Boston is Blacker Than You Think
Archival Recording: British racism is so bad, white people left. (LAUGH) They wanted to be free, free to create their own kind of racisms. That's why they invented Australia, South Africa, and Boston.
Trymaine Lee: Boston is known for a lot of things: throwing tea into a harbor, sports dynasties, liberal politics, a marathon, and racism. It's even become a punchline in popular culture.
Archival Recording: (APPLAUSE) Whether seriously or thrown around as a joke, Boston is often referred to as one of the most racist cities in America.
Archival Recording: (LAUGH) New England Patriots versus the Atlanta Falcons. I just wanna relax, turn my brain off, and watch the Blackest city in America beat the most racist city I've ever been to. (LAUGH)
Lee: In 2017, The Boston Globe surveyed Black people from across the country, asking which major city was most unwelcoming. Boston topped the list. And in many ways, the city has earned this reputation. There were the infamous riots against school integration in the '70s.
Archival Recording: But the crowd just kept shouting, "Bus them back to Africa."
Lee: When white communities violently opposed the busing of Black kids into white schools.
Archival Recording: A few minutes later, the police moved in.
Lee: Then there's Boston's racial wealth gap, which isn't just extreme, it's obscene. One study from 2015 found that non-immigrant Black families in the Boston area had an average of just $8 in wealth. The average white family meanwhile had around a quarter of a million.
And recently, Boston's mayoral race has shown how far the city still has to go to address the racial gap in political power. Just this spring, Boston got its first Black mayor ever, after Kim Janey took over as acting mayor for Marty Walsh when he joined the Biden administration.
Archival Recording: I was texting with Council President Janey last night and I texted, "Think about this for a minute. A little girl from Roxbury is about to be mayor of Boston."
Lee: But it didn't last long. Mayor Janey ran to keep her seat this fall and two other Black candidates ran as well. But none of them got enough votes in the preliminary election to make the general next week.
Archival Recording: Decision 2021 now, early voting now under way in Boston for the upcoming November election, where voters will determine the city's next mayor.
Lee: The Black candidate with the most votes was Andrea Campbell, who serves on the city council.
Andrea Campbell: Post this mayoral election, someone suggested to me, "There is no Black community in Boston."
Lee: I spoke with Andrea last week.
Campbell: That we don't turn out in elections. We are very divided. And so I think that is a conversation that must happen within the Black community, maybe behind closed doors, where we're honest with one another and say, "We're brilliant, resilient, beautiful human beings. And how do we lift each other up and support the aspirations and the dreams, especially of our young people, to fulfill their promises?"
Lee: After Andrea and the other Black candidates lost in the prelim election, analysts and media turned to the predictable explanation: that they split the Black vote. But Andrea pushed back against that narrative.
Campbell: And I think that framing, splitting the Black vote, only room for one, is nonsense. We need several running across the state and across, of course, this city for different positions in order to diversify these positions because if we don't, we know that certain communities will continue to be left behind.
Lee: Given all of this, you might be surprised to learn that the city is actually 25% Black. That's the same as New York City. And Boston is full of rich Black history and culture, going all the way back to the 1650s. So why don't we know about it?
Archival Recording: This is what we're dealing with with being a Black and Latino Bostonian, versus the image they show and what we know. It's endlessly frustrating.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Black people in Boston have been overlooked, forgotten, and erased for decades. But despite that, Black Bostonians have been making history. As Boston continues to grapple with its racist reputation, one man is on a mission to lift up his hometown.
Archival Recording: I love the city.
Lee: And tell the real story of being Black in Boston. There's a National Parks Black Heritage Trail in Boston.
Archival Recording: This tour explores the inspiring history of the free African American community of Beacon Hill in the 19th century, a community that led the city and the nation in the fight against slavery and racial injustice.
Lee: It winds through the quiet, ritzy, Beacon Hill neighborhood. And it's all about history at least 150 years in the past.
Archival Recording: Facing powerful opposition, both within the city and throughout the country, this community persevered. And in doing so, helped further Boston's reputation as a cradle of liberty in the ongoing American Revolution.
