On the Trail Where Yesterday Inspires, Challenges Today

There on Beacon Street stands the Civil War monument to the first black Union troops recruited in the north, the 54th Regiment, and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Its history must include the story of the Shaw family devotion to Abolition, and the antislavery sentiments of Governor John Andrew. But it is mostly the story of black men who were claiming their right to be treated as men, the right of their enslaved brothers and sisters to be free, to claim their inclusion in the promise of the Declaration of Independence. There is a story told of a 1960’s arts festival, during which a poet saw the monument, and declared it to be “a fish-bone stuck in the throat of the city”. The monument is a bold reminder today that the promise is still more hope than fact, still a “deferred dream”.

The monument to the 54th stands with its back to the Union Club, formed by white business men in 1863, the same year these black men were recruited. That Club
reminds us of the divided motivations among its white male founders.. All agreed to preserve the Union. Some wanted to see slavery ended and believed in equality. Some wanted to see slavery ended, but did not believe in equality. Some wanted to preserve the Union, but were not ready to see slavery ended. That reluctance was rooted largely in the fact that Massachusetts was producing several million yards of cotton textiles annually! In stark contrast, the motivations of the black soldiers of the 54th were singularly focused on ending slavery, and the hope of equality.

The Monument was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1897. On the back of the monument, the names of 62 black men who died at Battery Wagner were not added until 1982! Any curious observer will wonder why it took 85 years after the dedication of the monument for those black names to be added??? Why in 1982? Who writes history? Why do they write? How do they write it? When do they write it? Any honest answer must encounter some of the “hard facts” of history to which Bell refers.

Walking from the Monument, then up Joy Street to the top, there will be opportunity to hear stories about the changing of names of that street. At Mt. Vernon Street, we remember how the two sides of the “hill” were developed, with the wealthier people on the sunny south slope, others on the north slope. In 1850 the folk on the south slope wanted to change the name of what was then Belknap Street, to Joy Street. In their petition to the city they wanted the name change to go only from Beacon Street to Mt. Vernon, at the top of the climb. The reason given: they wanted to “disassociate” from the folk on the north slope. That side of the “hill” was where about ½ of the black population of the city lived! Five years later, the name was extended all the way over the hill to Cambridge Street. That bit of history will occasion reflection on the reasons for discriminatory attitudes and actions.

At Pinckney Street’s Middleton house, we are reminded that black men in Boston had tough decisions to make about whether to support those who were loyal to England, or join the patriots. Slave owner General Washington came to Boston to form an army with untrained farmers. The Continental Congress had little power to either recruit or pay soldiers. Facing the best and largest military unit in the world, the need for men was desperate. Already at Concord and Lexington, and Bunker Hill, black men had fought; a unit of black men had formed in Rhode Island, ready for battle. An initial decision not to recruit more blacks changed after a British promise of emancipation to slaves who would join their forces. Political and military expediency dictated that blacks would be allowed in the Continental army.

What were the choices for black men in Boston? Much of the city’s population remained Loyalists, and some white families fled to Canada, taking with them their black slaves/servants. Fifteen black families went to form a commune in Canada; some individual blacks were ready to join the English forces, hoping that the promise of freedom and independence might be kept. The choice to join the Continental forces, brought only an uncertain future, even if there was independence for the colonies. The decision to fight for independence was a gamble, but many chose it. Boston patriot newspapers of the day entreated that the colony must not accept being “enslaved” to England; black people in Boston knew that metaphor was hollow. They knew long before and better than Jefferson, the full meaning of his later words in the Declaration of Independence. These were men, claiming the humanity his words only promised.

The Middleton House is named for George Middleton, a black leader of the community in the late Colonial period. Much of his prominence came as the third Grand Master of the Prince Hall Lodge of Freemasons. The founding of that Lodge is a story of black men subverting discrimination, claiming and creating equal rights. The Middleton House becomes a place to lift the names of Prince Hall, George Middleton, David Walker, and other black men, who on at least three occasions petitioned the state legislature, claiming equal rights, in what can easily be named as a beginning of Boston’s abolition movement. Those petitions also were the beginning of the claim for Equal School Rights, so central later in mid-nineteenth century Boston.

