History of African Americans in Boston
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Until 1950, African Americans were a small but historically important minority in Boston, where the population was majority white. Since then, Boston's demographics have changed due to factors such as immigration, white flight, and gentrification. According to census information for 2010–2014, an estimated 180,657 people in Boston (28.2% of Boston's population) are Black/African American, either alone or in combination with another race. Despite being in the minority, and despite having faced housing, educational, and other discrimination, African Americans in Boston have made significant contributions in the arts, politics, and business since colonial times.
In 1638, a number of African Americans arrived in Boston as slaves on the ship Desiré from New Providence Island in the Bahamas. They were the first black people in Boston on record; others may have arrived earlier.
The first black landowner in Boston was Bostian Ken, who purchased a house and four acres in Dorchester in 1656. (Dorchester was annexed to Boston in 1870). A former slave, Ken bought his own freedom, but was not necessarily a freeman with the right to vote. For humanitarian reasons he mortgaged his house and land to free another slave, making him technically the first African American to "purchase" a slave. Zipporah Potter Atkins bought land in 1670, on the edge of what is now the North End.
A small community of free African Americans lived at the base of Copp's Hill from the 17th to the 19th century. Members of this community were buried in the Copp's Hill Burying Ground, where a few remaining headstones can still be seen today. The community was served by the First Baptist Church. In 1720, an estimated 2,000 African Americans lived in Boston.
In 1767, the 15-year-old Phillis Wheatley published her first poem, "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin", in the Newport Mercury. It was the first poem published in the Colonies by an African American. Wheatley was a slave from Senegal who lived in the home of Susanna Wheatley on King Street. Wheatley is featured, along with Abigail Adams and Lucy Stone, in the Boston Women's Memorial, a 2003 sculpture on Commonwealth Avenue.
The first casualty of the American Revolutionary War was a man of African and Wampanoag descent, Crispus Attucks, who was killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770. Historians disagree on whether Attucks was a free man or an escaped slave. Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1781, mostly out of gratitude for black participation in the Revolutionary War. Subsequently, a sizable community of free blacks and escaped slaves developed in Boston.
Black Bostonians who fought in the Revolutionary War include Primus Hall, Barzillai Lew, and George Middleton, among others. The Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown marks the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which a number of African Americans fought, including Peter Salem, Salem Poor, and Seymour Burr.
Boston was a hotbed of the abolitionist movement. In the 19th century, many African-American abolitionists lived in the West End and on the north slope of Beacon Hill, including John P. Coburn, Lewis Hayden, David Walker, and Eliza Ann Gardner (see Notable African Americans from Boston). Boston was home to several abolitionist organizations such as the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, whose lecturers included Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, and the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, whose members included the noted author Susan Paul. Abolitionists held meetings in the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill. The Twelfth Baptist Church, led by abolitionist Rev. Leonard Grimes, was also known as "The Fugitive Slave Church."
Several slave rescue riots took place in Boston. In 1836, Eliza Small and Polly Ann Bates, two escaped slaves from Baltimore, were arrested in Boston and brought before Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw. The judge ordered them freed because of a problem with the arrest warrant. When the agent for the slaveholder requested a new warrant, a group of spectators rioted in the courtroom and rescued Small and Bates.[note 1] Controversy over the fate of George Latimer led to the passage of the 1843 Liberty Act, which prohibited the arrest of fugitive slaves in Massachusetts. Abolitionists rose to the defense of Ellen and William Craft in 1850, Shadrach Minkins in 1851, and Anthony Burns in 1854. An attempt to rescue Thomas Sims in 1852 was unsuccessful.
Several white Bostonians, such as William Lloyd Garrison (founder of the Liberator and a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee), were active in the abolitionist movement. Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts senator who in 1856 was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor by a Southerner for condemning slavery, was from Boston.
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was one of the first official African-American units in the United States during the Civil War. Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists recruited soldiers for the 54th regiment at the African Meeting House. One member of the regiment was Sergeant William H. Carney, who won the Medal of Honor for his gallantry during the Battle of Fort Wagner. Carney's face is shown on the monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th on the Boston Common. The regiment trained at Camp Meigs in Readville.
Boston's Black Heritage Trail stops at the African Meeting House and other sites on Beacon Hill pertinent to black history before the Civil War. The Boston Women's Heritage Trail also celebrates women from this period such as Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African-American woman physician, the poet Phyllis Wheatley, and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who was a frequent visitor to Boston. Harriet Tubman Park, at Columbus Avenue and Pembroke Street, features a memorial sculpture by Fern Cunningham.
Late 19th century
After the Civil War, the West End continued to be an important center of African-American culture. It was one of the few locations in the United States at the time where African Americans had a political voice. At least one black resident from the West End sat on Boston's community council during every year between 1876 and 1895.
