The history of Boston is a case in point. Boston
is the city where public education began and the city with the
first Jim Crow school system. Boston is the city where public
schools were first integrated and where, a hundred years later,
the struggle for integration had to be fought all over again.
By 1974, no one who saw white mobs stoning buses carrying defenseless
black children should have been surprised. Boston has a long historyperhaps
the longest in the nationof bitter conflict over race and
It was here in Boston that the issue of the public
education of blacks first arose, almost two hundred years ago.
In October, 1787, fourteen blacks, describing themselves as taxpaying
"freemen" of Boston (Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783),
submitted a petition to the legislature protesting that their
children were excluded from the Boston public schools because
of their race. "We, therefore, must fear for our rising offspring
to see them in ignorance in a land of gospel light," the black
petitioners wrote, beseeching the Great and General Court to make
some provision "for the education of our dear children." Some
of the petitioners had been patriots in the revolution, and all
considered themselves citizens of the Commonwealth. Deliberately
echoing the protests of the Sons of Liberty, they complained to
the legislature of taxation without education.
But the Commonwealth's lawmakers ignored their
plea. Though aware of the presence of free blacks in Massachusetts,
most legislators considered them less as fellow citizens than
as unwanted interlopers, the untouchables of American society.
The talk of the season was Thomas Jefferson's book, Notes on
Virginia, in which Jefferson proposed, as the only sensible
solution to America's racial dilemma, that free blacks colonize
an area outside the nation. Even in Massachusetts, where blacks
enjoyed the right to vote, petition, contract, and sue, they were
not welcome in the public schools because they were not wanted
as citizens in the society. Thus, despite the civil rights they
enjoyed, blacks found that without real political strength they
could not protect their interests in the public arena.
Rebuffed by the legislature, Boston's blacks established
a school of their own. The first classes were held in the dining
room of one of the larger homes on "Nigger Hill," as the black
side of Beacon Hill was then known. Prince Hall, one of the fourteen
blacks who petitioned the legislature in 1787, was the school's
first teacher. Tuition was twelve and a half cents per week, and
the school year lasted only three and a half months.
In 1798, the school obtained its first college-educated
teacher, a young white Harvard man, hired though the good offices
of Harvard's President Kirkland. Over the years, the school, which
in 1805 was moved to the basement of the African Meeting House
(which stands off Joy Street and was the first back church built
in this country), attracted the patronage of several sympathetic
whites. The most generous of them, Abiel Smith, left a large bequest
to the town fathers for the support of the school. Smith supported
the idea of a separate black nation, and he saw the school as
a place to prepare young blacks for the rigors of establishing
a country of their own modeled on American principles and institutions.
Furthermore, in accepting Smiths gift, Boston officials assumed
jurisdiction over the school (which they named in his honor),
making it the first segregated public school in the country. Other
Jim Crow schools were added as blacks moved off the hill to the
West End, and so it was in Boston that the "separate but equal"
doctrine was born. Boston's system of segregated public education
became the model for other Northern cities during the antebellum
era and was adopted by design in the South and some parts of the
West after the Civil War.
Jefferson's simple solution quickly became the
road not taken in American race relations. Free blacks were adamantly
opposed to leaving the country until the saves to whom they were
bound, as a group of free blacks put in 1817, "by the ties of
consanguinity, of suffering, and of wrong" were free to go with
them. As long as Southern slaveholders were unwilling to release
their hold on their slaves, free blacks in Boston were unwilling
to relinquish their claim to full and equal citizenship. Instead,
they pressed that claim as vigorously as they could, knowing that
every advancement they achieved was a victory as well for their
brothers and sisters in bondage.
Thus, in the 1840's, Boston became not only a
center of the abolition movement, but also the first city in the
country in which school segregation was attacked. Between 1840
and 1850, black and white abolitionists mounted a succession of
petition drives to persuade the School Committee to abolish school
segregation in Boston. The Committee denied every request, but
at least recognized the growing political strength of the anti-slavery
movement and made increasingly elaborate arguments to prove that
segregation was fair and reasonable.
Finally, in 1849, a black printer named Benjamin
Roberts decided to go to the courts to challenge the policy of
school segregation. Roberts was outraged that his five-year-old
daughter, Sarah, had to walk the length of Beacon Hill, passing
five white elementary schools on the way, to take her first-grade
classes at Smith School. To argue his daughter's case, Roberts
hired Robert Morris, the first black admitted to the bar in Boston.
Morris, in turn, enlisted Charles Sumner, the eloquent Free-Soiler,
to carry the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
The Court's ruling, written by Chief Justice Lemuel
Shaw, probably the most influential state jurist in American history,
became a legal landmark. It introduced the concept of separate-but-equal
to American law and upheld the constitutionality of Jim Crow schools
so authoritatively that it was cited as precedent by the United
States Supreme Court in its epic Plessy v. Ferguson
decision in 1896, which made separate-but-equal the law of the
But abolitionists in Boston refused to accept
Roberts as the final word. With a mixture of moral fervor,
dogged legwork, and adroit coalition-building, they pressed the
cause of desegregation in the political arena. Their efforts paid
off in 1855, five years after the Roberts decision, when
the legislature outlawed school segregation on the basis of "race,
color, or religion."
