of PVHN, and is currently a Public History M.A. student at UMASS Amherst.

———————————-

[1]“Three Humanitarians to Be Awarded…” Springfield Republican, March 23, 1941

[2] “Obituary – Alexander Hughes” Springfield Republican, September 3, 1946

[3]“The Yard of Alexander Hughes” Springfield Republican, September 9, 1909.

[4]“Obituary – Alexander Hughes” Springfield Republican, September 3, 1946

[5]Richardson, Clement, The National Cyclopedia of the Colored Race. Ed 1. Montgomery, AL: National Publishing Company, Inc. 1919. 190.

[6]Ibid. 190

[7]“Mutual Housing Company” Springfield Republican, October 3, 1907

[8]“Washington at St. John’s” Springfield Republican, January 25, 1912.

[9]  “Three Humanitarians to Be Awarded…” Springfield Republican, March 23, 1941

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Obituary – Alexander Hughes” Springfield Republican, September 3, 1946

 

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