My St. Mary’s-in-the- Mountains Experience Gail Snowden, Class of 1963

Cover Photo: Gail (middle, bottom row) and other St. Mary's students putting together the 1963 issue of The Pendulum, the School's yearbook.

Pushed by Facebook posts by Black alums and students who share their personal, often traumatic experiences with racism at private schools and colleges, I have been working on a series of essays, both for my granddaughter and potentially for a memoir. I am impressed with the strides that The White Mountain School has made with its diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, meeting the needs of students through affinity groups and its diverse student body. I have been thinking about how my three years at St. Mary’s fit into my life story (from a perspective of 60 years of life experiences). I arrived in September 1960—the only Black student in the entire school. As with other instances in my life, I was uniquely positioned to be able to thrive in an all-white environment because of my family and an integrated community of friends and neighbors.

I like to think and hope that my being there broadened the horizons of my fellow students. I was bringing news from racial, political, civil rights, and social justice viewpoints that they had never experienced before.

My grandparents, who arrived in Boston in the early 1900s, and my parents, Otto and Muriel Snowden, both civil rights activists and social justice leaders, were part of the class of Negroes known as the Boston Black Brahmins, who constituted Boston’s Black upper class of (mostly) lighter-skinned people. My grandfather, a lieutenant colonel in the segregated army of the 1940s, my uncle, Harvard Class of 1934, my father, who attended Howard University, and my mother, a graduate of Radcliffe College in 1938, all had succeeded as leaders in their respective fields. I grew up in an integrated environment and a stimulating intellectual one with nightly conversations about civil rights, ending school segregation in Boston, and getting equal services for the Black community. My parents founded Freedom House, which would be a groundbreaking organization in civic engagement and social justice and one of the few organizations that brought together people of all races, religions, classes, and backgrounds. (My life would go full circle after I retired and became the CEO of Freedom House, but that is a story for another time.)

This autobiographical story was originally published in the 2020-2021 issue of Echoes, the alumnae/i magazine of The White Mountain School.

When St. Mary’s joined other prep schools in trying to recruit students of color, after talking to Headmaster John McIlwaine, my parents felt that I should go. I was getting a good education at Boston’s Girls’ Latin School (an elite exam school), but they thought I should be the one to integrate St. Mary’s. There had been a few Black students in the past, but in 1960 there were none. It was a tough decision on their part to remove me from my community and friends to be the “only one.” But my parents felt I could withstand any racism or implicit bias that arose because of my upbringing and that I would be a credit to my race (a deeply ingrained message and burden for young people of my generation).

I was assigned to a single in Vaillant House and the first three months were extremely lonely. But something broke through when I returned from Christmas vacation with the latest 45 records and dance steps. While it might seem stereotypical that the Black student was the purveyor of Black culture, for me, it was a crack in the white ceiling. Smokey Robinson’s “Shop Around,” James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” were songs that were the currency of change. But even more than that, I like to think and hope that my being there broadened the horizons of my fellow students. I was bringing news from racial, political, civil rights, and social justice viewpoints that they had never experienced before. And I was a Democrat in a very Republican New Hampshire. Learning how to be persuasive and articulate about issues were competencies I would need in my career.

Photo: Gail's graduation portrait in 1963.

During my three years, I honed my academic skills with help from my teachers—Mr. Miller, Mr. Steele, Mr. Kilde, and Mr. Doughty—which led to being accepted at Harvard but also life skills in being the only one: either Black or a woman. My roommates, Jessie and Kitt, all the friends in my class—but especially Kit, Anne, Clover, Ilona, Janet, and Marf (Martha)—and Judy, Gretchen, and Rachel from the class behind me all made me feel welcome. Judy and Martha invited me to their homes as well. Serving as secretary-treasurer of the senior class and on Student Committee, Social Service Committee, and as editor of the 1963 Yearbook and assistant editor of The Telemark were formative leadership experiences. My love of writing was formed during those years, and I was always a voracious reader, even winning TIME magazine’s scholastic current events contest twice. Although the School library was limited, I discovered James Baldwin and Langston Hughes there.

I came to love St. Mary’s, not just for the academics but for the camaraderie, the traditions, the beautiful campus, and the small classes. Favorite memories include Kit playing the “Hallelujah Chorus” at the start of the Christmas holiday and Barb singing carols, the hymns at church service, Mountain Day, playing soccer, Kiki Rice teaching us modern dance, ice skating at night with hot chocolate provided, and Pickering showing us how to skate backward and twirl in a circle. If I am being honest, it was also a relief to be away from the constant demands from a stressed community, which my parents put first and the source of my resentment. As a child, despite the benefits of meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. and JFK when he ran for president, and seeing the community organizing in action, I felt it was very difficult to compete with the mission that drove my parents to fight against structural inequality and systemic racism. Later, I rebelled against the assumption that I would follow in my parents’ footsteps and instead became a banker.

Photo: Gail Snowden, co-chair of Freedom House's 1971 Showcase of the Stars, stands at the microphone with Herbert Tucker, then president of Freedom House.

Credit: Photograph contributed to Northeastern University by Freedom House.

Now, as a retiree, I am my true self—opinionated, politically active, fiercely anti-racist, and pro gender and LBGTQ rights, and all-in fighting for economic equity and social justice.

Being able to form relationships across color lines and to be recognized as a leader were skills that enabled me to be successful in my career. St Mary’s played an integral role in enabling me to confidently navigate Harvard and 35 years at BankBoston/Bank of America, where I was the most senior Black executive in the company and one of only three women at the managing director/ executive vice president level. Also, being elected to leadership positions continued during college when I was elected dorm president, and later, I became the first woman to be elected president of the National Association of Urban Bankers.

For all the positives, there were some traumas too. The boy at Kimball Union Academy who never looked at me the entire evening and didn’t want to touch me at a dance. Especially hurtful was the time when I invited friends to my home in Dorchester, but some refused to come to the home of a Black person. Or when I wrote a science fiction story about all the Black people in the world leaving Earth, which was rejected in favor of a more palatable story about an old Black man voting for the first time. The other issue I faced was being estranged from my friends at home and at times feeling like I did not fit in either in the Black community of Boston or the white community at St. Mary’s.

This pattern continued throughout my life, but the ability to be resilient was one I gained during my years at school. I learned how to make white people feel comfortable with me, but the downside is the stress of masking your true feelings as a Black and as a woman. I was able to bridge this divide mid-career when I created First Community Bank of Bank of Boston. A division bringing retail, lending, and investment services to inner-city, low-income neighborhoods, and/ or communities of color became a national model of excellence in the provision of financial services and earned an award from the White House for investing in underserved communities.

As I look back, the result was someone who never really fit comfortably in a neat box but whose experiences empowered her to be bi-cultural and successful in corporate America. Now, as a retiree, I am my true self—opinionated, politically active, fiercely anti-racist, and pro gender and LBGTQ rights, and all-in fighting for economic equity and social justice.

Founded in 1886 and set in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, The White Mountain School is a gender-inclusive, college-preparatory boarding and day school for 140 students grades 9-12/PG. Our mission is to be a school of inquiry and engagement. Grounded in an Episcopal heritage, White Mountain prepares and inspires students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion.