Politics for blacks in Boston
has been a frustrating search for power and participation,
but also a story of achievement, dignity and self-development.
Black Bostonians demonstrated
political sophistication and flexibility throughout
the twentieth century, many working first with the
Republican party-- remembered by African Americans
as the party of Abraham Lincoln, while others made
common cause with the Democratic party.
According to Hubert E. Jones,
“[t]he history of
black politics in Boston is [also] the story
of determination and resiliency in the face of
overwhelming odds created by an electoral system
fraught with racism. ”
William Henry Lewis (1868-1949),
a friend of William Monroe Trotter and like him,
a Harvard graduate, was the first African American
to win election to the State House in the twentieth
century. Lawrence Banks won a seat in 1902.
In the first fifty years of
the twentieth century there were numerous attempts
by blacks to gain electoral representation.
Many sought political patronage controlled by the
According to James Jennings, in 1901, Boston’s
Ward 18, a bastion of black Republican voters, supported
the Democratic nominee for mayor because of dissatisfaction
with the Republicans. They also supported John F.
Fitzgerald as Democratic nominee for mayor in 1905
and 1907 because of his pro-black platform.
Leaders such as William Monroe Trotter urged blacks
(then called “Negroes”) to vote in an
independent bloc in order to decide the outcome
of congressional elections. They also won an increasing
number of appointments to public positions.
In 1925 Julian D. Rainey
became the first person of color to be appointed
to the faculty of a leading law school, Suffolk
Law. In the same year he ran for City Council and
finished a close second.
In the 1940s many blacks supported
the wildly popular (and populist) mayor James Michael
In a 1942 interview Curley stated that
“The Negro vote is
important in Boston in city elections. . . Invariably
elections are settled by less than 10,000 votes.
So, in a sense, they have the balance of power.
. . ”
In the 1940 gubernatorial election
of Leverett Saltonstall the Blacks provided the
governor with his margin of victory.
In 1946 for the first time in the twentieth century,
a black man was elected to the state legislature:
Lawrence Banks became the state representative
for Ward 9 in Roxbury.
Between the 1900s and 1940s,
black Bostonians held protests around such issues
as the showing of racist films, most famously “Birth
of a Nation” and Walt Disney’s “Song
of the South.”
William Worthy, Jr.,
the black Bostonian journalist, has identified the
League of Women for Community Service in the South
End as another place of political activism.
He states that the tradition-bound elegance of these
early twentieth century ladies and the ceremoniousness
of their meetings did not mean they weren’t
“When I grew up, the
format for [League] meetings was usually the
same: the singing with gusto of “The Negro
National Anthem” after an opening prayer
by a minister; fiery speeches and the adoption
of resolutions; and a closing with tea in the
adjacent salon where a sideboard with imposing
carvings would be covered with home-baked cakes
and sandwiches. For [a long time] this was Boston’s
protest style par excellence. . .Genteel? Yes.
Sell-out and phony dilettantism? Most definitely
From their clubhouse at 558
Massachusetts Avenue the women repaired directly
to the site of the political the day’s political
demonstration-- on behalf of school quality, unemployment,
playground facilities, better housing, and equal