The Boston Police Department appointed Horatio J. Homer, its first African-American officer, in 1878. Sgt. Homer spent 40 years on the police force. A plaque in his honor hangs at the Area B-2 police precinct in Roxbury.
In 1895, the First National Conference of the Colored Women of America was held in Boston.
Early 20th century
Political writers and activists such as William Monroe Trotter, William Henry Lewis, William H. Ferris, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Angelina Weld Grimké, Maria Louise Baldwin, and George Washington Forbes extended Boston's tradition of black activism into the 20th century. Boston by that time had an educated black elite—sometimes referred to as Black Brahmins, after the Boston Brahmins—who laid a social and political foundation for insistence on racial equality. Ruffin, who was a suffragist as well as a civil rights leader, edited the Woman's Era, the first newspaper published by and for African-American women. She also founded the Woman's Era Club, the first club for African American women in Boston.
In theater, Ralf Coleman's Negro Repertory Theater earned him the unofficial title of "Dean of Boston Black Theater". In dance, Stanley E. Brown, Mildred Davenport, and Jimmy Slyde earned national acclaim. In the visual arts, Allan Crite was one of the most influential painters in Boston.
In literature, the Colored American, one of the first magazines aimed at African Americans, was originally published in Boston before moving to New York in 1904; Cambridge-born Pauline Hopkins wrote for the magazine and was its editor from 1902 to 1904. William Stanley Braithwaite's annual Anthology of Magazine Verse, which ran from 1913 to 1929, influenced American taste in poetry.
The Saturday Evening Quill Club was a black literary group organized by Boston Post editor and columnist Eugene Gordon in 1925. Among its members were the writers Pauline Hopkins, Dorothy West, and Florida Ruffin Ridley. The Saturday Evening Quill, the group's annual journal, published the work of African-American women, including the Boston-born poet Helene Johnson and artist Lois Mailou Jones, and attracted the interest of writers in New York. Another noted Boston writer of Johnson's generation was the poet William Waring Cuney, whose 1926 poem "No Images" was later used by jazz artist Nina Simone on her 1966 album Let It All Out.
In 1900, Booker T. Washington founded the National Negro Business League in Boston. Its mission was "to bring the colored people who are engaged in business together for consultation, and to secure information and inspiration from each other". In 1910, David E. Crawford opened the Eureka Co-Operative Bank in Boston; it was referred to as "the only bank in the East owned and operated by 'Colored People'."
In the first half of the 20th century, Boston's black community diversified considerably due to an influx of immigrants from the West Indies and Cape Verde as well as the American South and West (including Malcolm X). In the 1920s the community began expanding from the South End into Roxbury. Social workers Otto P. Snowden and Muriel S. Snowden founded Freedom House in Roxbury in 1949.
"Although popular and scholarly attention has been paid to the struggle for equality in other parts of the country during the twentieth century, Boston's civil rights history has largely been ignored", according to organizers of a symposium at the Kennedy Library in 2006. Although Boston's civil rights movement is usually associated with the busing controversy of the 1970s and 1980s, Bostonians such as Melnea Cass and James Breeden were active in the civil rights movement before then. In 1963, 8,000 people marched through Roxbury to protest "de facto segregation" in Boston's public schools. In April 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., led a march from Roxbury to Boston Common to protest school segregation. That June, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Racial Imbalance Act, which ordered the state's public schools to desegregate.
On April 5, 1968, hoping to ease racial tensions following King's assassination, Mayor Kevin White asked James Brown not to cancel a scheduled concert at Boston Garden. He persuaded WGBH-TV to televise the concert so that people would stay home to watch it. The next day, nearly 5,000 people attended a rally organized by the Black United Front in White Stadium. Protesters presented a list of demands that included "the transfer of the ownership of ... [white-owned] businesses to the black community, ... every school in the black community shall have all-black staff ... [and] control of all public, private, and municipal agencies that affect the lives of the people in this community."
We may voice our outrage at certain kinds of violence. We may implement some type of gun-control legislation, but until we confront ourselves, examine and readjust our priorities, make a firm commitment to change, and act on that commitment, we are deceiving ourselves and perpetuating a system which will lead to the ultimate form of violence—the destruction of society.
That September, 500 African-American students walked out of school after a student was sent home from English High School for wearing a dashiki. Later that year, Mel King and the New Urban League protested at a United Way luncheon, charging that Boston's African-American community was receiving only "crumbs".
The desegregation of Boston public schools (1974–1988) was a period in which the Boston Public Schools were under court control to desegregate through a system of busing students. The call for desegregation and the first years of its implementation led to a series of racial protests and riots that brought national attention, particularly from 1974 to 1976. In response to the Massachusetts legislature's enactment of the 1965 Racial Imbalance Act, which ordered the state's public schools to desegregate, W. Arthur Garrity Jr. of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts laid out a plan for compulsory busing of students between predominantly white and black areas of the city. The court control of the desegregation plan lasted for over a decade. It influenced Boston politics and contributed to demographic shifts of Boston's school-age population, leading to a decline of public-school enrollment and white flight to the suburbs. Full control of the desegregation plan was transferred to the Boston School Committee in 1988; in 2013 the busing system was replaced by one with dramatically reduced busing.