On Pinckney Street you will also meet L. Maria Child, the brilliant white woman Abolitionist. There also meet George Hillard, white US Commissioner, who must have known that his wife sheltered “fugitives” in their home, in defiance of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which required him to issue arrest warrants to the agents of slaveholders sent to claim blacks as former slaves. You will meet his wife who sheltered Ellen Craft from slave catchers, in defiance of that law. There also you will meet Rebecca Freeman Clark, the white woman who initiated the creation of a Home for Aged Colored Women, when already existing homes refused them entrance. You will also hear of James Freeman Clark, her son, who before coming to Boston, was a strong witness against slavery in Kentucky.

There on Pinckney Street you will also find a home in which a five year old black girl, slave child was kept, brought by her New Orleans owner, who intended to return with the slave child at the end of her stay here. A case brought before the Mass. Supreme Court in 1836, led to a decision that little “Med” should be free. That 1836 case became a precedent for other judicial trials as the nation tried to determine if a slave, coming into a free state, should become free.

It will be appropriate to raise a question about the naming of Pinckney Street. Unable to complete the necessary research, I still wonder if this name acknowledges some Boston connection to the slave-owning Pinckney family of South Carolina? Charles Sumner, later strong Abolitionist United States Senator, was born here close to many blacks. His father was Charles Pinckney Sumner; he became Deputy Sheriff of the County, a man of some importance. A quick look into his background revealed relationships during the Colonial period and Revolutionary War, which might
have included connections with the Pinckney family. Mine is pure speculation, but the kind of “wondering” which wants to inquire about evidence of Boston’s complicity with slavery. Aside from this question, northern complicity is abundantly clear.

The building which was the Phillips School, and became in 1855 the first black-white “integrated” school in Boston is there on Pinckney Street also. In December of that year those who had been at the heart of the Equal School Rights movement celebrated the legislative victory which mandated that public schools in Boston show no “distinction based on race, color, or religious opinion”. That story begins with the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, takes us through years of the black community struggling to claim the right to equal education, in a pattern of petitions, of protest, of demonstrations, of boycotts, of disappointing judicial decision, of unequal funding, which are still easily seen in many of the metropolitan school districts of the nation today. That historical struggle for education in Boston makes a lie of any attempt to say that history is a set of dead facts with no relevance for our century.

If you stop at Louisburg Square it will be important to contemplate the statue of Christopher Columbus, and to be reminded of something which has nothing to do with, but everything to do with the struggle against slavery. There you will meet De Las Casas, a follower of Columbus, who at one point owned slaves, then rebelled against the oppressive treatment of Arawaks, suggested that Spain bring Africans to the new lands, then repented, and became an eqalitarian. In Spain in the mid-sixteenth century he took part in one of the most important debates in the history of the world. Against the word of Spanish historians and Bishop Sepulveda, Las Casas argued that not only were the Spanish not superior to the Arawak people, but that all people are equal. Suddenly this old debate has everything to do with Black Heritage, and with our 2lst century!

You will see the home of Thomas Paul, first minister of the African Baptist Church. We will remember that Thomas was one of the founders of Harlem’s Abysinnian Baptist Church, and that one of his brothers was an early minister there. Rev. Paul was also a Boston agent, for Freedoms Journal, the first black newspaper.On Charles Street you will see another black church building, which becomes a story of response to discrimination in white churches, and as you walk the Black Heritage Trail, you will see where other churches were located, and be reminded of the centrality of the black church in that community.

John Smith’s last home is there on Pinckney Street also, and there you will hear the story of his barber shop, and his role in the movement of blacks from slavery to freedom. His late role in the state legislature also gave him prominence, but probably his greatest importance came as one active in the network of freedom through the Underground Railroad.

Visiting other scenes on Beacon Hill you will see the house where Lewis and Harriet Hayden sheltered people who were fleeing from slave catchers in the 1850’s. You will hear Lewis call upon the community to organize resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law which was incorporated in the Compromise of 1850. You will meet William and Ellen Craft, whose story of escape led them finally to England and the Abolition Movement there. You will know Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Commissioner Hillard, John Brown and the Secret Six who supported Brown’s efforts to organize for what became his attack at Harpers Ferry.

If you listen carefully you may hear the voice of John S. Rock, extolling the virtues of “blackness”, with the logic and eloquence which enabled him to become the first black person to gain the right to practice law before the United States Supreme Court. With him you may find Charles Sumner, white United States Senator, whose uncompromising antislavery views, had an origin in that north slope community of black people where he was born. It was Sumner who presented Rock to the Supreme Court, on February 1, 1865, the day after the Congress had passed the 13th amendment. Then think about the Justices who sat on that Court, led by Salmon Chase. Three of those men were
also the Court in 1857 and had voted with Justice Taney, holding that blacks were not citizens and had no rights which the Constitution respected! Ponder what might have been in their hearts and minds, eight years later, as this black man appeared before them, and they granted him the right to become a member of the Supreme Court Bar!

