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he history of black Boston is one of contradictions. While on the one hand the city beckoned as a place of opportunity and freedom, it also worked in subtle ways to place housing, jobs, and access out of reach for black people.
The population shifts of Black Bostonians which culminated in the early twentieth century with a concentration in the South End and Roxbury mirror this struggle, reflecting the disadvantages attendant upon belonging to what the NAACP’s Crisis magazine called “the darker races.”
Nonetheless, a vibrant community of African Americans emerged, building its own social and commercial networks, charitable institutions, and spiritual life.
Up until post-World War II, it was small, consituting but 2.2% of the population in 1920, 2.6% in 1930, and 3.1% in 1940.

hen Malcolm Little, later to become Malcolm X, arrived from the mid-West in July of 1940, to stay with his sister Ella, he was dazzled by what he found, though he failed to perceive the idiosyncracies of black Bostonian life in a wholly positive way:

“[In]the Waumbeck and Humboldt Avenue Hill Section of Roxbury, which is something like Harlem’s Sugar Hill, where I’d later live. . .I saw those Roxbury Negroes acting and living differently from any black people I’d ever dreamed of in my life. This was the snooty-black neighborhood; they called themselves the “Four Hundred,” and looked down their noses at the Negroes of the black ghetto, or so called ‘town’ section where Mary, my other half-sister lived.”

The African Americans whom Malcolm saw, dressed to the nines, “prided themselves on being incomparably more ‘cultured,’ ‘cultivated,’ ‘dignified’ and better off than their black brethren down in the ghetto, which was no further away than you could throw a rock”. The way these individuals accommodated to the mainstream culture, the way they carried themselves, spoke and lived was less a pretense than an expression of their acculturation as New Englanders and Bostonians of African origin. Such behavior is a significant aspect of Black Boston’s “geographies of experience,” difficult to document, yet part of common knowledge within the community.

Despite fierce discrimination in higher education and professional schools, and while the more frequent occupations listed in the 1930 U.S. Census for men were barbers, bootblacks, elevator tenders, auto mechanics, building tradesmen, iron and steel workers, and chauffeurs or truck drivers, and for women, servants, dressmakers, seamstress and “other industries,” early twentieth century Black Boston had its professionals.
The 1930 Census count of male professional includes twenty-three dentists, twenty-four lawyers, judges and justices, and twenty-nine physicians and surgeons.
The same year reveals few women professionals, including sixteen “actresses and show women,” six artists, sculptors, and teachers of art, thirty-six musicians and teachers of music, forty school teachers, and seventeen trained nurses.

It is ironic that the “Athens of America,” which attracted so many black people to migrate to the city, had few if any professors at Boston colleges or universities.