Lee: The tour that I got from a guy named Dart Adams is totally different.
Dart Adams: There's the African American Heritage Trail that highlights the American Revolution and a certain narrative they wanna tell, versus what gets overwritten. And we're walking.
Lee: I met Dart outside the Massachusetts Avenue T stop. Even though the sidewalks are lined with trees, this wide stretch of Mass Ave is busy, full of buses and delivery trucks and construction vehicles. It's on the border of the South End and Roxbury, one of the city's historically Black neighborhoods.
Adams: This was a vibrant community. You have different housing. A lotta the buildings that were here were listed in The Black Motorist Green Guide, where if you wanted to come to Boston or Massachusetts, this was a place you could come and find refuge.
Lee: There are old brick apartments and townhouses, some shops, but nothing that really lets you know you're walking in the footsteps of giants. That's where Dart comes in.
Adams: We're standing in front of 397 Mass Ave, looking at this building and thinking nothing of it. You see the small plaque. Now, what is this plaque (LAUGH) revealing? It tells you that this is where Martin Luther King Jr. lived when he was a BU student getting his doctorate.
Lee: Dart Adams is an author and historian. He's host of the podcast Boston Legends. He was born in Boston in 1975 and has lived here his whole life. For years, Dart has been taking people on his own unofficial tour of Black Boston. This area is full of history. But if I wasn't here with Dart, I'd probably miss all of it, like that plaque he's talkin' about on Martin Luther King's former home. It's almost completely hidden by a tree.
Adams: That plaque was put here in--
Lee: I could barely see it. I'm tryin' to--
Adams: Yeah. That plaque was put here January 15th, 1989. It is 2021, almost 2022. I was a kid who used to grow up and people used to walk by and point out this building and say, "You know Martin Luther King Jr. used to live here. He met Coretta in this neighborhood." These are things that people outside of Boston don't know. And the most insane part is that that's the thing telling everybody. Who can see that over these trees?
Lee: Dart is a walking encyclopedia of Black Boston. The tour usually covers several blocks, but there's a story around every corner, inside all the storefronts or shops. So we keep stopping every few feet as he pointed out yet another significant building. Most of them, unmarked.
Adams: So directly across the street, you see Cuttin' Edge Barbershop, which is at 410 Mass Ave. 410 Mass Ave was actually home to the Savoy Café. The Savoy Café was a haunt of Malcolm X, grew up in Roxbury when it was actually integrated before white flight happened.
Lee: So what's the significance of this street we're standing on right now?
Adams: Okay. So this was the actual epicenter of Black Boston when it was a jazz mecca. This is Wally's Jazz Café, all right? This is the only remaining jazz spot of all those legendary jazz places that were all up and down here. Between 1959 and 1970, all of these establishes, they had full entertainment licenses, full liquor licenses, had kitchens, all disappeared.
And when that disappeared, that means that the economic power that Boston held disappeared. That means that the Black hotels, the Black lodging houses, the rooming houses, all disappeared. All between 1959 and 1970. And when that happens, you wanna talk about racism, when Roxbury had all the shopping districts and the elevated train line ran through Roxbury, but it was torn down between 1986 and 1987 and all of the shopping was moved to Downtown Crossing, that's when we talk about the real effects of racism.
Lee: Walking with Dart, I could feel tension. On one side, deep respect for his home and history.
Adams: I was raised with all that energy. I was raised with all that history. The reason why I'm standing in front of you today is because of it.
Lee: On the other, anger and frustration with Boston's refusal to recognize it.
Adams: This is the NAACP building. This is where all the operations of the Boston branch of the NAACP happen, this building. There's no sign, no signage anywhere.
Lee: I'm surprised there's nothin' indicating at all the significance of this place.
Adams: When I was a kid, there was a big sign that said, "NAACP," a black sign and yellow letters. And this was, like, one of the places in the community where everybody came to get information. This was a place that was of immense pride to the community.
