How Black Boston History Acted As My Therapy
"Through it all, what kept my mental health supplanted was the fact that I knew so much black Boston history."
July 17, 2017 at 12:13 pm
When I graduated from Florida A&M University, I wanted a change. I wanted a change in location from the southern college town of Tallahassee, Florida to the historic city of Boston, Massachusetts. I craved a change in weather from a warm climate to a colder one. I also did not want to come back to New York City, where I was born and had many relatives. Boston gave me a time to seek myself out.
My preconceived notions of Boston were like many, that it was an anti-black environment. My FAMU professors were also weary of me going to Boston of all places. One professor told me, “Boy you better watch out up in Boston, they really, really do not like black folks up there.” I did not know the severity of what such a statement meant then.
What initially came to mind for me, in reference to Boston, was New Kids On The Block, New Edition, sports teams and lots of white people. Stereotypically, I also thought of cocky dark-haired white guys rocking Boston Red Sox hats with heavy Boston accents. But hey, I like seeing things for myself and coming to my own realizations in new places.
Before leaving Florida, I looked on the Boston City Council website and began reaching out to black council members via email, and asking them for affordable suggestions on where to move. One of them was very supportive with advice and support in regards to Boston. Yes, I know it was presumptuous of me as a non-Bostonian to ask them, but what was I to do? I was moving to a place I had never been to and knew not a single soul. I was that desperate.
I remember flying into Boston and having an anxiety attack on the plane. I was having anxiety, due to not having a place to live once I touched down in Beantown. I also did not know what to expect at all. But I put on my Mets hat, put on my game face and got into a cab that an East African man drove to my temporary residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts across the Charles River from Boston proper. He briefly talked to me black man to black man about being black in Boston.
On my third full day in the Boston, I finally found an apartment with two other City Year Boston corps members in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. Coincidentally, on the same day we got our apartment, the most helpful Boston City Council member I reached out to offered to let me stay with them until I got on my feet, but I politely declined. I was surprised this person was so helpful to a total stranger.
To show my appreciation to the Boston City Council member in my time of need, I took it upon myself to volunteer for their campaign office. I canvassed Boston’s South End and Lower Roxbury to vote for the Councilor. I also walked in the Boston West Indian Day parade with the Councilor’s campaign. Volunteering with the Councilor’s office was the genesis of my relationship with black Boston.
For instance, I learned exactly where Malcolm X lived in Roxbury. As a young black man that grew up fatherless, I always looked up to Malcolm X as a father figure. In fact, I made a pilgrimage to 72 Dale Street where he lived with his sister, Ella, in the 1940’s.
As I did my research, I also learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in Boston as well. He did so when he was studying at Boston University. He lived in different places around Boston, but the former residence I visited was 397 Massachusetts Avenue, where he lived in the 1950’s. It is located near the Orange Line’s Massachusetts Avenue Station in the South End.
I found out that the South End neighborhood is full of black culture. On the same block where MLK lived, is Wally’s Jazz Café. It came to fruition on January 1, 1947, and is the first black-owned jazz club in New England. It is located at the intercession of Massachusetts Avenue and Columbus Avenue. The South End intersection was thriving with many jazz spots that catered to African Americans in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Another caveat of black Boston history is related to the Boston Massacre. Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of the American Revolution on March 5, 1770. The Boston Massacre site, where he was killed is in front of the Old State House, was the seat of colonial government and is now a museum. There is a marker on the ground that designates where he died for his country right, in front of the building.
I was once meandering through Boston’s Chinatown and randomly came across a historical marker. The marker on the corner of Beach and Tyler Streets let me know a young lady, known later as Phillis Wheatley, was brought to Boston in 1761 from either Senegal or Gambia. Not many know that where Chinatown stands was once a body of water. The area was the first place enslaved Africans came. She later became the first published African-American female poet, penning Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
As a lover of music, I had to pay homage to New Edition. I went to Orchard Park houses in Roxbury. Not many people outside of Boston know that the famed R&B group is from Boston. Come to think about it, you do not really hear too much about black musical acts coming out of the area. Bobby, Ricky, and Mike are from OP, while Ronnie is from Cathedral houses in the South End.
Right next to OP is Melnea Cass Boulevard. I learned about Melnea Cass from older black Bostonians in casual conversation. She was known as the “First Lady of Roxbury.” If she saw you in the street acting like you had no home training, she would read you and let your mama ‘nem know. She did a lot of community work in Boston and was, at one time, the Boston chapter president of the NAACP.
I used the MBTA’s (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority) subway system, to locals known as the “T.” Inside the Back Bay Station of the Orange Line, is a statue of A. Philip Randolph. As a T rider, I came across this statue many times. He is the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He helped them to get better pay and working conditions. It is the first labor organization led by African Americans to receive a charter from the American Federation of Labor. At one time, Pullman Porters were exclusively black men. They worked on railroad cars serving food, helping railroad passengers with luggage, greeting passengers and so forth. The station saw its share of these Pullman Porters. In fact, there is a Pullman Porter House in the South End that was owned by the Pullman Porter Company, where these black men lived.
Another tidbit was my City Year Boston Program Manager, who helped me to get a better understanding of Boston. She is a white woman from the area that saw my interest in Boston’s history and the contributions blacks in Boston had made. She suggested that I go to a Mel King Sunday brunch.
Mel King is a Boston legend, not only to black Bostonians, but to all Bostonians. In 1983 he ran for Mayor of Boston. To this day, Boston has never had a black mayor. He was a key organizer for the Tent City demonstration for Boston. He was also a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the founder and director of the South End Technology Center, which is a resource for those in the South End. One can go on and on with his accolades and achievements. Nonetheless, at his Sunday brunches, he is a very humble person. His brunches connect people from all walks of life to talk social and political issues and try to come up with solutions in Boston, the nation and the world. I not only got to know him, but his family and a diverse array of people at these brunches.
I lived in Boston for four years. I did my first two years as a City Year Boston Corps Member, and my last two years in graduate school at Boston College. The latter two years I dealt with some of the most heinous racism I had ever experienced. I remember being in a Boston pub on New Year’s 2012 and being called “n****r” along with my brother. In those last two years, I was questioned more than other classmates and interns as a Boston College student. I also received the most anti-black microaggressions ever in my life from internships, to a study abroad laboratory, to a few professors. I was even called a monkey at one of my internships and the staff members I worked with turned a blind eye to the ordeal. Boston definitely gave me notable racist experiences.
Through it all, what kept my mental health supplanted was the fact that I knew so much black Boston history. I knew my ancestors before me made it in Boston and persevered. I knew I could talk to Mel King on a Sunday for some guidance. I knew Malcolm X and Martin once called the city home. I eventually moved back to Brooklyn, New York, but knew what I learned in Boston would help me to better understand race and racism in America.