Inspiration among Ledgers and Minute Books

How a speaking invitation led University Marshal Jackie O’Neill to a discovery at the Schlesinger Library
Jackie O'Neill, photo credit Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University News Office
Ivelisse Estrada, Writer/Editor

Jacqueline (Jackie) O’Neill is a busy woman. As Harvard University marshal, she oversees official University protocol, meets heads of state and other dignitaries visiting the campus, and organizes Harvard’s commencement. Her office is presently directing Harvard’s yearlong 375th anniversary celebration, which kicked off on October 14.

O’Neill’s diverse and encompassing responsibilities mean that countless University publications find their way to Wadsworth House, the building (dating from 1726) where her office is located. In spring 2007, when the Schlesinger Library newsletter arrived in her mail, a story about Lebanese and Syrian women organizing for their community piqued her curiosity.

The article, written by Kathryn Allamong Jacob, the library’s Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts, discussed the records of the Lebanese-Syrian Ladies’ Aid Society of Boston, in the South End. “The reason I noticed it is because part of my family on my mother’s side is Lebanese—and both my grandmother and my mother grew up in the South End,” recalls O’Neill. “So in the back of my head, I thought, Gee, it’d be really interesting to go over someday and see what’s in the collection.” (Initially, she hoped to visit the collection with her daughter, Leigh O’Neill, a Middle East expert who speaks several languages, including Arabic, and has served as an international observer for national elections in the region. “I thought it would help her understand her heritage,” O’Neill says. But other needs intervened.)

Recently, O’Neill was invited to speak at an event for a Lebanese civic organization whose members are largely professional men. She would be the first woman to address the group. She decided to focus her talk on the Lebanese heritage of Greater Boston from a woman’s point of view. “That would be my hook,” she says.

O’Neill remembered the newsletter article and headed to the Schlesinger Library. Unexpectedly, this led to a personal journey: Within the multilingual ledgers (written by various hands in Arabic, English, and French), meeting minutes, and programs, she found familiar names—including those of her cousins Rose Kfoury and Rose Maloof. She discovered that the society was originally housed at 102 Tyler Street, next door to where her mother was born. The records, dating from 1917, also revealed the migration of the Lebanese American and Syrian American communities from the South End to the Boston suburbs.

What O’Neill found most touching—and tried to impress upon the audience for her speech—was the women’s selfless commitment to helping the needy even though their own resources were meager. “They didn’t have a lot to begin with,” she says. “But they were civic-minded enough to raise money for people other than themselves,” whether it was a couple of dollars for a family going through a rough patch or help with groceries. Her visit to the Schlesinger gave her not only a great story, but also newfound pride in the strength and generosity of her grandmother’s community.

Looking out into a sea of physicians, engineers, academics, and scientists as she delivered her speech, O’Neill thought back to the society members whose voices now live on in the Schlesinger Library. “Two or three generations later,” she says, “their children and grandchildren are living proof of the American dream.”

Boston Area Collections

In the first half of the 20th century, the South End of Boston was particularly diverse: recent immigrants from China, Ireland, Lebanon, and Syria—and many African Americans—lived cheek-by-jowl in the neighborhood. “The diversity of that community was, in many ways, more robust than it is now,” O’Neill recalls of her grandmother’s neighborhood. She praises the Schlesinger Library’s efforts to diversify its collections by reaching out to ethnic communities in the greater Boston area. “It’s a very smart thing to do,” she says. “Many of these communities are disappearing.”

Search Year: 
2011