A member of the MIT AgeLab’s Lifestyle Leaders, a panel of people ages 85 and older, since 2015, Rita Richmond has worked in D.C., was involved in the civil rights movement, and wants to help immigrants who are caught up in the court system.
Rita Richmond had dreams of attending Radcliffe College, but a talk with the admissions office caused her to adjust her expectations. She was swept up in the widespread discrimination against Jewish applicants. “At my interview I was told that Radcliffe would admit 6 percent Jews, and they had already filled that quota. At any rate, I went on with my life,” she says, laughing. Born in Boston, and a graduate of the Girls’ Latin School, she went to Boston University for her undergraduate degree before going on to Johns Hopkins for a Masters in international relations.
“I ran into quite an incident when I started at grad school,” Richmond says. She worked at the summer institute at Johns Hopkins alongside a number of students from Africa. When her cohort of students went out to lunch, she noticed her African colleagues did not join them. None of the restaurants in the area would serve them. “This was the District of Columbia in 1953. We were south of the Mason-Dixon line, but being that it was the nation’s capital, I didn’t expect it.” She became involved in the civil rights movement in Washington, picketing lunch counters that refused to serve the city’s black patrons.
She passed the Foreign Service examination after graduate school, but she wasn’t able to obtain a security clearance. “These were the days of McCarthy. The FBI went up and down the street where my parents lived. The fact that my parents were from Russia was a point against me.” She took a position as a technical writer at the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C., which was just reopening after the conclusion of World War II.
Rita moved back to the Boston area, got married, raised four children, and returned to graduate school for a degree in criminal justice. She decided against attending law school, not wanting to pay what was then a hefty $15,000 price tag. “I did work for the probation department for four or five years, until I got tired of skewing the reports toward what probation wanted to hear.” Afterward, she co-opened a consignment shop in Newton, Massachusetts, while involving herself heavily in Newton community affairs. She retired as a master tax advisor and enrolled agent certified with the IRS at the age of 85.
Since her retirement, she has been looking for a greater sense of purpose. Her independent living community features a limited range of activities, principally shopping trips and in-house discussion groups. “My existence is mainly outside,” she says. She is a member of the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, a volunteer with the Boston Symphony, and involved in several book clubs. She has also applied for a volunteer job with the Legal Defense Fund to help read immigration documents.
Her advice for younger people coming into maturity is simple: “Go. Speak up.” She is hopeful that the talents of the ageing population will be fully recognized and utilized in the education of the youth of today and tomorrow. “Take advantage of us when we are in bloom—we are not old, we are perennials!”
If she were to have dinner with anyone in history, who would she choose? “Paul Newman – no, scratch that.” She settles on former Vice President Joe Biden.