The story of the struggle for education for black children will be revived at Primus Avenue. It is named for Primus Hall, who, when the Boston school department denied numerous requests for a school for black children, began that school in his attic. Walking back among the buildings on Primus Avenue, there you might find the location of that first school for black children. Prejudice and dis-respect in the white schools, led the black community to a determination for a separate school where its children would learn and be treated with the respect due them. Primus had seen the example of his Father, Prince Hall, who had created a separate black Lodge for Masons, when blacks had been denied entrance into the white Lodges. Like Father, like Son.

David Walker, black man who really began the Abolition Movement, walked the streets of Beacon Hill, for the few years he was in Boston, prior to his death. He may have been selling copies of Freedom’s Journal, for which he was agent in Boston. He may have been organizing the General Colored Association. He may have been preaching the call to resistance which finally appeared in his remarkable Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, surely the strongest antislavery document ever written. Walker called on his people to reject their treatment as brutes, to claim their humanity. He knew the power of the black population, wondered why and how it had ever been kept powerless, and called its people to use that power to claim their destiny as free and human. To white people he promised a collaborative future if they would only treat black people as human beings; if they would not cease their oppressive ways, Walker called for God’s judgment on them. He might easily have written to Baldwin’s nephew the same words which James Baldwin used two centuries later.

With David Walker you might find black Maria Stewart and her husband James. Maria was the first woman in the United States, of any race, to speak publicly on a political issue such as slavery, and that she did at great personal risk. Risk and controversy did not give her hesitation as she echoed Walker’s call for black men to reject treatment as any but fully human beings. Close to David again you will meet L. Maria Child, writing her Appeal on Behalf of that Group of Citizens Called Coloured. She marshaled her talent as one of the recognized finest literary figures of the day, to call for an end to oppression. When she spoke too loudly, the classy Athenaeum Library canceled her membership! These were people who dared to stand for the truth they knew.
Leonard Grimes will meet you at one corner, close to the church he served, which was often known as the “Church of the Fugitives”, because of his life of helping slaves escape, in Washington, prior to his outstanding leadership in Boston. He had been imprisoned in Washington, had been in New Bedford, and when he joined Boston’s struggle for Abolition, he became one of its gifted leaders. He knew well the costs of acting out his convictions.

You can no more escape William Lloyd Garrison than could countless hundreds of others who wished he were not an ever-present figure in Boston, and who found his Liberator newspaper an offense. You will find him at the African Meeting House, and with him a score of people including the “everywhere” Weston sisters. The spirits of Tubman and the Grimke sisters will greet and perhaps haunt your conscience. The aspirations of many hundreds of people who gathered at the Meeting House for worship, for lectures, for concerts, for organizing are there today, and just as they strove to lift their lives to greatness, so too they will lift yours. You have only to let them in!

What a story there is there on what is sometimes called the “back” of Beacon Hill! Not just a “story”! Living truth! People who believed and who lived what they believed! Their lives were in daily “dis-ease”! They knew that the history by which white people assigned them to a degraded inhuman state, was also a trap from which whites needed liberation! They knew that racism projected a life-long future! BUT !

Langston Hughes refers me to the BUT that guided those who preceded him in the struggle! Relevant words come from two of his poems:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged Oh, yes
Bird that cannot fly I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath …
America will be!
An ever-lasting seed,
Its dream
Lies deep in the heart of me.

So, here am I, Horace
So, here am I, a simple, relatively untalented man.
A white man who understands enough of the history
to be liberated from it
Knowing that racism will be here longer than I
Feeling alien in a land which regulates human life by
a white racist script
With a “dis-ease” which prods for a remedy
To make the dream live
The remedy is a good, steady dose of action
Telling the truth even when no one listens
Standing against the day which is night
Determined that with the last breath
There also will be energy to shake a clenched fist!

Becoming a Historian

My resignation as Founding Director at Community Change, came in 1996, leading me to become a National Park Service Ranger, interpreting history on Boston’s Black Heritage Trail. That experience has become for me that other way to treat my dis-ease. The dynamic of years have pointed me toward the history of our nation. A corollary force has been the urge to localize action and study. Baldwin will not let me go, and insists that I must know the history of racism in my home region.