In this way, through political rather than judicial
efforts, Boston became the first city in the nation to desegregate
its public schools. The 326 black students who had been enrolled
at the Smith and two other Jim Crow schools were reassigned to
formerly all-white public schools appropriate to their grade and
residence. On the eve of the opening of the school, two young
blacks walked by the Smith School on their way home. As they passed
this doomed symbol of caste education, one of them waved at the
darkened building. "Good-bye forever, colored school!" he said.
"Tomorrow we are like other Boston boys."
desegregation of the Boston public schools was one of the most
important victories abolitionists scored in the struggle for equal
citizenship for free blacks in the antebellum North, and it set
a pattern for Boston that would prevail for the rest of the century.
Indeed, the fifty years following the passage of the school desegregation
laws were something of a golden age for blacks in Boston, not
only in their access to education but in their participation in
politics and government.
Blacks had voted in Boston at least since the
1780s, longer than in any other major American city. Although
Boston's black population was very small throughout the nineteenth
century (blacks comprised only 1.2 percent of the city's population
in 1865 and only 2 percent in 1900 and 1910), it had learned how
to be extraordinarily active politically. In 1868, at a time when
most blacks in the country were still ineligible for the franchise,
two blacks were elected to the Massachusetts legislature. From
1876 to 1895, as Reconstruction governments toppled in the South,
there was at least one and as many as three blacks serving on
the Boston Common Council, and a black physician, Dr. Samuel Courtney,
was elected to the School Committee in the 1890s.
Blacks, of course, were staunch Republicans then,
as Republicans lost control of Boston at the turn of the century,
blacks were displaced from public office. In a last ditch effort
by the GOP to hold on to the city, Boston was redistricted in
1895, and traditionally black districts were subsumed under the
new plan. By 1900, there was not a black elected official in the
Sixty years would pass before the election of
another black to municipal office in Boston, sixty years during
which segregation would be reestablished more strongly than ever
in the city's public schools. The laws, blacks learned again,
mean nothing without political power.
Nouveau Jim Crow was a product of the Irish ascendancy
in Boston. First economic, then political rivals, blacks and Irish
in Boston soon clashed over public education as well. Their differences
emerged as early as the 1840s, when blacksconfined by discrimination
to separate schoolspetitioned the School Committee to abolish
segregation. But Irish leaders demanded that their children
be released from the Yankee-dominated public schools and segregated
in publicly supported parochial schools. They wanted public schools
of their own, where their children could escape from the denigrations
and blasphemies to which they were subjected in the Yankee schools.
It took seventy years, but the Irish eventually
got their way. By force of numbers, and through astute political
activism, they took over city government and established, if not
public support of parochial schools, then at lest parochial control
of public schools. But the Irish gained control of the city just
as Boston entered a long period of economic decline. The quality
of education also declined as, from the Curley years on, education
took a back seat to patronage in the distribution of resources
to the public schools.
The system so well portrayed in Village School
Downtown and Death at an Early Age need not be described
here. At least at first, blacks suffered under it less because
of their race than because they lacked political influence. Indeed,
though the period of Nouveau Jim Crow in Boston, a few blacks
with political power enjoyed the best the school system had to
offer. These persons, most of them descendents of the black Republican
old guard, were educated at Harvard or other Ivy colleges. A few
were even hired as teachers, librarians, and administrators in
the Boston schools.
But the school system was less kind to the mass
of blacks, particularly after the city's growing clack population
began to concentrate in Roxbury in the 1940s. Predominantly black
schools were at the end of the serving line for the city's educational
resources. Their facilities were old and ill-repaired; their textbooks
were hand-me-downs; and their teachers, most of them white, were
often demonstrably unqualified.
By 1960, when blacks launched their protests against
segregation in Boston, the black population, bolstered by successive
waves of migration from the South and the Islands, had grown to
10 percent of the city's total. Although this was enough to claim
a seat or two in the state legislature, blacks still lacked the
numbers to gain elective office in city government, and were thus
powerless to affect public school policy.
Finally, in 1965, 110 years after it had first
outlawed segregated schools, the Massachusetts legislature passed
the Racial Imbalance Act to address the problem of separate and
unequal public education in Boston. But, because clacks lacked
the political power to enforce the law, and because the city and
state officials who had the clout lacked the guts, Louise Day
Hicks, Thomas Eisenstadt, John Kerrigan, et. al.,
were allowed to lead the city in a futile, sometimes farcical,
and always tragic defiance of both the state law and the United
When, in 1972, Boston blacks turned to the Federal
court as their last resort, Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr., lent
them the protection of his court. Yet, from the moment Garrity
issued his desegregation order in 1974, it was clear that unless
the court placed the entire Boston school system in a permanent
receivershipwhich no court has ever done in the history
of desegregation litigationits protection could not last
very long. And so, although Garrity has implemented a number of
important reforms in the school system, his most significant contribution
may have been to buy time during which Boston's growing black
population could build its political strength and begin to look
out for its own interests in public education.
