HARVARD DIARY
The Underclass, Part V: Children & Violence

December 1989By Robert Coles



In this last piece on the so-called “underclass,” I would like to look back at my work in Boston over the years, and address the matter of violence — its presence in ghettos, among other places. For nearly a quarter of a century I have been working in parts of a Boston ghetto, trying to understand how black and Spanish-speak­ing children grow up. I came to Roxbury in 1966, upon my return from the South, where I watched the civil rights struggle unfold — school desegregation, the sit-in movement, the various marches, the Missis­sippi “Freedom Summer,” days of pain, but a time also of important political success and moral victory. Again and again I was told by segregationists in obscure Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi towns not only to get the hell out, to go “back home,” but more significantly (in retrospect, at least) to go take a close look at what I’d left to come “messing in other folks’ backyards.” Soon enough, I had indeed returned to my native Boston — just in time to discover what the sheriff of McComb County, Mississippi, told me (one July day in 1964) I’d find out, if I would only be willing to do so: “It’s great the way y’all go around down here pointing out our troubles and our mistakes. Be sure to look hard around you when you’re back there in Yankee heaven.”

The violence that accompanied attempted school and residential desegregation in the North, in cities such as Boston or Chicago, took many of us by surprise. For one thing, the South had been regarded as the last bastion of segregationist resistance; now, it was cities whose sons and daughters had gone to Selma, to the Delta, that were caught in a cross-fire of fear and hate. I well remember sitting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., listening to him talk of that fateful trip to Chicago he took toward the end of his life — “enough to make you want to go hurrying back South,” he said with a wan, wry smile on his face. Moreover, that sheriff had made a point to me that may well have accounted for the reluctance of many of us Northern folk to take a careful look at our own, nearby world: “Down here, rich or poor, we know each other, the colored and us, we live with each other every day. Up there, you have your well-off people, they buy their way out of what they don’t like, and they never have a thing to do with anyone colored.”

For years in Boston I watched a politics of both race and class play out — the bitterness and jeopardy felt by whites who worked in factories or service jobs, the earnest, high hopes of black integrationist leaders, the dreams of black parents that those Southern triumphs would soon come North. But as Boston struggled with school desegregation, I watched whites who could afford to do so move to so-called blue-collar suburbs; some blacks also moved, often to liberal, white, well-to-do suburbs, but most blacks, of course, have had nowhere to go. Let a black man in his late 50s describe what he has seen happen since he came North to Boston after the Second World War: “I came from just outside Greensboro [North Caroli­na] and we had a quiet life there. I drove for the undertaker. I always wore a suit, that way! But I wanted more than the suit, and him telling me he’d bury me real good, ‘a dandy job,’ he’d say. I wanted to live good, not just die good. So, I went up North. I had a cousin who’d been stationed near Boston during the [Second World] War and he stayed, and I figured I’d go follow him. He was living near Columbus Avenue in the South End. He’d gotten a job in a gas station; I believe it was called Merit gas that they sold. I got me a place near him, and I got me a job in a restaurant. White folks would come there — steppin’ out, and you could see them being curious and excited: ‘the best fried chicken in Boston,’ someone said in a newspaper. Where I lived, there were some white folks — boarding houses, mostly elderly, but some young ones, I remember. The South was in me: I’d tip my hat to the white women. I didn’t do that with our women. But then the civil rights movement back home got me thinking, and so one day I stopped tipping my hat.

“All of a sudden [the early 1960s] the whites were getting out of where we lived — too many of us. We moved to Roxbury, and there were still some white folks there. It was peaceful. Some of the old apartment houses, and the triple deckers, you could feel the ghosts there, of the Jews — and all their stores on Blue Hill Avenue, some were still there. There were some Irish around, too. We lived together for a while. My kids knew some white kids, and I’d tell my sons and daughters, the Jews are a high-class people, they believe in the mind, and I want you to be like them. I had a job for a while as janitor: the folks called me ‘superintendent.’ The landlord, he was Jewish, and he treated me nice, real nice. He’d been living in [nearby] Dorchester, and then he moved over to Newton, ‘the big jump’ he called it. He said we [blacks] could do the same some day — but I’m not sure it’s true, no sir. We have some professional people here in Roxbury, and in Dorchester, and they move to Mattapan, and that’s as far as they can go. You try the suburbs, and they’ll fight you.


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