Journal Archive >
2001 > November
Historian explores race relations in Boston
Gerald Gill has been teaching at Tufts since 1980. Every so often, he finds himself answering the same question from friends in other parts of the country: "How can you still continue to teach at a Boston-area college?"
"They contend Boston is the most racist city in the United States. I contend Boston is not the most racist city in the United States," says Gill, a scholar of African American history. While the city is certainly not without its racial problems—either now or in the past—the complex relationship between Boston and its black citizens is not adequately characterized by that one statement, he says.
That lingering perception, however, prompted Gill to begin research on Struggling Yet in Freedom's Birthplace, a book he is writing about race relations in Boston from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s.
"The book looks at how one of the most progressive cities in the United States in terms of race relations toward the end of the 1800s and first several decades of the 20th century became ‘the most racist city in the United States' by the '70s and the decades after," said Gill, associate professor of history.
"I'm not an apologist for the city of Boston, by no means," Gill said. "But it is not the most racist city in the United States."
Struggling Yet in Freedom's Birthplace begins in the mid-1930s, when black Boston lost one of its most esteemed leaders, William Monroe Trotter. "He was the city's most prominent black leader during the first third of the 20th century," Gill said. When Trotter died in 1934, it was "a blow for black Boston."
The book ends in the early '70s, before Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. issued his historic decision on school desegregation. The book does not deal with the aftermath of Garrity's decision, which ushered in a tumultuous era in black-white relations in Boston, but looks at the conditions that led to court-ordered school desegregation.
"Certainly, the struggle for equal educational opportunity is not something that started in 1970 or 1972," Gill said.
"The book looks at Boston in the '40s, '50s, '60s," Gill said. "Employment discrimination, housing, how civil rights affected America as a nation and Boston, its impact on urban renewal in the city of Boston, the nature of black/white relations during that time."
The history of black Boston is one of contradictions. While the city could be a welcoming place that offered certain opportunities for African Americans, it was also a place where they often had to struggle for the very basics of life—housing, education and jobs.
Gill quotes pioneering African American chemist Percy Julian, who wrote as a graduate student at Harvard in 1925: "Here in Boston you open [to the Negro] the door to a Grand Opera House, but in nine cases out of ten, you shut upon him the door to a factory that would afford him the means of a ticket."
Similarly, the area's universities offered some African Americans a chance for study and advanced degrees, yet few opportunities existed for most college-educated blacks after graduation. "One of the ironies is that blacks could be educated, but not receive jobs that were commensurate with their abilities, talents and degree of achievement," Gill said.
Boston's heritage as "freedom's birthplace" and the "cradle of abolition" helped fuel "often vigorous and vibrant protest activities in the 1930s and early 1940s," Gill writes.
Boston's black leaders, for example, opposed plans for a black hospital in the 1920s, preferring instead to concentrate efforts on desegregating existing ones. And in the early 1930s, black organizers mounted "Don't Spend Your Money Where You Can't Work" campaigns at store chains like First National and A&P supermarkets, which did not hire black workers in stores located in the South End and Roxbury.
But black Bostonians also became caught in the political battles of a highly politicized city—lost in the power struggle between their traditional allies, the Republican Yankee Protestants and the Democratic Irish Catholics. Earlier in the century, blacks began to lose their monopoly on certain jobs—mostly unskilled positions such as maids, butlers and hotel employees—to the Irish, who themselves were the subject of discrimination because of their religion.
When "the Irish Catholics turned to politics and used municipal politics for group advancement," Gill said, the city's African Americans found themselves further marginalized. As politicians like John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley, "used city government as a means of patronage to reward the Irish Catholic residents of Boston," blacks were shut out of public jobs such as police or firefighting or teaching, Gill said.
In the '50s and '60s, the birth of the technology belt along Route 128 created a new set of problems, as many African Americans struggled to find affordable housing near this new source of jobs.
The study of mid-century black Boston is but one of Gill's ongoing projects. He is working on an informal oral history of African American students at Tufts, and he is completing revisions on another book, Dissent, Discontent and Disinterest: African American Opposition to the United States Wars of the Twentieth Century.
There is some small overlap between the two books: The Boston book looks at local African American opposition to the Vietnam War and the response within Boston to the black power and black nationalist movements that emerged during the 1960s. "There is crossover of the two manuscripts, but I try to keep them separate," Gill said.
Boston's racial history, Gill says, was influenced by many circumstances specific to the city; it's a mistake, he says, to compare race relations in Boston to other places.
"Boston is unique in its racial problems," he said. "Too often, people talk about Boston and compare protest and race relations here to other cities along the East Coast. But Boston is different than Philadelphia or New York."
Yet, he says, Boston is not unique in having racial problems, either now or in the past. "Police brutality and racial profiling are not unique to Boston. Racial scapegoating is not unique to the city," he said. "Yes, patterns of institutional racism, overt and covert racism in the city of Boston, still manifest themselves today.
"The point is, one has to maintain the fight and struggle against overt and covert patterns of racism and not resort to unfair labeling."