History commands my attention! Baldwin will not relent! Hughes insists that I answer the question about deferred dreams! Bell points me to “accept the hard fact that all history verifies”! Eliot reminds me never to settle into comfort, because the kingdoms of this dispensation are an alien people clutching false gods! Then comes a host of amazing men, women, black, white, who built a “beloved community” on the north slope of Boston’s Beacon Hill, and who contributed to the Abolition Movement in a depth and breadth of witness which cannot be overestimated for its significance.

A few years ago, I “discovered” Boston’s Black Heritage Trail; in reality it found me, a spirit ready, eager to learn. I had known it was “there”, had heard about it, but then history made its claim on me, demanding that I see that to which I had been blind!
Now that local history has “discovered” me, and I am enriched beyond any measuring.

Using “Privilege to Subvert “Privilege”

Another kind of privilege is that into which I was born as a white male. One of the ways in which I have tried to understand my “white privilege” is to find ways to use it to accomplish goals which hopefully might undermine the system on which it is based.
Nick Jones came to Boston organizing for the United Farm Workers. Nick visited me on his arrival in the city. He needed a place to locate an office, even temporarily, but had no idea where to begin. Because of my education at Amherst I was friendly with the Bishop of the local Episcopal Diocese, contacted him, and he offered some Diocesan property where Nick could at least get started. Its location was not ideal for the community UFW wanted to reach, so after a few months it moved. But it was a beginning, made available not through any ability of mine, but simply because I knew the right man in the right institutional position.

On a different occasion, when we were organizing SOAR, a similar thing happened. We wanted to reach out to college administrators to introduce them to the new organization; that was slow work. On the train going to Boston, one day I sat with a male friend, wonderful conversationalist, with whom it was fun to talk. Knowing that my friend was the chief executive of an organization which included many colleges and universities, I told him about SOAR, and our wish that we might have access to people in colleges. Surprise! He was in the process of planning a meeting to which he expected many college Presidents to attend. How much time did we need on the agenda? Within minutes it was arranged that my fellow SOAR organizer, Darryl Smaw, would have fifteen minutes to speak to a gathering of college Presidents. That is precious time, or at least the Prexys would have us believe it is. That opportunity was arranged, not through any ability of mine, but simply because I knew the right man in the right position, and met him at the right time.

But the “privilege” is unearned, and is at the very heart of the “disease” of white racism. The assumption that whites are entitled to privilege is part of the historical system from which my “dis-ease” struggles for new life. How to treat or use that privilege will be a part of the problem which vexes me forever. Trying to deny the privilege is a vain attempt; it is there, a part of my life, no matter how much I might wish
it were not. Trying to divest myself of it is not like giving away a bank account. I can divest myself of money; give it away and it is gone. There is no way that I can “give away” that which is attached to my being a white man in this world. The reality of “privilege” lingers always, part of who I am. Trying to live as if I am not privileged is pretending, and is a lie. My uneasy, unhappy solution is to seek times and ways when I can use that privilege, always hopeful that the result will support whatever will undermine the system of privilege.

Being born into the system of white privilege is part of what it means for me to be “trapped” in the history which has created privilege. For most of my life I did not understand the legacy of “privilege”. Certainly, the work of Peggy McIntosh has alerted me, as countless others, to the significance of “white privilege”. For her work I am always grateful. In the recent years, I have seen how that privilege has been purposefully created and perpetuated.

Too often “white privilege” is treated as if it is a status that is simply “inherited”, that comes to us with birth. That is true for many, of course, but portrayed in this way “privilege” seems to be a passive condition, forgetting a history which is far from passive. “White privilege” was created by an active, consistent dedication to build into the reality of everyday life, the convictions, assumptions, and lies of white superiority. “White Privilege” was born in the chains placed on African bodies, forged in the fires that branded and burned. As black bodies were chained and maimed, a system was created that intentionally shielded whites from guilt, surrounded by mechanisms of denial, rationalizing that “privilege” was right because it was earned. That system has been actively perpetuated in every phase of our nation’s history, creating divisions by race and class and gender, and gradations of “privilege”, among whites, always dedicated to preserving ultimate white supremacy. That is the lie with which our present is burdened.