When you think about all the legendary people who actually came through here, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott, and we wanna talk about having your life and your culture and you existence overwritten, there it is right there, in plain day. Like, think about how many people just walk by this spot right now with no idea what this is.
Lee: Have there been efforts to, like, make sure there's signage put up? Have there been--
Lee: No effort?
Adams: No, there hasn't been any.
Lee: You haven't gone to the city and said, "Hey"?
Adams: I've been fighting for a significant amount of signage for all these historical places for years. The fact of the matter is that there's all this Black history and culture that we know growing up here, but it's not shown.
Lee: That people are walking by every single day?
Adams: People walk by it every single day.
Lee: After the tour, Dart and I headed to Darryl's Corner Bar & Kitchen, a Black-owned restaurant and music venue that's been a cultural center of Black Boston for decades. Dart didn't set out to be a tour guide. He just wanted people to see and feel the Boston that he's always loved, the parts of the city you probably wouldn't see on the nightly news or in magazines.
Adams: I was on social media talking about all these different things that were in my neighborhood and all these factoids that people didn't know. So I would go on Instagram, take pictures, and then write captions. And I would tell this secret history of Boston.
And what happened was people started responding to it. They were, like, "Well, I have a cousin," or, "I have a friend," or, "I know somebody who just moved to the region. They would love if you would show them these things." So that's how the tours were born.
And it was people that were, like, came in for fellowships, whether it be at Harvard or MIT, or people that just moved here for a specific job and their families were concerned. And I became the point guy to do these specific tours. And this has been happening for between five and seven years now--
Adams: --I've been doing that.
Lee: Were you always, like, a natural-born historian? Like, when you were young, were you all into the history?
Adams: I was a sponge as a kid. But the thing is that the elders in my neighborhood would tell me these things. And again, I would be intrigued that no one outside of here knew these things, you know? Like, Miles Davis used to come by here and hang out on the corner and smoke with the guys. "He stole a girl from me."
And when he came back to do his 1981 album, the only place he wanted to perform first was Boston. And whenever he had a new band or whenever he had a new sound, he wanted to bring it to Boston. And that's how we got Chick Corea and Tony Williams, who were both residents of Massachusetts and Boston.
Tony Williams moved as a child here to Roxbury, one of the greatest drummers of all time. And it just made me think that, "How come I'm told these things, and everybody here knows these things, but I never heard it outside of here?" And I carried that because it makes you think, "Why doesn't everyone know this?"
If I was in a certain part of Queens or Harlem, everybody celebrates that history. If I'm in a certain part of Chicago, everybody celebrates that history. Philly, New Orleans, they all celebrate this history. Why is Boston the outlier when we've had Black folks prominent here since the 1600s? It makes no sense.
Lee: Boston is home to one of the oldest Black communities in the country. In the late 1650s, free Black people founded a small enclave in the north end of the city called New Guinea. Later, a larger one grew in Beacon Hill. That's where the official Black Heritage Tour is.
But by the 1900s, high rents and poor living conditions forced most Black families to places like Roxbury and Dorchester. Boston was also a center of the abolition movement in the decades leading up to the Civil War. But, through all of that, Black Bostonians have still had to fight against a culture steeped in racial violence and white supremacy.
Adams: Boston is a unique case because we have to remember that Boston is pretty much 150 years older than America itself. So a lotta the systems of oppression and inequity that we have to deal with predate America. It's a uphill battle, and it's been an uphill battle for almost 400 years. That's what people don't really understand about what it is to be a non-white Bostonian and trying to, you know, carve out any space here.
Lee: Boston was one of the first cities to have restrictive housing covenants barring Black people from living in certain communities. And even though it was the heart of the abolition movement, slavery wasn't legally abolished in Massachusetts until the 13th Amendment in 1865.
Adams: Yes, we had abolitionists and freedom fighters, but there was always resistance. The big issue with Boston is Boston likes to paint itself as this progressive, liberal city. But it's only progressive and liberal to a point.
