Rollins Griffith was by training both a musician and teacher. Son of a lay minister in Boston, he played the organ, first for his father, and later at the Union Methodist Church. As a boy, Rollins played in local marching bands and at Roxbury Memorial High School. After graduating at age 16, he studied classical piano at the New England Conservatory of Music. Two years later, he was drafted into the army.
After the war, he played jazz piano at local nightclubs, notably at the Storeyville Jazz Club in the South End, often accompanying out-of-town artists. His name is on at least two CDs, with Charlie Parker and with Serge Chaloff, the baritone sax player. Mme. Chaloff, Serge’s mother, had been Mr. Griffith’s classical piano teacher at the Conservatory. Rollins also played with many other top-notch jazz musicians including Ruby Braff, Jo Jones, Slam Stewart, Marquis Foster, Jimmy Woode, Hy Lockhart and Dakota Staton.
Rollins Griffith was a jazz pianist who dreamed of an arts school for Boston’s public school children. After attending the Conservatory, he earned two master’s degrees – one from Boston University and one from Boston State College. He became a music teacher at the Patrick Gavin School and later at the Woodrow Wilson School, where he staged elaborate productions, such as Brigadoon. After serving as assistant principal at the Ellis and Lewis schools, he was asked to become principal of the then troubled Patrick Campbell Junior High (now the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School). Griffith agreed on condition he could bring in a new teaching staff; his condition was met. In 1968 he was appointed Area Three Superintendent, and subsequently District Five Superintendent (the largest of Boston’s then five districts).
An inspiration to teachers, Rollins Griffith – educator, artist, and visionary – was also a man who found practical solutions to problems. He was a founder (with John O’Bryant and Jean McGuire) of BEAM, the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts. He also initiated the alliance of coordinated services for Boston Public Schools, which included psychiatric, medical and city social services for children. “We expect teachers to do too much,” he would say. “If you have a troubled child, why would you expect teachers to do everything?” As the only Black district superintendent in Boston, Griffith noted the lack of Black teachers in the system and convinced School Superintendent Ohrenberger of the need to recruit minority teachers.