That active history of “white privilege” brings me to Baldwin’s point in which my identity is challenged. “Knowing” and “owning” the privilege dictates a necessity of acting. For me the best response to the dilemma has been to find ways to use that inherent, undeniable “white privilege”, as described in the instances cited. My soul is not “easy” with that solution, and yearns for another way to understand and combat racism. What came is not a “better way”, but simply a different way for my weary but hopeful steps to go.

Enter Derrick Bell

Many of the greatest insights about racism have come to me over the years from the writings and personal witness of Derrick Bell, who was in the early years of CCI, struggling against racism in the ivied walls of Harvard Law School. My first meeting with Derrick came at Logan Airport on a morning when I was to fly to Philadelphia to be a “respondent” to his keynote speech at an event sponsored by a group whose name I do not recall. Waiting for boarding time I noted only one black person in the lounge, so introduced myself. His speech was something about school desegregation; my specific job was to comment on the Boston alternative represented in METCO, on whose Board I served. My talk included a strong endorsement of METCO, but I contended that it was a terrible choice forced on black parents by a public system they experienced as failing. The latter point was not met with enthusiasm by the listeners, but I think Derrick appreciated it. We became friends, and over the years I watched and supported his efforts at Harvard, Oregon, Stanford, then Harvard again! Derrick’s influence in my life has been of major importance.

Derrick’s 1987 book, And We Are Not Saved, had a subtitle, The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice. Four years later came his Faces At the Bottom of the Well. I noted immediately the subtitle: The Permanence of Racism. In just a few years, Derrick’s thought had moved from Elusive Quest for Racial Justice, to the Permanence of Racism! I raced through the book, and then came the words that leapt into my heart: Derrick told us that accepting the permanence of racism was not an act of submission, but was an ultimate act of defiance !!!!!!! My own essay in response to that idea, has been recognized and appreciated by Derrick, and the idea has become a central one in my view of racism and the work for justice.

Derrick’s view of the Permanence of Racism forced me to a position I had been frightened to assume. Once I took the step to which he led me, in a strange way I felt liberated. In many discussions I had often been asked about when we would overcome racism in this country. I wanted to say that I doubted we would ever overcome racism. In those discussions I felt as if I stood on the brink of a precipice, fearful that such an admission might diminish the will to work against racism. If racism is permanent, why try to eliminate it? Derrick took me to the brink, led me to the truth. Knowing that his dedication to work against racism was not diminished by this conviction became my inspiration.

When I made the jump and accepted “permanence”, the liberation I felt made me wonder if that was what Baldwin had promised when he said that white people would be liberated only when they understood the trap of false history. I was in some peculiar way liberated. Like an alcoholic who knows he must always live with the condition, I still must fight against racism! Despair over failure was no longer an option! Accepting the permanence of racism was not an act of submission, but the ultimate act of defiance. Racism will always be “there”, and I will always raise my fist in defiance of its presence. My dying breath will be a curse against its false life!

Derrick spoke and signed books for us, at a June, 1993 event at the Cabral Center, of the John D.O’Bryant African-American Institute, at Northeastern University.
Derrick’s persistent, consistent witness has paved the path for many, and I count it a huge privilege to claim him as a teacher with whom I have never sat in any class, but whose life is a beacon of hope and inspiration.

Following (not very well!) Freire

The Photography Collective was one way we tried to reach and awaken the consciousness of white people. Then came a still different attempt to do the same. This effort was built on what I am sure was an uninformed understanding of Paulo Freire’s early work in South America. His work in helping people to become literate often involved the use of images, which helped learners to identify both letters and their meanings. In the process he discovered that people often became aware of social contradictions which restricted both their learning and their lives. This consciousness of those contradictions became motivation for changing the oppressive conditions of life. The literacy program suddenly became the ground of revolutionary ideas which threatened the status quo.

We often wondered if there was any possible way of adopting the Freire model to white, middle-class America, some way of shaking the perceptions of a perfect status quo. One simple experiment in a suburban community involved people with cameras going through their community, photographing scenes, places, people in contexts, which represented “contradictions”. One group of people took interesting photos of the rear alleys behind the buildings fronting on their Main Street. The differences between the lovely front facades and landscaping seemed to them to be “contradicted” by the alleys. Behind the buildings were trash barrels overflowing, wasted food from diners, discarded furniture, presenting a different “picture” of their community. For a host of reasons we had to abandon the idea. Still, it remains for me an example of attempted innovation which was worthwhile, though it failed.