2023: A year marked by bold changes in education, business and community
It has been a year of change throughout New England, and the Banner has captured a plethora of stories that were important to the region. There were a number of stories in Boston that percolated in 2023 and a few others that gave us pause.
There were monumental triumphs and difficult setbacks, celebrations that ushered in new eras and those that waved goodbye to excellence.
The year saw prominent figures in Boston’s Black community hang up their hats.
In March, Melvin Miller, founder and former publisher of the Bay State Banner, sold the paper to Ron Mitchell and André Stark, two veteran local media producers.
Miller shepherded the paper since its founding in 1965, during the height of the civil rights movement. Through his tenure, he never relented in his support of the Black community. The Banner highlighted Miller’s service to the city of Boston with a function at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in June.
Callie Crossley, a Boston television institution and the host of GBH’s “Basic Black” since 2008, stepped away from the show but will remain at GBH hosting her radio show, “Under the Radar.” “Basic Black,” originally named “Say Brother,” started as a Black public affairs show in 1968. It continues to air on GBH 2 on Fridays at 7:30 p.m.
Another well-known Boston institution, Paige Academy, saw founders Angela and Joe Cook retire from the school they started in Roxbury almost 50 years ago. The school opened its doors in 1975 and educates 120 students from infancy through the sixth grade. The pair will remain on the board and will focus on writing books about their successful educational endeavors.
The year also saw members of the Black community rise to prestigious positions. Two of the country’s most prominent higher education institutions — Harvard University and Boston University — celebrated monumental firsts, each electing African American women to lead schools.
Across the river in Cambridge, Harvard tapped Claudine Gay as its 30th president. Gay, who has a background in political science, previously served as Harvard’s Edgerley Family Dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Gay started in the role in July.
Dr. Melissa Gilliam was chosen as the first woman and the first Black person to be named president of BU in October. She will officially step into the role in July. Gilliam formerly served as provost of The Ohio State University and is a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and pediatrics.
Other entities saw a Black person rise to the top. In May the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts selected Rahsaan D. Hall, former ACLU director and a former assistant district attorney, to take the helm as its new president and chief executive officer.
Hall said he sees the local Urban League’s work as a chance to, among other things, support Black communities and Black-owned businesses.
“By also focusing on workforce development, job training and entrepreneurship, we’re creating opportunities for people to have good employment and livable wages,” he said at the time.
Three business establishments in Boston followed that example in different parts of the city in 2023.
In Seaport, Grace by Nia opened in May with great anticipation. Nia Grace, owner of the new jazz club and restaurant as well as, Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen and The Underground Cafe, said the venue — which is part eatery and part nightclub — brings much-needed diversity to the area.
In the same building, ZaZiBar, which opened in October, is also adding diversity with a more subtle approach. The restaurant, which offers exotic cocktails and Caribbean inspired bites, is the latest from chef Olrie Roberts, owner of ZaZ Restaurant in Hyde Park. The addition of both businesses marks growth in the Seaport that was home to two Black-owned businesses prior to 2022 and now has more than six, but the rapidly developing neighborhood is still overwhelmingly white-owned and white-occupied.
They opened as the city took steps to diversify its nightlight life with the addition of a municipal director of nightlife economy. Corean Reynolds, who previously served as director of economic inclusion for the Boston Foundation, joined the city March 6 in the new role, with a focus on creating a more vibrant and sustainable nightlife in Boston.
In other parts of the city, community businesses reinvigorated their areas and created inclusive spaces where their customers and workers feel safe working and shopping this year.
In the Bowdoin Street neighborhood, the Dorchester Food Co-op, which opened in October, is one such store, providing locally-grown healthy food to community members.
A different type of emporium opened in April in the heart of Faneuil Hall. The brainchild of former District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson, Apex Noire is the first Black-owned dispensary to open in downtown Boston. He has focused on hiring people of color and those who have been through the criminal justice system. These citizens, according to Jackson, have been most affected by the war-on-drugs mandates.
The city saw other new beginnings as well. In January, the unveiling of “The Embrace” marked another monumental addition to the Hub. Erected in the heart of the Boston Common, the sculpture celebrates the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. Its unveiling drew over 1,000 attendees to celebrate the monument, years in the making. The statue is meant to capture the spirit of love that animated the King couple’s philosophy of nonviolent social resistance in service to the creation of the “Beloved Community.”
The year 2023 also marked the first official celebration of Negro Election Day. Established by the state legislature in 2022, the third Saturday in July marked the first official recognition of “the Black Picnic,” a 283-year-old tradition where free and enslaved African Americans got together and elected a leader from their ranks.
