visitors to the city of Boston soon discover that
"the birthplace of freedom" holds fast
to its time-honored titles: "Hub of the Universe,"
"Athens of America," "Cradle of Liberty"
and other proud epithets.
Boston's reputation as a city rich in colonial,
abolitionist and progressive history is marked on
city monuments, tombstones and signs that trace
the path of The Freedom Trail. These
monuments, material testimonies to the achievements
of the founders and tangible manifestations of city
pride, parallel the narratives of school textbooks
as well as the promotional literature of state tourism.
In this way, Boston's reputation as a place where
"the Cabots [spoke] only to God" precedes
the experience of visiting the city, as does, paradoxically,
the taint of racial conflict that followed upon
court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s.
It is often forgotten that the presence of African-Americans
in Boston has been integral to the city's evolution
for over three hundred fifty years, since the first
Africans arrived in February of 1638.
Perhaps the best known tribute to African Americans
in Boston is the imposing Robert Gould Shaw Memorial
Auguste St. Gaudens' brass relief that stands on
the Boston Common just opposite the gold-domed State
House. The monument honors the heroic role of black
U.S. 54th Regiment during the Civil War. The work
shows these men and their commanding officer, Robert
Gould Shaw, marching toward their fateful engagement
at the battlefield at Fort Wagner, South Carolina.
The monument is an emblem of the of three and a
half century span during which black Americans have
built community, served the nation, and resisted
An earlier commemoration came on March 5, 1858,
when black abolitionists in Boston, including William
C. Nell and Lewis Hayden, inaugurated a Crispus
Attucks Day, honoring the "molato" fugitive
slave killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770. This
man, a slave killed by two British bullets to the
chest, was the first to die for the colony that
In the twentieth century, black sculptor
Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, who lived outside
of Boston in the town of Framingham, created sculptures
relating to African American history. In a small
park located on Boston's Tremont Street stands
"Emancipation," which features a black man and
woman joining hands to emerge from the morass of
slavery into the world of freedom. Created in the
1930s, the sculpture was not cast until 1999.
In the same tiny park on Tremont Street stands
the Harriet Tubman Monument:
nine foot tall bronze statue of the famous Underground
Railroad leader sculpted by Boston artist Fern
Black people, in the words of Harriet Beecher
"a nation which did not acknowledge them
as citizens and equals. . .It was not for their
own land they fought, nor even for a land which
had adopted them, but for a land which had enslaved
them, and whose laws, even in freedom, oftener
oppressed than protected. Bravery, under such
circumstances, has a peculiar beauty and merit."
The figure of A. Phillip Randolph, labor
organizer, now graces the lobby of Boston's Back
Bay train station, another significant sign of the
city's efforts toward integration of African-Americans
to its monuments and places of memory.
While the African-American heroes of Independence,
Abolitionism and the Civil War have garnered public
recognition, the historical experience of the majority
of black Bostonians is as yet untold. Neither scholarly
tomes nor historical markers have addressed in depth
the intriguing struggle of Black Boston's development
beyond the struggle for Abolition. One might speculate
that the lack of narratives reflect the halt to
interracial progress and the hardening of the color
line that characterize the early decades of the
The ironic distance between the textbook term "progressive
era" and the real experience of African Americans
also occasions silence rather than commemoration.
Even if we consider that the Great Depression pre-empted
the spotlight, the lack of written history on Black
Bostonians who lived in the first half of the twentieth
century is peculiar.
Primary sources detailing life in Boston during
the early twentieth century are hard to come by,
in contrast with a relative abundance dealing with
the previous decades. Boston's official histories
and popular accounts of black participation remain
focused on Abolitionism, while black life during
the ensuing decades remains oddly invisible.
hat Boston's Black residents had developed a distinctive
community dynamic became evident at the height of
black Abolitionist activism, as its leaders worked
in concert with like-minded white people. Perhaps
such a pattern of activism and of interracial collaboration
indicates ways in which black society in Boston,
even prior to the twentieth century, thought of
itself as different from its counterparts in other
Northern cities such as Philadelphia.
Black Bostonians identified with and took pride
in their city's history. One manifestation of this
identification is testimony that in their speech
patterns Black Bostonians "sounded" like
white Bostonians. Early on, there emerged "a
new hyphenated identity: the southern-black Bostonian,"
a blend of "slave culture, black religious
style, and the Protestant ethic. But there were
other ethnic strands as well, founded by immigration
from Nova Scotia and the West Indies.
Throughout all this time, however, black Americans
were subjected to harsh restrictions, including
separate seating in white churches, lecture halls
and places of entertainment. These conditions, though
ameliorated, did not entirely disappear with Abolition
nor in the pre- and post-World War I era. Rather,
they have hovered, shadow-like, over the body politic
well into the twentieth century. Though confronted
with large obstacles, black society could and did
develop its own viable organizations, communication
networks, social services, and creative cultural
n discussions of the early twentieth century period
that forms the focus of this study demographic questions
arise. To study Boston in a period that coincides
with New York's "New Negro" or "Harlem
Renaissance" necessitates a comparison of the
ethnic traits of Boston and New York.
In regard to the size of the African-American community
in Boston, historian Robert C. Hayden makes
the point that
"throughout the entire period from the Civil
War to World War I, Boston had as large a proportion
of African-American residents as New York, Chicago,
Detroit, and Cleveland; the black population
represented 1.4 percent in 1870 and 2.2 percent
in 1920. "
But in absolute numbers this population has been
small, as compared with the white majority. As the
century began, a total of 11,591 "Negroes"
lived in the city, comprising about 1.8% of Bostonians.
Even after doubling in size over thirty years, they
numbered only 23,000. They constituted but 2.2 percent
of the total population in 1920, while nationally
black people comprised 9.9 percent. New York, while
showing almost the same low percentage as Boston
(2.7% in 1920 ), numerically outstripped Boston
with nearly ten times the Black population: 152,467
In a study of the 1890-1920 period, historian Mark
Schneider links the smallness of Boston's black
community to its failure to sustain Abolitionist-inspired
militancy. Elsewhere he reasons that Boston's black
community, "small" and "confined
mostly to menial employment" was largely ignored
by city politicians. The resulting marginalization
"would account for the community's activism"
in confronting Jim Crow practices. Schneider argues
that black organizations (Bookerites, Trotterites,
and the NAACP) formed a link "between Boston's
abolitionist past and the civil rights movement
of the 1960s.
On the other hand, Hayden's emphasis on comparing
percentages of the black populations of Boston and
New York leads to an impression of parity.
A focus on real numbers returns us to the issue
of critical mass: was the community substantial
enough to generate political representation as well
as the resources to attain a significant volume
of cultural production? Viewed in this light, the
level and output of a small and discriminated community
looms very large.
It is one of the goals of this study to clarify
the hazy panorama of a crucial era.