SALEM — A memorial plaque was installed last month at the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome, one of the world’s most famous burial grounds.
The Irish writer Oscar Wilde called the Protestant Cemetery, as it is widely known, “the holiest place in Rome.” This is where the poets Shelley and Keats are buried, and where many come to see the haunting sculpture “Angel of Grief,” by William Wetmore Story, son of the Salem jurist Joseph Story.
The simple wall plaque erected in December reads: “Sarah Parker Remond...African American Abolitionist & Physician...Salem MA 1824...Rome 1894.”
Although a portrait of Remond hangs in the Statehouse in Boston, there are no plaques or memorials in her hometown of Salem, and, until a few weeks ago, nothing to mark her final resting place in Rome.
That all changed thanks to the interest and persistence of Marilyn Richardson, a retired professor at MIT, and Salem attorney Francis Mayo, former president of the Salem Athenaeum.
Both have spent years researching Remond and felt strongly that something should be done to memorialize a woman who, after being barred from school in Salem because of her color, went on to become a leading abolitionist speaker and medical doctor in Italy.
“I just became so interested in her and admired her that I thought, ‘Good lord, there should be something at the hospital where she worked in Florence to commemorate this amazing woman,’” said Mayo, a Marblehead resident.
He wrote to the hospital in Italy several years ago and got a letter back saying he should contact Richardson, former curator of the Museum of African American History on Beacon Hill, who was lobbying to get a plaque in the Rome cemetery.
Mayo joined forces with Richardson and invited her to speak at the Salem Athenaeum, a membership library on Essex Street. After her talk, a campaign was launched to raise $5,000 for the plaque. A notice was posted on a Sarah Remond website that Richardson maintains.
“People from all over the country, even all over the world, made donations,” said Mayo.
Many gave, he said, because they had heard of Remond and knew something of her story.
She grew up in a large Salem family. Her father, John Remond, was a free man of color from the island of Curacao, and her mother a free black. Among many business ventures, her father ran a food service and catered many of the dinners at Hamilton Hall.
Her older brother, Charles Lenox Remond, was a noted abolitionist speaker.
Sarah Remond attended Salem schools, but wasn’t allowed to continue to the upper grades, Mayo said.
“From one account we have, Sarah and one of her sisters were actually in school and a vote had been taken to remove children of color,” he said. “She wrote later about being physically taken out of school and how humiliating it was.”
Sarah went to a private school in Rhode Island, while her father “mounted a successful campaign to integrate the Salem schools,” according to a profile of Remond by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, which led the effort to get portraits of Remond and five other women in the Statehouse.
Remond made news in 1853 when she attended an opera in Boston and refused to sit in a segregated section. After being shoved down a set of stairs by a policeman, according to accounts, she sued and won $500 in damages.
Remond lectured for the American Anti-Slavery Society across the East and Midwest at a time when few women, especially black women, dared venture out on the speaking circuit. She later spoke in England, Scotland and Ireland, building support for the Union cause during the Civil War.
While in Britain, she attended Bedford College for Ladies (later part of the University of London), and made notable acquaintances, including several members of Parliament who sponsored her application to become a British subject.
In her 40s, Remond moved to Florence and entered medical school, practicing medicine in Florence for about 20 years.
Today, more than a century after her death, a woman who shattered barriers of race and gender in a life of service, has been remembered in a cemetery across the ocean.
“I feel as if in a small way we’ve righted a wrong,” said Mayo. “It’s just not right that a woman of such tremendous caliber and achievement should go without notice. ... I (also) hope we can do something in Salem.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.