In 1968, WGBH-TV began airing Say Brother (later renamed Basic Black), Boston's longest running public affairs program produced by, for and about African Americans. In 1972, Sheridan Broadcasting purchased the WILD (AM) radio station, making it the only urban, contemporary music radio station in the country owned and operated by a black-owned company.
Rabbi Gerald Zelermyer of Mattapan was attacked on June 27, 1969, by two black youths who came to his door, handed him a note telling him to "lead the Jewish racists out of Mattapan" and threw acid in his face. He was severely burned but not permanently disfigured. Two Mattapan synagogues were burned down by arsonists in 1970. By 1980, nearly all of the Jews who had lived on Blue Hill Avenue had relocated.
The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts gave its first annual performance of the Black Nativity at the school in 1970. It has been performed at various venues since then, including the Boston Opera House. Its new home is the Paramount Theatre.
From 1974 to 1980, the Combahee River Collective, a political organizing group largely composed of Black lesbian socialists, met in Boston and nearby suburbs.  The Collective is perhaps best remembered for developing the Combahee River Collective Statement, a foundational text for identity politics and an important Black feminist text.
In 1978, the Boston branch of the NAACP successfully sued the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development for allowing the Boston Housing Authority to discriminate based on race. Housing discrimination in Boston remained an issue; in 1989 the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston reported that residents of Boston's black neighborhoods were less likely to receive home mortgages than residents of white neighborhoods, "even after taking into account economic and nonracial characteristics that could be responsible for differences between these neighborhoods".
As a gesture of protest over inadequate city services, a group of activists obtained enough signatures to put a non-binding referendum on the November 1986 ballot, proposing that the predominantly black neighborhoods of Boston secede and create a new city called Mandela. Voters in those neighborhoods rejected the proposal by a 3-to-1 margin.
In 1989, Charles Stuart murdered his pregnant wife to collect life insurance and told Boston police she had been killed by a black gunman. The case exacerbated racial tensions in Boston for a time.
George Walker's Lilacs, for Voice and Orchestra was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1996 with Seiji Ozawa conducting. The piece earned Walker a Pulitzer Prize for Music, making him the first African-American composer to be awarded the prize.
According to census information for 2010–2014, an estimated 180,657 people in Boston (28.2% of Boston's population) are Black/African American, either alone or in combination with another race. 160,342 (25.1% of Boston's population) are Black/African American alone. 14,763 (2.3% of Boston's population) are White and Black/African American. 943 (.1% of Boston's population) are Black/African American and American Indian/Alaska Native.
|Number||% of Boston population|
|Black/African American alone||160,342||25.1%|
|Black/African American and White||14,763||2.3%|
|Black/African American and American Indian/Alaska Native||943||.1%|
According to the same report, an estimated 145,112 people in Boston are Black/African American and not Hispanic.
Notable African Americans
Early 20th century
Many notable African Americans who grew up elsewhere have come to Boston to pursue higher education and career opportunities. For example, Quincy Jones and Esperanza Spalding studied music at Berklee College of Music. The pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller studied at Boston University School of Medicine. Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has graduated many notable African Americans, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
- Different historians describe the rioters differently. According to Jim Vrabel (2004), it was a group of "African-American and white women". In "The 'Abolition Riot': Boston's First Slave Rescue" (1952), Leonard Levy describes them as "Men and women, both white and colored". Other sources refer to a group of "black women". According to Jack Tager, most slave rescue riots were initiated by African Americans prior to 1850, and by white abolitionists after 1850.
- Hayden, Robert C. (1992). African-Americans in Boston: More than 350 Years. Trustees of the Boston Public Library. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-89073-083-6.
- Vrabel, Jim (2004). When in Boston: A Time Line & Almanac. Northeastern University Press. p. 23. ISBN 9781555536213.
- Walker, Juliet E. K. (2009). The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship, Volume 1. UNC Press Books. p. 48. ISBN 9780807832417.
- Alex R. Goldfeld (2009). The North End: A Brief History of Boston's Oldest Neighborhood. Charleston, SC: History Press. OCLC 318292902.
- Vrabel (2004), p. 47
- Vrabel (2004), p. 66
- Vrabel (2004), pp. 76-77
- "African American Firsts." African American Almanac. Gale. 2008. Retrieved March 04, 2016 from HighBeam Research
- "African American Churches of Beacon Hill". National Park Service.
- Tager, Jack (2001). "Fugitive Slave Riots". Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence. UPNE. pp. 93–103. ISBN 9781555534615.
