March 2008 Issue ē Volume 36 ē Issue 3

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08_meeting.gifLooking Forward to the
2008 ASA Annual Meeting in Boston

Bostonís African American Heritage

by Robert L. Hall, Northeastern University

Boston is home to one of the most important urban black communities in New England, and perhaps the United States. The cityís African American heritage runs long and deep with both the symbolic and actual importance in national black life perhaps beyond proportion to the size of its black population. Below is a brief glimpse of Bostonís African American heritage from colonial times to 1900.

Colonial Times

During colonial times the city was part of a web of economic interdependence that included Africa, the West Indies, Europe, and the British Isles. Bostonís involvement in the Atlantic slave trade dates to at least 1638 when the Salem ship Desire imported several Africans. Given its well-deserved image as a hotbed of abolitionist activism during the 19th century, it may seem ironic to many today that Massachusetts was among the earliest British colonies of North America to recognize slavery legally, doing so in 1641. Prior to Rhode Islandís participation in the slave trade in the 1720s, Massachusetts was the principal carrier of slaves among the New England colonies. Even in the middle of the 18th century, as Rhode Island overtook Massachusetts as the main carrier of slaves, Boston-based vessels collected African captives and delivered their human cargoes to Barbados and other West Indian islands or to southern U.S. colonies.

According to a census conducted in 1754, there were more than 900 slaves over the age of 16 in Boston. By 1755 blacks made up eight percent of the cityís population. One of the most prominent Africans transported to Boston as a slave between 1750 and 1770 was the poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1755-1784) who was probably born in the Senegambia region of West Africa. Also during the 18th century Isaac Royall, a former planter from Antigua settled an estate in Medford where he held as many as 28 slaves. Following Royallís departure as the American Revolution approached (he was not sympathetic to the rebelling colonists), one of his slaves petitioned the Massachusetts General Court successfully for compensation for her unpaid labor. Among contemporaries of the time was Prince Hall, an immigrant from the West Indies, who assisted a group of Boston area slaves to submit a petition for their freedom in 1777. He is best known as a pioneer black mason, founding African Lodge No. 457 in Boston in 1787. The present headquarters of the Prince Hall Lodge are located in the Grove Hall district of the city at the intersection of Washington St. and Blue Hill Ave.

No visit to Boston would be complete without seeing Beacon Hill, especially the northern slope, the geographical center of gravity for Bostonís black residents throughout most of the period from 1800-1864. Although blacks also lived in the North End (later identified with Italian Americans), more than 60 percent of the cityís entire black population in 1860 lived in the West End. The black-related sites located on Beacon Hill include the granary burial ground in which Crispus Attucks and the other four black victims of the Boston Massacre are buried, the African Meeting House, the Smith School, and the relief sculpture honoring the Massachusetts 54th regiment (the all-black Civil War unit depicted in the film Glory). A tour of the Black Heritage Trail highlights these and other sites on Beacon Hill.

Revolution to Civil War

Like New York and Philadelphia, Boston experienced a significant upsurge of black population between the American Revolution and 1820. By 1820, this cityís black population was free and had reached 1,726. Massachusetts blacks in 1820 were three times as likely as Massachusetts whites to live in Boston. From the beginning, Bostonís residents of African descent have come from diverse origins and continue to do so today. Migration has been a persistent theme of black life in Boston, beginning with the forced migration of slaves in the colonial period and followed by the inmigration of liberated blacks from the West Indies and elsewhere. With the demise of slavery in New England, blacks in the region gravitated toward the coastal cities and towns. By 1850, more than 55 percent of the blacks in Boston had been born outside of Massachusetts including nine percent who were foreign-born. By the outbreak of the Civil War, 2,261 blacks lived in Boston, constituting 1.3 percent of the cityís population. In the early 19th century, David Walker, a freedman from North Carolina, migrated to Boston, helped form the Massachusetts General Colored Association in 1826, and in 1829 published the fiery antislavery pamphlet, The Appeal. Another migrant, Peter Randolph, was born a slave in Virginia and moved to Boston in 1847. He became a Baptist minister, published an autobiographical narrative, studied law, and served as a justice of the peace.

