New England’s Unsung Black Liberation Movement

Reverend Vernon E. Carter holding vigil outside Boston School Committee headquarters, May 17, 1965 (Boston Public Library)

Zebulon Miletsky’s impressive book project, Before Busing: A History of Boston’s Long Black Freedom Struggle, weaves together 350 years of Black Massachusetts history. Debunking Boston’s popular reputation as “the cradle of liberty,” Miletsky shows that struggles over the promises of equal rights in Boston were still bitterly contested and unfinished by the time court-ordered school desegregation was implemented in 1974. Tracing the centuries-long battle over Black rights to education, Miletsky shows that the “Deep North” is a crucial framework for understanding the operation of segregation in American history. As such, Before Busing excavates the careers and lives of Black activists across Boston’s history and the powerful institutions that opposed them. Importantly, Miletsky joins a small but growing group of historians who emphasize the regional importance of New England liberation struggles and attempt to place them into well-tread national histories.

Before Busing has six chapters, arranged chronologically. While the work situates education as a critical framework for liberation ideology and notes that schools were the site where many struggles for liberation took place, Miletsky’s chapters weave in and out of using school reform as its sole focal point. The first chapter gives a helpful history of anti-racist organizing in Boston from 1638 until the end of the nineteenth century, focusing on Boston’s abolitionist network and the beginnings of the school segregation debate. The second chapter situates the dense and impressive Black intellectual tradition of Boston and its confrontation with the emergence of the Jim Crow North. The third chapter details the emerging anti-racist organizations and newspapers that spoke out in defense of Black Boston during the interwar period. The fourth chapter details the growing Civil Rights movement in Boston, the repercussions of Brown v. Board, and emerging community solutions to overcoming segregation. The last two chapters, five and six, are dedicated to emerging Black self-determination and the infamous battle for school desegregation in the 1970s.

Miletsky reiterates Boston as a city of firsts throughout these various chapters. The 1849 Roberts v. City of Boston case, in which Benjamin Roberts sued on behalf of his daughter Sarah who had to travel to attend an all-Black school, is interpreted as the critical precedent set for Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” ruling in Boston (36). Likewise, Miletsky positions Boston as the geographic meeting point of some of the most influential Black thinkers and debates in American history, including Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois’s famous differences, and their Boston alliances (46). Miletsky even reminds us that Boston was at once the city in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. earned his advanced degree and the city in which a young Malcolm X was arrested (90). And during Boston’s fight for the desegregation of schools during the 1970s, Before Busing makes the case that the city remains representative of the way segregation operated in the greater North, particularly de facto segregation’s visibility in schools (186).

To great effect, Miletsky uses these points to reiterate the importance of Boston’s Black history in a national context. The “cradle of liberty” may not have been as its name described, but it was a place where average citizens and renowned intellectuals hotly debated freedom and how to implement it. Particularly for scholars of New England, Miletsky’s work is a critical contribution to the growing field of Black Northeastern histories. Boston and New England makeup a geography that historians have not, on the whole, sought to study as the site of Black self-determination or Black-led anti-racist organizing. But the depth of analysis Miletsky has produced in his work makes it obvious that studies of Black New England reveal complicated, unexpected, and liberatory stories worth our attention. Before Busing will be an immensely useful tool for students and continuing scholars of Black New England history, who will find very fruitful and thought-provoking inroads in this work for future studies. Before Busing is a historical examination of the debate over equitable schooling in Massachusetts, but the work is also an impressive survey of Black Massachusetts liberation struggles that fills in the gaps in understanding racial transformations of the Northeast. Thus, while Miletsky’s Epilogue calls for scholars to continue rounding out the work on school desegregation in New England, his work also creates the springboard to other questions that scholars may find critical to answer in years to come.

For instance, future scholars may wonder about how to expand our historical understanding of residential segregation in New England, inspired by Before Busing. Miletsky’s work positions residential segregation as a troublesome and endemic problem. He points out that many activists recognized residential segregation as an issue that directly led to school segregation, but knew school reforms would not ensure housing reform (96). Focused primarily on school reform battles, Before Busing gives us a small glimpse into the hardened racial geographies of urban Boston, but without an exact map. We know from Miletsky, for instance, that the infamous segregationist, Louise Day Hicks, represented Dorchester from the 1960s to 1970s during her time on the Boston School Board (171). But by the time she moved on to other political aspirations, Dorchester had turned into a Black-majority neighborhood (172). There is ample space here for further studies to examine the exact nature of neighborhood change in Boston, the motivations for white abandonment of Dorchester, and how these issues of housing geography changed Black Massachusetts history in the late twentieth century.

Future students of Boston’s history may also find Miletsky’s work a helpful foundation for continuing women’s history. It is clear across Before Busing that the battles Civil Rights activists fought over schools were an important organizing space for women. On one side, Black organizers like Ruth Batson were coordinating responses to school segregation and finding ways around it through community busing (101). On the other side, white segregationist women like Louise Day Hicks invented avenues for stalling integration and organized stalemates with the state through Boston School Board appointments (117). While Miletsky’s characterization of the events encapsulates some of the bitter debates between how each community weighed the benefits and detriments of integration, these controversies are not directly explained as those led by women. While Before Busing does not employ a gendered analysis of the school desegregation debate, the book’s evidence may inspire other New England historians to consider how women-led movements negotiated racialized city-scapes from the ground-up and authored distinct solutions to its problems. These possible future areas of study show how Miletsky’s rich work uncovers so many continuing opportunities to highlight unsung histories of Black Massachusetts.

Miletsky has, aside from building foundations for further research, also produced rich caches of Black social networks. Before Busing excavates activists and organizations that made up crucial networks of Black organizing in Boston across a vast amount of time. Leaders like William Monroe Trotter, Eugene Gordon, Muriel and Otto Snowden, Thomas Atkins, Peggy Trotter Dammond, Elma Lewis, Ellen Jackson, and Melnea Cass are just a handful of the Black revolutionaries that Miletsky makes visible in his work, bringing light to the Black women and men who dedicated their lives to anti-racism across Boston since the nineteenth century. Tracing these activists’ work through organizations like the NAACP, the Boston Urban League, the Massachusetts Freedom Movement, the Boston Action Group, the Black Panther Party, and the Northern Student Movement, Miletsky reveals the complex and dense ani-racist network of reformers that existed in Boston. Miletsky is able to tease out the reformers’ and organizations’ disagreements, compromises, and common struggles as they faced off against the dominating “Irish Catholic politics” in Boston (83).

Miletsky’s work resoundingly asks us to reconsider if Boston is a city worth revisiting through the lens of Black history. From what Miletsky is able to uncover in Before Busing, the vibrant tradition of anti-racist organizing in the city offers a wealth of opportunities to consider the regional particularities of freedom struggles in New England. Before Busing resoundingly reaffirms that a second glance at places we do not assume to be home to dramatic freedom struggles may actually be cradles of radical grassroots reform.


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Dylan O’Hara

Dylan O’Hara is an urban historian and Ph.D. candidate in American History at the University of Maine. She is also the current Editor of the Maine History Journal. O’Hara’s doctoral dissertation focuses on the urban secessionist movements in late twentieth century Boston, Massachusetts, in which economically and racially segregated residents of Dorchester and Roxbury lobbied to leave the city for a chance at implementing equity through self-governance.

Comments on “New England’s Unsung Black Liberation Movement

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    Great read!!! I’m picking up Before Busing today!!!

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