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Marita Bonner is one of our local Bostonians – born in Dorchester, Massachusetts to Joseph Andrew and Mary Anne (Noel) Bonner on June 16, 1898. The Bonner family emphasized the importance of education as is evidenced in their family history. Joseph Bonner, her father, was born in Boston on July 9, 1872, and attended the Boy’s Latin School. Although he did not graduate, he lived to see Marita graduate from Radcliffe College and her sister, Bernice, graduate from the New England Conservatory. Their brother, Joseph, Jr., was also very gifted – bypassing the entrance exams and earning a scholarship to attend M.I.T. When inquiring as to her father’s records in 1965, Marita noted that when her father died in 1926, “he had owned three excellent pieces of property” and jokingly wrote, “So much for a 19th century school drop-out.”
Marita and Bernice attended Elliott Cabot Primary School (between Park Street and Harvard Street) for Kindergarten through third grade and the Edward Devotion Grammar School on Harvard Street for fourth through eighth grade. At Brookline High School, Marita wrote for the school newspaper, The Sagamore, and was encouraged by the faculty supervisor of this publication to pursue writing at Radcliffe under the instruction of the esteemed, Charles Townsend Copeland, known as “Copey” at Harvard and Radcliffe.
Marita attended Radcliffe from 1918 to 1922, concentrating in English and Comparative Literature. While there she pursued her goal to gain entrance to Copey’s selective seminar, which was limited to sixteen students. According to Marita, “Students came from all over the world to take his course,” and thus, gaining entrance was highly competitive. The pride in her acceptance into this course is still obvious in her letters written almost fifty years later. It was in this seminar where Copey urged her to write, “but not to be bitter – a cliché to colored people who write.” One of her writings from the course, “Dandelion Season” was selected to be read annually to the Radcliffe classes. During her time at Radcliffe she not only excelled in writing, but music as well. She won the college song competition in her freshman and senior year for the “Heathen Song” (1919) and “The China Lady” (1922), and was even referred to as “1922’s Beethoven” in the Radcliffe class poem. Although Marita completed her degree in three and a half years, the college did not grant mid-year degrees at the time, so Marita spent most of her senior year teaching at Cambridge High School.
After graduation, she taught at the Bluefield Colored Institute in Bluefield, Virginia from 1922 to 1924. She then moved to Washington, D.C. where she taught English at Armstrong High School from 1924 to 1931. It was in Washington, D.C. that she met her husband, William Almy Occomy who was an accountant. The two were married in 1930 and had three children, from whom the collection on Marita Bonner at Schlesinger was gained. After her years teaching at Armstorng High School, Marita focused on community service work working as a secretary for the Southeast Settlement House, the first colored house in Washington, D.C., running a soup kitchen and participating in other public service through her Baptist church.
The family then moved to Chicago, where Marita spent the rest of her life. She continued to teach late into her life, spending the last years of her teaching career at the Doolittle School in Chicago for children with special needs. Much of this family history is preserved thanks to Marita’s own initiative. In a letter to her daughter, dated July, 1963, Marita responds to an apparent inquiry into the family history, writing, “Because I know all the facts I very stupidly assume that you kids do too. Will correct that error.” Marita wrote many letters to the different institutions her family attended to obtain verification and proof of their accomplishments. Her reasons for requesting such information were included in one particular letter to Radcliffe, she wrote:
"We happen to be colored people and we have heard such distressing stories from members (of our race) who never attended the first rate college of how colored students are treated – that where we have earned and been accorded small honors, we would like them authenticated if possible.
The truth is with me the happiest days of my life were spent in Brookline, Massachusetts where I went from Kindergarten through high school – and at Radcliffe where I studied from September 1918 through June 1922."
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