The evolution and struggles of black Bostonians during the antebellum period are encapsulated in the story of three generations of the remarkable Roberts family. Robert Roberts worked as a house servant and published The House Servantís Directory: or, A Monitor for Private Families, etc. (1827). His son, Benjamin F. Roberts, made his living as a printer, primarily printing speeches, reports, pamphlets, and other items for antislavery and black organizations. In the 1840s, Benjamin Roberts joined William Cooper Nell and other black Bostonians in protesting the all-black Smith School and his daughter eventually became the lead plaintiff in the unsuccessful school desegregation case filed against the City of Boston (Sarah Roberts v. Boston, 1850). A little over a century before the infamous school busing crisis of the 1970s, Bostonís public officials had no qualms about requiring Sarah Roberts and other black school children to walk past several "neighborhood" schools in order to preserve racially segregated public education. In 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court articulated its infamous "separate but equal" doctrine in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, the decision in the Roberts case was cited as a precedent. Although some Massachusetts towns (such as Salem and New Bedford) had desegregated their public schools before the Roberts decision, it took an act of the state legislature in 1855 to legally desegregate Bostonís schools.

Post-Civil War Period

During the latter half of the 19th century, several breakthroughs in educational attainment and professional training occurred that contributed to occupational diversification among blacks in Boston. Access to higher education for blacks expanded slightly, somewhat increasing their chances of pursuing professional occupations. Although New England colleges such as Middlebury, Bowdoin, and Amherst had awarded bachelorís degrees to African Americans before the Civil War, no blacks had received undergraduate degrees from Harvard College until 1870 (Richard T. Greener). Eight more African Americans went on to complete degrees of one sort or another at Harvard during the remainder of the 19th century, including W.E.B. DuBois.

Following the Civil War, immigration from Europe resumed with renewed vigor as the industrial take-off (partly stimulated by the war) gathered speed. Black immigrants continued to move to New England, with Boston being one of the major ports of entry. But few New England blacks were absorbed into the industrial sector of employment, remaining largely excluded from craft unions. Although she was a Civil War nurse, Susie King Taylor worked as a domestic servant and cook in Boston during the 1870s and 1880s.

Northern black women seeking nurse training confronted racial quotas such as the ones imposed against blacks and Jews at Bostonís New England Hospital for Women and Children whose charter permitted only one black and one Jewish student to be accepted each year. Mary Eliza Mahoney, generally regarded as the first trained black nurse in the United States, received a diploma in nursing from that institution on August 1, 1879.

Into the 20th Century

A significant component of the national Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th century was an effort to advance the welfare of African Americans, particularly those who were beginning to flock to northern cities. Integral to the process of social reform and to the emergence of social work and sociology was the gathering of facts. John Danielsís frequently cited classic, In Freedomís Birthplace: A History of the Boston Negro (1914), was one of a number of landmark studies on race relations published between W.E.B. DuBoisís The Philadelphia Negro (1899) and Frances Blascoerís Colored School Children of New York (1915). Danielsís 1905 article in Charities magazine, "Industrial Conditions Among Negro Men: Boston," was a building block toward his book and an example of the fact-finding thrust of the settlement house movement of the Progressive era. In it he posed and attempted to answer quantitative and qualitative questions that are among the enduring questions examined by social scientists. Noting that there were 11,500 blacks in Boston in 1900, he asked what proportion of black males were gainfully employed and "at what sorts and what grades of work are they employed?Ē"According to the U.S. Census, a higher proportion of Bostonís black males than white males were gainfully employed (76 percent versus 65 percent). But he observed that there was a greater extent of "temporary idleness" because "down at the bottom industrially, they, like they hack-writers of literature, are forced to take whatever they can get." Emphasizing how different types of work were viewed "in the public esteem," Daniels indicated that not less than 73 percent of the 4,510 black males at work in Boston in 1900 worked in "inferior occupations" (bootblacks, janitors, laborers, servants and waiters, porters, etc.). Nevertheless, he felt that there was "a progress upward, into the employments of higher grade, the business proprietorships and the professions."

Looking ahead, the first half of the 20th century would be filled with both challenges and setbacks for black workers in Boston and in New England. There would be the mobilization for two great world wars with a massive economic depression sandwiched in between. The Great Migration of the World War One era brought a black exodus from the South more massive in numbers and social impact than the fugitive slaves and other black Southerners who had moved to New England during the first half of the 19th century. small_green

Robert L. Hall, a social and cultural historian, is the editor of Making a Living: The Work Experience of African Americans in New England: From Colonial Times through 1945 (1995). He is Acting Chair of Northeastern Universityís Department of African-American Studies (with a joint appointment in history) and a member of the faculty of the interdisciplinary doctoral program in Law, Policy, and Society.


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