Editor’s note: As part of this week’s National Urban League Conference, UMASS-Boston is scheduled to release its “State of Black Boston 2010 Report.” Sponsored by the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and the Boston branch of the NAACP, the report includes a section on Civic Engagement. Here is an excerpt.
As part of his “Portraits of Purpose²” exhibit now on display at the 2011 Urban League Conference, photographer Don West captures Boston City Councilors Felix Arroyo, Tito Jackson, Charles Yancey and Ayanna Pressley. (Don West photos)
|Michael Curry, the newly elected president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, strikes a pose.|
Of all American cities, Boston remains a bit of a racial anomaly. Framed by two seminal eras — its most noble during the 18th century days of abolition and its lowest during the ugly resistance to school busing in the 1970s — Boston has been home to some of the most outspoken critics of racism and injustice. It has also been home to some of the nation’s most gifted intellects and conspicuous achievers.
It is also now home to Gov. Deval Patrick, one of the few who have been able to effectively connect the aspirations of African Americans with the broader messages of public service and the belief that the purpose of government is to provide a better quality of life for all citizens regardless of whether they are poor, working class or more affluent.
“The public wants us to try some solutions and try working together to get at it,” he said during a 2010 campaign stump. “In that spirit, my door is open to you — all of you. If all you’ve got is the standard list of non-negotiable demands, and you will accept nothing short of your way, let me tell you, just take a number, because that line is long. But if you want to try some big ideas, and to press for a modernized, outward- and upward-looking public policy and politics, then come on in.”
In a sense, Patrick’s campaign was based on the longstanding Puritan vision of Boston serving as “a city upon a hill.” That vision belonged to John Winthrop, the wealthy English Puritan lawyer who led the first wave of migrants from England in 1630 in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop served as governor for 12 of the colony’s first 20 years.
“For this end,” Winthrop wrote in 1630 in his landmark “A Model of Christian Charity, “we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions are own ... always having before our eyes ... our community as members of the same body.
It was a noble goal. But the reality was far different, particularly for African Americans. Historians agree that blacks first came to Massachusetts in 1638, and while their numbers were small, they have continued to steadily increase to this day. In 1680, there were only between 100 and 200, and only 500 by 1708. In 1715, there were 2,000 blacks in a total population of 96,000 residents in Massachusetts.
Though whites had the same derogatory attitudes toward blacks that were common of the day and throughout the other colonies, the political status of blacks was different in Boston, largely because of the Puritans’ profound commitment to the universality of law.
The rights of police protection, legal counsel, trial by jury, fair and considered hearings and impartial justice were applied to all without regard for skin color. That was true even though slavery and indentured servitude were practiced.
The relatively equal application of the law engendered in Boston blacks a spirit of protest that was unusual in America’s history. By the late eighteenth century, black slaves in the Boston area were perfectly free to go to court to petition for manumission.
A landmark case was won by James, a slave of Richard Lechmere of Cambridge, who sued in 1770 on the grounds that he was being illegally held in bondage. Other blacks had rallied in support of James’ claim and had raised money to employ counsel. Many other slaves obtained their freedom by winning court cases that relied on the precedent set in James’ suit.
The colonies were governed in accordance with English law, so court decisions rendered in England had legal effect in Massachusetts and the other territories. The English courts ruled in 1772 in the Sommersett case that no one could be held in bondage in England. In reliance on that opinion, slaves petitioned the legislature in 1773 and again in 1777 to enact legislation that would emancipate them.
But the abolition of slavery did not automatically grant the right to vote to black freedmen. Paul and John Cuffe, two prosperous ship owners who lived in the town of Dartmouth just outside of New Bedford, had refused to pay taxes on the grounds they were not allowed to vote. In 1778, the town conceded in the Cuffe’s case that there should be no taxation without representation. Reluctantly, the Cuffes were allowed to vote.
Despite the passage of laws, public opinion and abuse of blacks was still rampant, serious enough for Prince Hall, who organized the first Masonic Lodge in the United States in 1784, to address his lodge brothers in 1797 in the following manner:
“We are not possessed of a great measure of it (patience), you could not bear up under the daily insults you meet with in the streets of Boston; much more on public days of recreation, how are you shamefully abused, and that at such a degree, that you may truly be said to carry your lives in your hands.”
The fight for equality pressed on and at the turn of the 19th century, it marked the first time that blacks formed their own organizations — and building. The three-story brick building wasn’t much, “plain and commodious,” one writer said at the time. But on Dec. 6, 1806, Rev. Thomas Paul opened the African Meeting House on a little patch of land on the North Slope of Beacon Hill. It would become the organizational center for the anti-slavery movement in Boston.
One such organization, started in 1826, was the Massachusetts General Colored Association was the first abolitionist organization in Massachusetts. In a rousing address at an 1828 semi-annual meeting of the MGCA later published in the Freedom’s Journal, David Walker explained the groups purpose was “to unite the colored population, so far, through the United States of America, as may be practicable and expedient; forming societies, opening, extending and keeping up correspondence, and not withholding anything which may have the least tendency to meliorate our miserable condition.”
Walker was born in Wilmington, N.C., and moved to Boston during the 1820s and became one of the first African American political leaders to merit national attention. In Sept. 1829, he published “Appeal in Four Articles; Together With a Preamble to the Coloured Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly to Those of the United States of America.”