The day was celebrated by about 5,000 people who gathered in Salem for a parade from Shetland Park to Salem Willows Park and speeches, vendors, music, entertainment and food.
Other celebrations brought excitement across the region. Hispanic Heritage Month was celebrated in September, with fiestas, salsa dance classes and steaming trays of empanadas, but local leaders say it should also be a time to examine historical challenges, resource access issues and policies affecting the community.
The year also saw major anniversaries for prominent local programs and organizations.
The Center for Teen Empowerment turned 30 this year. The organization also opened a new headquarters next to the historic Twelfth Baptist Church at 130 Warren St. in August.
“Young people need a place to belong, and now they have a standalone one right in the heart of Nubian Square,” said Abrigal Forrester, the center’s executive director.
Roxbury Community College also celebrated an anniversary as it reached its 50th year. The college, which opened in 1973, started its celebrations in February with a tribute to pioneers who made significant contributions to the college over the years. The events continued throughout the year with a multi-day Homecoming, a health and wellness forum and an academic symposium. The celebrations will wrap up at a “Golden Jubilee Gala” in February.
The Caribbean Carnival turned 50 as well. This year’s celebration wove themes of triumph over adversity into their presentation at an event themed “We Rise,” following years of disruption, largely from the COVID-19 pandemic.
A number of conferences were hosted in Boston this year. In July, the National NAACP convention swept into the city for the first time in over 40 years. The Boston NAACP branch reported over 13,000 attendees at an event that hosted speakers such as Vice President Kamala Harris and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
During the convention, attendees pushed back on white supremacy and conservative policies that they said pose a threat to Black communities in what Rep. Ayanna Pressley called a “pivotal inflection point.”
In September, a Commercial Real Estate DEI Summit marked the culmination of efforts to explore changes in mindset and new ways to welcome smaller female- and minority-owned firms to meet with larger commercial real estate companies.
This fall, Boston Ujima Project held a symposium on economic empowerment in Black communities. Held in October, the Assembly of Black Possibilities focused on the arts, Black on Black investing, investing with the intention to generate impact, real estate, and organizing.
And the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts held its annual Mass Black Expo, where Black business owners and entrepreneurs had the chance to network and find career advancement opportunities. The group highlighted it as a showcase of the diversity and innovation of Black professionals in the state.
The fourth annual Men of Color Conference was held in Seaport in September. Speakers focused on men of color thriving in community, industry and society. Panels included a focus on health care equity.
Black women got their moment in the spotlight, too. In October, a series of “Black Women Lead” banners adorned Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester and Roxbury with 212 banners honoring iconic Black women in almost every field of work. The art highlighted community members who shattered glass ceilings by being the first Black women to do something, inspiring many and making a difference in their communities.
Ed Gaskin, president of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets, who organized the effort, said he wanted to bring more public art out of downtown and into neighborhoods that often see less of it.
With all the changes happening in Boston this year, one of the Banner’s major initiatives was to highlight the plethora of Black artists living and working locally. We have seen their work on television, at the Smithsonian and countless galleries and exhibitions around the world. Our [Virtual] Art Gallery features conversations centered around these unique artists and hosts, including famed painter Paul Goodnight, portrait artist James Perry and originative textile artist L’Merchie Frazier. They held discussions with cartoonists Robert Stull and artists Ekua Holmes, Lucilda Dassardo-Cooper, Larry Pierce, Hakim Raquib and Shea Justice. And there are more to come in 2024.
Black veterans were also honored with a public art installation. A memorial in Nubian Square, named after Brigadier Gen. Edward Orval Gourdin and honoring Black veterans more broadly was unveiled in August. The monument, which features a statue of Gourdin and bas-relief sculptures of Black military contributions from the American Revolution to the Iraq war, was unveiled in August.
And at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the school’s first residence hall, built in 2018, was dedicated in honor of Chancellor Emeritus Dr. J. Keith Motley and former first lady Angela Motley. Keith Motley, who served as the first Black chancellor of the university from 2007 to 2017, was alongside his wife a driving force to bring student housing to the campus.
The year also saw breakthroughs for Black communities in the state. Manuel Da Luz Gonçalves, who runs a literary business in Roxbury, is developing the most extensive English to Cape Verdean Creole dictionary. The book is slated to be released in February.
In an effort to support students of color and those from underserved communities in Boston, Fidelity Investments launched its Invest in My Education initiative in the spring. Targeted to a so-called “mighty middle” — students with a GPA between 2.5 and 3.5 — the program offers last-dollar scholarships to close gaps, as well as holistic support for retention and completion and access to internship and apprenticeship guidance, financial education programming and mentorship from Fidelity associates.