where's black Boston?
Home Where's Black Boston? Society Visual Artists Writers and Poets Politics Press Church Relevant Links
Boston Black Theater
Search this site
Contact Lorraine Roses


ontemporary 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 Robert Gould Shaw Memorial (Auguste St Gaudens), 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 injustice.

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 became America.

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: Harriet Tubman Memoriala nine foot tall bronze statue of the famous Underground Railroad leader sculpted by Boston artist Fern Cunningham.

Black people, in the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe, served

"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 twentieth century.

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.

t 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 endeavors.

Boston and New York
i 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 residents.

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.