Blacks have, to some extent, made use of this
opportunity. They have, through court-mandated affirmative action,
developed a significant infrastructure in the school department
for he first time. In 1972, at a time when blacks constituted
31.7 percent of the public school enrollment, only 231, or 5.4
percent, of the 4,243 permanent teachers were black. By 1980,
as a result of Garrity's order, blacks comprised 17.7 percent
of the teachers and administrators in the system.
This was only a modest achievement, since blacks
now represent 45.8 percent of the public school enrollment. But
in electoral politics, the record has been even less encouraging.
The election of John O'Bryant, a black, to the School Committee,
first in 1977 and again in 1979, was am historic accomplishment.
Yet it stands in naked contrast to the train of defeats suffered
by other black politicians in Boston. Since 1974, when busing
began, black candidates have been defeated for United States senator,
mayor, city council (a post Tom Atkins held in the late 1960s)
and (save O'Bryant) school committee. Moreover, as a result of
redistricting, there are also two fewer black legislators from
Boston than there were in 1974.
Equally discouraging has been the increased isolation
and ineffectiveness of the few remaining black elected officials.
The resignation of State Senator William Owens, the highest elected
black official in the state, first from his seat on the Ways and
Means Committee and then from the Democratic party because, as
he said, his views were not being taken seriously, indicates the
extent of black political powerlessness.
It is fashionable to blame this lack of power
on Boston's at-large voting system. To be sure, at-large voting
dilutes the political strength of clacks, but the real problem
in this city is that blacks are neither registering nor voting
in force. According to the 1980 census, blacks comprise more than
22 percent of the city's population (a figure that even census
officials admit is an underestimate); yet, in recent elections,
blacks have accounted for fewer than 10 percent of the votes cast.
At a time when national civil-rights organizations
are clamoring for an extension of the Voting Right Act to ensure
the franchise to blacks in the South, the black turn-out in Boston,
where blacks have enjoyed and unfettered franchise longer than
anywhere else, is frankly embarrassing. At a time when judge Garrity
is preparing to terminate the court's active role in the Boston
case and when budget cutbacks and large scale lay-offs are threatening
to diminish the quality of public instruction, the political apathy
and disorganization rampant among blacks are an invitation to
The problem is not peculiar to Boston. Apathy
and political disorganization are commonplace among blacks across
the country, especially in the North. But several factors make
the problem particularly severe in Boston. One is the ambivalent
hospitality the Massachusetts Democratic party has traditionally
offered blacks. Another, perhaps more important, is the unfortunate
tendency of Boston's blacks to wait for whites to provide for
themeither though government grants, private philanthropy,
or petty patronagewith the means to organize themselves.
Moreover, the troubles in the school system are
adding to the problem by prompting members of Boston's small but
growing black middle class to leave the city, taking with them
expertise, energy and money that might otherwise help build the
independent power base blacks so sorely need to develop. And,
of course, the increasingly poor students left behindmore
than 40 percent of whom come from families receiving some form
of public assistancewill suffer from the current turmoil
and grow into a generation of adults who, politically and economically,
are unprepared to compete in this highly competitive society.
How then, should Boston's blacks consolidate power
and prepare for the departure of Garrity's court? Not much can
be done in the short term to remedy the unresponsiveness of the
Bay State's Democratic party. Indeed, what hope can one have for
a "liberal" institution that has never nominated a woman, a black,
or a Jew for state-wide office?
But there is much to be done about the disorganization
and apathy among blacks in Boston. First of all, we can prepare
for this fall's municipal election in which three black candidatesJohn
O'Bryant and Jean McGuire for the School Committee and Bruce Bolling
for the City Councilhave a decent chance to win if blacks
vote in force. Then, we can prepare now for Congressional and
state election in 1982 and the mayoral election in 1983.
Each of these elections, like corresponding contests
around the country, is of special importance to the future of
urban education, especially for blacks. For as Reaganomics supercede
the New Deal and as initiatives like Proposition Two and a Half
cut into state government expenditures, the constituency for urban
public education will have to struggle mightily to keep its present
resources from being expropriated for other usesan MX missile,
a CIA man in El Salvador, or a tax break for a shopping mall in
Costa Mesa or Boca Raton.
If blacks in Boston and elsewhere are not willing
to do the political groundwork to organize into a political force
commensurate with our numbers and needs, we will deserve the political
consequences of our failure. But our children, in the crumbling
public schools of urban America, won't. They'll never know what
hit them or why.