Lee: Dart says, "Look no further than the upcoming mayoral election."
Adams: We had five different individuals up for mayor. And, of those five, three of them were Black. Two of them, the most prominent being Black women. And when the preliminary election ended, those two women just missed the cut for the general election.
And while the next mayor of Boston is not going to be a white man, and the city has made it clear, "We're done with having a white man be the mayor," they've made it very clear, "We might not be ready to have a Black woman be the mayor." It says that after this city being almost 400 years old, there still isn't a clear cut way for Black and LatinX Bostonians to clearly aggregate power, economic, political power, and wield in this city.
Lee: How do everyday race relations in this city play out? Certainly, as you mentioned, all across America, America's not perfect at all. America is, again, steeped in racism. But there is something I think unique about the culture of Boston. The huge white working class here is different than a lotta cities. Reminds me of Philly a little bit, right? You have these little, tough, white communities that are different than some other places. But how do these relations play out every single day between, you know, Black folks and white folks?
Adams: The thing is that it doesn't play out in the way that people would think it does, you know? Your Black and white neighbors, your Latino neighbors, your Asian neighbors can all get along, live in a community. Your kids play together, what have you. When the issue rises is when people feel like the way of life that they've been living is going to change and they're scared.
Lee: Which part of Boston's that?
Adams: Specifically the white, more conservative leans parts, pockets of Boston. The fact of the matter is Boston is changing, has been changing, is always changing. I've already seen the fact that where I grew up in already doesn't recognize what it was, or what it used to be, or what it was at its core.
Lee: So it sounds like you're going with the transformation and other people are just resisting and hunkering down. They don't wanna see a change, where you're kind of rocking with it because already, your childhood neighborhood has already been changing?
Adams: Yeah. My childhood home on Mass Ave, we were evicted from there in 1999 when the vote for rent control changed. I still live in this neighborhood by the grace of God. So my way of dealing with the changing neighborhood is completely different from somebody who feels like everything that they know is ending, you know?
Because the way it's always been is, "We, white Bostonians, we ethnic white Bostonians have always been the face of Boston." And they don't wanna give that up. I've already lived with being out of the frame, out of the picture, pushed to the margins. I'm asking for a seat at the table. And I'm not asking anymore. I'm saying, "I'm getting my seat at the table."
Lee: We'll be right back.
Lee: Is there a moment that stands out for you when you think about what it means to be Black in Boston? Is there one that makes you especially proud?
Adams: Oh, absolutely. When I was young, my older brother and older sister, we had family in Orchard Park. And that's where New Edition is from.
Archival Recording: Here are New Edition.
Adams: And when New Edition was starting their path and they, you know, they got their contract on Streetwise, they started appearing on, you know, local television. And their song was playing on the radio.
Archival Recording: Their songs hit the top of the R&B charts. That's quite an achievement. And their latest is--
Archival Recording: --a great song. You're gonna love it.
Adams: --when we finally started seeing them on national television, when we finally started seeing them on Soul Train, when Casey Kasem mentioned their name for the first time on America's Top Pop 40, and then we see them blow up and become, like, international stars.
Archival Recording: Welcome five very talented young men who have captured the fancy of music lovers all over more than any other new group we've seen in recent years. It's their latest single on the Streetwise label entitled Candy Girl, and they are New Edition.
Adams: Candy Girl was their first hit that broke out. And it was their first video. And it was the song that knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the R&B charts.
New Edition: (SINGING) My girl's like candy, a candy treat. She knocks me right off of my feet. She's so fine as can be. I know this girl is meant for me. Candy girl, you are my world. You look so sweet. You're a special treat. Candy girl, all I want--
Adams: Five dudes--
New Edition: --to say.
Adams: --from Roxbury--
New Edition: You're with me--
Adams: --knocked Michael Jackson--
New Edition: Brighten up my day. (LAUGH)
Adams: --off the top of the R&B charts, which were more competitive--
New Edition: All--
Adams: --than the pop charts back in 1983.
New Edition: When I'm with you--
Lee: That's crazy.