Its position on slavery was very clear — and dangerous. In the 76-page pamphlet, Walker urged slaves to rise up against their owners, and argued for the abolition of slavery on moral and Christian theological grounds.
Walker also singled out the third president and Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson, who died three years before the pamphlet’s initial publication. Walker criticized Jefferson’s assertion that Black people were inferior to Whites, and said that such statements posed a threat to true American democracy.
“I say that unless we refute Mr. Jefferson’s arguments respecting us, we will only establish them,” Walker wrote.
The publication alarmed slave owners and Southern politicians, and cash rewards were offered for Walker’s death. The pamphlet was a major factor behind the passage of legislation aimed at controlling slaves and free Blacks, including laws penalizing anyone who taught Black people how to read as well as banning the distribution of anti-slavery writings.
The mayor of Savannah, Georgia went so far as to request Boston Mayor Harrison Gray Otis to suppress the publication. Otis replied that he could not suppress it but that he held it in “deep disapprobation and abhorance [sic]”
As the owner of a secondhand clothing store patronized by free Black sailors, Walker had an almost foolproof distribution network. It’s believed that the “Appeal” was sewn into his garments’ linings and smuggled into the South.
On June 28,1830, Walker was found dead near his used clothing shop on Brattle Street. The precise cause was never determined. Some thought he was a victim of poisoning, but other scholars say he succumbed to tuberculosis. Either way, he was only 45 years old.
Despite the danger, black activists were still willing to plead their cause after Walker’s death. In 1833, Maria Steward, the first American female political activist, spoke before a gathering at the African Meeting House. “It is not the color of the skin that makes the man or the woman,” she explained, “but the principle formed in the soul.”
Another was Charles Lenox Remond, an active leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society. It is believed that he was the first African American to deliver a speech before the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In a Feb. 25, 1842 account published in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, Remond spoke against segregated transportation. “Trusting as I do,” Remond reportedly said, “that the day is not distant when, on all questions touching the rights of the citizens of the this state, men shall be considered great only as they are good…
Remond later got to the heart of the matter. “Complexion can in no sense be construed into a crime, much less to rightfully made the criterion of rights,” Remond explained. “Should the people of color, through a revolution of providence become a majority, to the last, I would oppose it on the same principle; for, in either case, it would be equally reprehensible and unjustifiable — alike to be condemned and repudiated. It is JUSTICE I stand here to claim, and not FAVOR for either complexion.”
Deval Patrick is a student of history and is particularly attune to the abolitionist struggle. During both of his inaugurals, Patrick took his oath of office on the Mendi Bible. It had been given to John Quincy Adams by the group of Africans he defended in 1841 before the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark case that resulted in freedom for those aboard the slave ship Amistad.
A rebellion broke out when the schooner, traveling along the coast of Cuba, was taken over by a group of captives who had earlier been kidnapped in Africa and sold into slavery. The Africans were later apprehended on the vessel near Long Island, New York and taken into custody.
Patrick also honored the abolitionist movement by hanging the portrait of John Andrew, the state’s 25th governor, in his State House office. It was Andrew who led the fight to have black soldiers in the U.S. Army. It was Andrew who pushed for both the 54th and 55th regiments. But Andrew didn’t do it alone. One of his friends was Lewis Hayden.
In 1858, Hayden and other abolitionists convinced Andrew to run for state representative. He won a seat, and then became governor two years later by one of the largest margins at that time. By 1861, blacks wanted to fight for the nation and put an end to slavery. Despite their willingness to enlist, blacks endured all sorts of legislative obstructions and were particularly incensed that they were denied the right to bear arms or receive equal pay.
A right to fight
All of that changed on Thanksgiving Day 1862, when Andrew came to dinner at the Haydens’ home on Southac Street. By the time Andrew left, he had agreed to seek permission to create a regiment of black soldiers as soon as the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
On Jan. 26, 1863, Andrew met with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in Washington, D.C., to review a draft of the order authorizing the governor to raise a “corps of infantry for the volunteer service.”
At the bottom of Stanton’s draft, Andrew wrote, “…and may include persons of African descent, organized into separate corps.”
Stanton then signed the amended order enabling Andrew to recruit men for the 54th Regiment. Because Massachusetts had a relatively small African American population, recruiters fanned out across the North to fill the ranks of the 54th.
Hayden was one of the recruiters, as were Frederick Douglass of Rochester, N.Y., Charles Lenox Remond of Salem, Henry Highland Garnet of New York, John Mercer Langston of Ohio, Martin Delaney of Illinois and T. Morris Chester of Pennsylvania.
By Feb. 21, 1863, nearly two years after the confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter off the coast of Charlestown, S.C., scores of men were undergoing training at Camp Meigs in Readville, Mass., now Hyde Park in Boston. The original 1,007 recruits came from 15 Northern states, four Border states and five Confederate states.
“Gov. Andrew was a well-respected and courageous leader who displayed bold leadership during his tenure in office,” Patrick said of Andrew’s portrait. “At a time of great divide in America, he demonstrated a willingness to change the status quo and encouraged others to do the same. I am proud to display his portrait in my office, and I hope that I may govern with the same compassion and foresight that he demonstrated.”