- Vrabel (2004), pp. 131-132
- Carney, William Harvey. "William Harvey Carney (1840 - 1908)". The Center for African American Genealogical Research, Inc. Archived from the original on 29 April 2017. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
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- "Step on Board / Harriet Tubman Memorial". Boston Art Commission.
- O'Connor, Thomas H., The Hub: Boston Past and Present, Northeastern University Press Boston, 2001. Page 231. ISBN 1-55553-474-0
- Rosso, Patrick D. (January 4, 2013). "For Sergeant Horatio J. Homer, Boston's first black officer, growing tributes". The Boston Globe.
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- "Josephine Ruffin, Activist, Philanthropist and Newspaper Publisher". African American Registry.
- Sierra, Susan J.; Jones, Adrienne Lash (1996). "Eliza Ann Gardner". In Smith, Jessie Carney (ed.). Notable Black American Women. 2. New York: Gale Research. pp. 240. ISBN 9780810391772.
- Mitchell, Verner; Davis, Cynthia (2011). Literary Sisters: Dorothy West and Her Circle, A Biography of the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers University Press. pp. 85, 89–90. ISBN 9780813552132.
- Vrabel (2004), pp. 239, 258
- "Muriel Snowden, 72, Pioneer in Integration". The New York Times. October 3, 1988.
- "Remembering and Honoring the Boston Civil Rights Movement". Tufts University.
- Wolff, Jeremy. "A Timeline of Boston School Desegregation, 1961-1985 With Emphasis on 1964-1976" (PDF). Racial Equity Library.
- Oyama, David I. (September 23, 1963). "8000 Marchers in Roxbury Protest Segregation in City's Public Schools". Harvard Crimson.
- Hayden (1992), p. 42
- Vrabel (2004), pp. 335-336
- Eure, Dexter D. (December 30, 1969). "Play Along Or Else". The Boston Globe.
- Vrabel (2004), pp. 336-337
- Seelye, Katherine (March 14, 2013). "Boston Schools Drop Last Remnant of Forced Busing". The New York Times.
- Vrabel (2004), pp. 312, 336
- Vrabel (2004), 337
- Lebovic, Matt (November 23, 2014). "What happened to the Jews of Boston's 'Jew' Hill Avenue?". The Times of Israel.
- Vrabel (2004), p. 340
- "In 44th Year, 'Black Nativity' Finds New Home In Boston's Theater District". WBUR. December 5, 2014.
- "Duchess Harris. Interview with Barbara Smith". Archived from the original on 2008-03-15. Retrieved 2008-03-26.
- The full text of the Combahee River Collective Statement is available here.
- Hawkesworth, M. E.; Maurice Kogan. Encyclopedia of Government and Politics, 2nd edn Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-415-27623-3, p. 577.
- Sigerman, Harriet. The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941, Columbia University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-231-11698-5, p. 316.
- Vrabel (2004), pp. 350-351
- Marantz, Steve (September 1, 1989). "Study Finds Racial Pattern in Lending Inequities Cited for City's Blacks". The Boston Globe.
- Vrabel (2004), p. 361
- Schlacter, Barry (September 7, 1986). "Irate Blacks Pushing for Secession in Boston". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press.
- "A BOSTON TRAGEDY: THE STUART CASE - A SPECIAL CASE; Motive Remains a Mystery In Deaths That Haunt a City". The New York Times. January 15, 1990.
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- "ACS DEMOGRAPHIC AND HOUSING ESTIMATES: 2010-2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates". U.S. Census Bureau. Archived from the original on 2020-02-13. Retrieved 2016-03-08.
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- "Airfoil / Captain David Ramsay Memorial". Boston Art Commission.
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- Forsberg, Chris (November 2013). "Bill Russell's statue unveiled". ESPN.
- Vrabel (2004), p. 360
- Beshara, Christopher J. (October 9, 2009). "The Hidden History of Black Militant Abolitionism in Antebellum Boston". University of Sydney. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2101496. Cite journal requires
- Cromwell, Adelaide (1994). The Other Brahmins: Boston's Black Upper Class, 1750-1950. University of Arkansas Press. ISBN 9781557283016.
- Hayden, Robert C. (1992). African Americans in Boston: More Than Three Hundred Fifty Years. Boston Public Library. ISBN 9780890730836.
- Johnson, Violet M. (2006). The Other Black Bostonians: West Indians in Boston, 1900-1950. Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253112385.
- Levy, Leonard W. (1952). "The 'Abolition Riot': Boston's First Slave Rescue". The New England Quarterly. 25 (1): 85–92. doi:10.2307/363035. JSTOR 363035.
- Sichel, Kim (1994). Black Boston: Documentary Photography and the African American Experience. Boston University Art Gallery. ISBN 9781881450030.
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