Adams: That was the first time when I thought that I am immensely proud to be a Black Bostonian because, aside from living here, we didn't really have that much of a public face. That's when I felt like, "Okay, the corner's changing." You know, I feel, like, really proud.
Lee: Seeing New Edition blow up, you finally felt seen? That people saw--
Lee: --New Edition, and they connected them to Boston, and you finally felt seen, like, people see--
Lee: --the world sees us?
Adams: Yes. That was one of the big turning points for me as a young person to feel pride, absolutely.
Lee: Dart has been working with local community groups and officials to get more recognition around the city for places of Black history.
Adams: So far, I haven't gotten very far with it. One of the things that hindered us was COVID. When I really started back in 2017, 2018, 2019, it was gaining more and more steam. But ultimately, it was COVID that kinda stopped me from making real headway with that. But by the time we had gotten up to 2020, I think that people realized that, "You know what? Representation matters and we should really look into doing this," you know?
Lee: Do you think the city would be willing to bolster the little plaque that we see outside of the MLK house, put markers down that aren't there? You think they really want to do this?
Adams: I absolutely do. Five years ago, it might've been an uphill battle. Going into 2022, they'll be way more receptive to doing it. I've done a lot of the ground work. I've laid it out for people. You know, we have things now like, you know, the King Foundation, which I have a monument to Martin Luther King Jr. coming up soon, you know?
We have all these different propositions to have statues of different people, renaming certain streets, you know? So it's, like, there's actual progress. But again, you know, dealing with COVID, a lot of that, you know, was hindered. But I feel that going into 2022, we'll be able to get back into it.
Lee: For Dart, there's one story from long ago that really shows the stakes of his fight. In 1773, Phillis Wheatley was the first Black American to publish a book of poetry. She was enslaved in Boston at the time. She was later emancipated, but died penniless at the age of 31.
Adams: Every February, I go to a place called Copp's Hill Burying Ground, which is in the North End. We think she's buried in Copp's Hill. But the problem is, another issue with Boston and Black folks being overwritten and, you know, almost erased is that there is a stretch along a street, I believe it's called Snow Hill Road, where there's just a patch. And it's bare.
You can count all the grave markers on one hand. And that is where the overwhelming majority of Black Bostonians from that region are buried. And I go there every February and I just, like, you know, pay homage to my ancestors. And I think to myself that Phillis Wheatley is buried here, and we don't know where.
Lee: But even living in a city that he feels for so long has not valued lives like his, Dart truly loves Boston.
Adams: Being a Bostonian is what gives me everything to be able to be on this journey. It gives me my attitude. It gives me my strength. It gives me my power. It gives me my authenticity. It gives me my conviction, all of it. I am who I am because I'm a Black Bostonian. I love my city. I love my home. It's not perfect, but I'll be damned if I'm not going to fight to make it as equitable for everybody who lives here.
Lee: Boston likely isn't going to lose its racist repercussion any time soon. And knowing history won't rectify big issues like gentrification and the wealth gap, or even police violence. But image and feeling seen and welcome, that's important too.
Lee: What's your great hope for Boston, Black Boston, and race relations in this city?
Adams: My great hope is that for once, it won't be people asking, "Do Black people or LatinX people live in Boston or Massachusetts or New England?" That we would've made enough changes and had enough representation and moved the needle enough where people would never need to ask that question again.
And again, that starts with us being able to be in charge of the narrative, or us finally being included when they tell the stories. And I'm confident that that's going to change going into the future because we can't go back to where it was.
Lee: As always, we wanna hear from you. You can tweet me @TrymaineLee, that's at Trymaine Lee, my full name, or write to us at IntoAmerica@NBCUNI.com. That was Into America, at NBC and the letters U-N-I. com. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Joshua Sirotiak, and Aisha Turner. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Special thanks to producer Stefanie Cargill and our crew in Boston, Jim Frances, Tom Fahey, and Clint Bermesco (PH). I'm Tyrmaine Lee. We'll catch you next Thursday.