Becoming Boston

Resistance and Resilience

The “color line,” which the Black scholar W. E. B. Du Bois described as “the problem of the twentieth century,” was not just a conceptual line between groups of people but very often a cartographic line, a space of both racist confrontation and demands for liberation.

Despite its reputation as a hotbed for abolitionist sentiment in the nineteenth century, Boston never fully granted its Black population substantive political and economic equality. The city had a small but segregated Black population before the Civil War, which grew in the early twentieth century as Black families moved from the U.S. South as well as from overseas. While Boston and Massachusetts had relatively few outright legal restrictions on where Black people could live, a more sinister pattern of racist exclusion stood in the way of both spatial and social integration. In the years after World War II, as white people and their money increasingly fled outside of city lines to the car-dependent suburbs, the neighborhoods where Black residents lived suffered from disinvestment. Fights over school boundaries and where to direct redevelopment funds illustrated just how entrenched the “color line” had become in Boston. Political and social struggles to build a more just racial geography in the Boston region are ongoing today, even as contemporary maps continue to document stark racial inequalities.

Illustrative site plan: Washington Park urban renewal area

Boston Redevelopment Authority
Leventhal Map and Education Center

A threefold blow hit Boston in the first half of the twentieth century. First, the region began to deindustrialize as factories left for cheaper labor in the U.S. South. Then, the entire nation went through the calamity of the Great Depression. Finally, suburbanization, driven by mass automobile ownership and white flight to single-family neighborhoods, hollowed out older and denser parts of the city. This map, one of many made by the BRA in the 1960s and 1970s, shows how the city tried to cope with these changes: by using federal money, expert planners, and massive urban renewal schemes to reconstruct challenged neighborhoods. In this project planned for Washington Park in Roxbury, many Black middle-class leaders welcomed renewal efforts. But the combination of over-ambitious top-down plans and the ongoing legacy of racist disinvestment meant that many of these programs failed to create the vibrant and equitable spaces that the planners had hoped to create.

Short term plan to reduce racial imbalance in the Boston Public Schools

Massachusetts Board of Education
Boston Public Library

One of the most glaring inequalities in Boston by the middle twentieth century was the de facto segregation of its school system, the product of racist housing practices which had limited nearly all Black Bostonians to a handful of neighborhoods. Civil rights leaders insisted that Boston needed to redress the racial geography of its school system, bravely standing up to open threats by white supremacists. In 1974, after many years of officials dithering on plans to comply with desegregation laws, a federal judge ruled that Boston needed to immediately rebalance the racial composition of its schools. This report, which was released just before the ruling, used early computer mapping methods to propose one possible drawing of school attendance boundaries in a more racially inclusive fashion. The subsequent years and decades saw painful conflicts over how to assign students to different schools, a geographic fight that revealed much deeper fissures in the city’s racial geography.