When asked to reflect on his eventful 22 years on the Cambridge City Council, Kenneth E. Reeves ’72 turns to a cardboard box filled with old pictures and handwritten letters.
Flipping through the photos, the two-time mayor is particularly struck by one image.
“This is former City Councilor and my major enemy Bill Walsh, the person on the Council with whom I had the most antagonistic relationship possible,” Reeves began. “He was adamantly against rent control, and I was the king of rent control. But strangely enough ... we became extraordinarily close friends. More like brothers than anything else.”
Reeves recalled that the two bonded over caring for their elderly mothers, and Walsh became one of Reeves’ biggest supporters before passing away last year. Walsh’s death—in addition to the recent deaths of other long-time supporters—has made this campaign feel a bit different for Reeves.
“This campaign is for me one that has some significant losses,” Reeves said.
Despite the loss of key supporters and assistants, Reeves says his campaign strategy is basically the same as it was during his first run for office in 1989, when campaign events were captured with Polaroid photos.
“An interesting thing about Cambridge is that in certain neighborhoods ... 74 to 76 percent of residents have lived here for five years or less,” Reeves says. “That means in every two-year election cycle, you really are introducing yourself. There are people who don’t know anything about 1989, many people. It makes it important for you to treat each election as a fresh opportunity.”
A majority of residents may be newcomers to the area, but Reeves certainly is not. The Detroit native made his way to Cambridge more than 40 years ago when he came to Harvard College.
In an era of racial turmoil—when Harvard was admitting the largest number of black students to date—Reeves and his classmates helped establish the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College-the oldest existing black organization at the College-as well as blackCAST, a theatrical group established to promote Black theater. Reeves’ class was also pivotal in establishing a department of African and African American Studies.
“When I came to Harvard, we said we’d like to have a department of African American Studies,” Reeves said. “They just couldn’t imagine how you could have a department because there wasn’t enough to look at, and that’s coming from a school with a discipline in Folklore and Mythology. To go from that response to perhaps one of the most discussed departments in the University now. To have seen that in a lifetime is to have seen how the world can change.”
Forty years later, Reeves is still active in developing African-American education. One worn picture serves as evidence: a portrait of Reeves grinning at the home W.E.B. Du Bois in Ghana. He considers Du Bois to be a role model and is one of his favorite people in history.
Reeves himself is a lauded figure in Cambridge’s African-American community, according to George Greenidge, a local resident who has collaborated with Reeves on a number of projects, most significantly during Greenidge’s time as the director of a youth center in Area Four, which covers Central Square.
“Ken woke up young people by being [mayor] and saying we have a role in government,” Greenidge says. “He got blacks and Latinos engaged in government.”
In 1992, Reeves became the first black mayor of Cambridge, and the first openly gay black mayor in the country.
Though Reeves does not emphasize his minority statuses, he has been a longtime advocate for the local African-American and homosexual communities, helping to found the organizations Men of Color Against AIDS (MOCAA) in Boston, the Men of Color Health Task Force in Cambridge, and the Gay and Lesbian Elected Officials (GLBLO) Caucus of the National League of Cities.