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Boston’s Original Sin–and how we have healed


In 1957, The General Court (The MA state legislature), still made up mostly of WASP’s, decided that although they had lost their grip on City Hall, there was still a way to continue to wield power and influence in Boston. The legislature promulgated the BRA. It allowed the state to exercise power over urban development and gave these legislators carte blanche to apply eminent domain anywhere they saw fit. 

The Anglo-led legislature exercised their new found power to destroy the West End. The West End was the most important neighborhood in Boston. The West End represented all that an inner-city neighborhood should be–a working-class neighborhood full of diversity. The ethnicities represented in this most-American of urban neighborhoods included African-Americans, Armenians, Greeks, Irish, Lebanese, Italians, Jews, Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Syrians, Ukrainians and many other Eastern and Southern Europeans. The West End was a neighborhood that other neighborhoods could emulate–a neighborhood that truly represented the American belief in a melting pot society.

With the destruction of the West End, Boston became a segregated city with each neighborhood populated mostly by people of the same ethnicity. This unfortunately led to de facto segregation in Boston public schools. After the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, Boston was court ordered to desegregate their public school system. The families of the poorest white neighborhood, South Boston (consisting of the Old Colony Housing Projects, which, at that point, had the highest population of poor white people in the country) and the poorest black neighborhoods (places like Upham’s Corner and Dudley Square) had to send their children to schools in places that these families would not dare wander into under normal circumstances. In this bleak time in our city, a black person would never make it down Broadway in Southie without being harassed at best–beaten violently at worst. A white person from Southie walking down Blue Hill Ave. in Roxbury would most likely endure the same fate.

The period of forced busing in Boston is shameful, embarrassing, and by far the bleakest period in our city’s history: Rocks being thrown at children in buses; riots; stabbings. If it were only possible to erase this anomalous period in Boston’s history. Is this not the capital city of the state that first outlawed that most diabolical of institutions–the sin of slavery? Is Boston not the city where ordinary New England men fought the British regulars in order that a country based on the ideas of freedom and equality might exist? Is not The Commonwealth of Massachusetts the only state that guarantees education as a right? Boston: the home of the first public school system; the home of the abolitionist movement where white men were prepared to take arms against wicked slave catchers (it is said that the abolitionist movement started on Beacon Hill). Boston: the home of the only founding father–John Adams–to become president that did not own slaves and abhorred slavery as a sin. And then there was his son John Quincy Adams who represented the Africans who were bound for slavery in the Caribbean until they took over the ship and landed in America. This son of Boston (although some would call him a son of Braintree or Quincy; however, he lived and practiced law in Boston for years) argued in front of the Supreme Court and won the case, and won these men their rightfully deserved freedom. He spent his post-presidential congressional career railing against the iniquities of slavery much to the consternation of many of his fellow legislators. He proudly earned the hatred of his Southern colleagues.

Boston is the intellectual capital of the world. We are proud of–dare I say it–our liberal traditions. And the nadir of Boston history is the reaction of many Bostonians to busing. How can we not feel ashamed about this darkest period in our history?

On closer analysis, one can easily reach the the supposition that poor blacks and poor whites were the victims of a divide and conquer strategy. First the BRA destroyed the most diverse neighborhood in Boston, which lead to a segregated Boston. In this segregated Boston, we grew weary of each other. We did not experience each other’s cultures. Rather than living up to the American ideal of a melting pot society, we lived in a multi-cultural society (an example of a multi-cultural society is Canada where there are distinct francophone areas and a anglophone areas). Boston, for the first time in history, was not living according to American values. And for people who love the City of Boston and its history, this is discouraging because Boston has always been the paragon city of living according to our American ideals.

What would have happened if all Bostonians–black, white, Hispanic, Asian, gay–worked together for a more progressive, inclusive, diverse Boston? Although I am proud of this city and the tremendous strides we have made, it is possible that we could be lightyears ahead of where we are now if it were not for busing and its ramifications.

However, one cannot help but be optimistic. Working class white people, black people, Hispanics, and gays from South Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester, and the South End formed an unstoppable voting coalition to elect a truly progressive mayor–Mayor Walsh.

The election of Walsh is a cathartic experience for Boston. We are no longer divided by race; we are united as neighbors who are striving to once again make Boston that shining city on a hill. The color of our skin divides us superficially, while our progressive beliefs unite us spiritually. We are Bostonians, and therefore we are family.


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