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Annual John Hope Franklin Distinguished Lecture Sheds Light on Segregation in Boston

By Joanna Reid


Every year, Adelphi presents a lecture on Black history in honor of Black historian John Hope Franklin. This year's speaker was Zebulon V. Miletsky who discussed the racist history of Boston that has led to discrimination and segregation. Miletsky has both a masters and PhD in African American Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is also an associate professor of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University and is the author of the book, “Before Busing: A History of Boston's Long Black Freedom Struggle.” He appeared on stage at Adelphi on Feb. 22 to an audience of about 20 in an event sponsored by John Hope Franklin Distinguished Lecture and the Center for African, Black and Caribbean Studies.

Some people have viewed Boston as one of the most racist cities in all of the United States. Afterall, the capital of Massachusetts played one of the biggest parts in the slave trade; it was their goods that were sold in exchange for enslaved people. In other words, Boston was the first step in the triangular trade; it was their ships that sailed to West Africa.



Zebulon V. Miletsky presented his lecture in the University Center ballroom as part of the John Hope Franklin Distinguished Lecture and the Center for African, Black and Caribbean Studies. Photo by Joanna Reid

Miletsky explained, “Despite its [Boston’s] reputation as the historic cradle of liberty and headquarters of the abolitionist movement, racial conflict exploded in Boston in 1974 in protest against a court order that desegregated schools by busing students in and out of previously segregated districts.”


This court case is known as Morgan v. Hennigan. Miletsky said, “Boston is a place of education; it is a center for higher education. Harvard University is the first college in America. Boston Latin School is the first public high school in America. So I think this also surprises people, that in a city that’s known for education that there would be these problems in the school.”


He went on to mention that few people are educated on Boston’s history of segregation, regardless of the fact that families and parents worked hard to combat the discrimination they were facing—not to mention the violence against people of color in Boston was rampant at this time.


Mitletsky highlighted the misconceptions of the city. “Boston had been the place where abolitionism started. You would think that this is a place that’s going to be very positive, very open to Black folks and Black experiences; unfortunately this is not the case. Moreover, many assume that segregation in schools is a fairly new issue.”


However, Roberts v. City of Boston (1849) took place in the 19th century. In this case, a student by the name of Sarah C. Roberts had to walk past several white schools to get to a school that Black students were allowed to attend. “The city of Boston was not found guilty of maintaining separate schools in the 19th century. Although they didn’t use the term ‘separate but equal’ that is essentially what Roberts v. Boston does, it provides a legal precedent for separate but equal,” Miletsky said.


Another misconception about segregation in Boston is that it’s the place where school desegregation started. But this is untrue as the Roberts v. City of Boston case was cited in Plessy v. Ferguson years later. This goes to show that “the original source for ‘separate but equal’ (Jim Crow)” stems from Boston.


Many also believe that busing was mainly ineffective in the U.S. In actuality, busing affected Boston immensely. Additionally, Miletsky explained that because ethnic groups like the Irish and the Italians emigrated from their home countries, they felt as though they were competing against people of color in America. This in turn contributed to a lot of the bigotry seen today. Miletsky grew up in Boston and remembers certain towns that Black people were expected to leave before nightfall otherwise it was dangerous for them. Miletsky’s point is that racism is not only something that is rooted in the deep South; northern states have a long past with segregation too.


“We have to start rethinking our ideas about where this stuff called segregation comes from,” he said. “It’s not just from the south… I make the argument that busing is Boston’s reconstruction… The north is in need of reconstruction and change.”


Chistopher Davis, an Adelphi professor of African, Black and Caribbean studies who attended the event, said, “Dr. Miletsky's lecture highlighted the processes Black families in Boston undertook to ensure that their children received the best education possible amid the legal actions of the 1960s and 1970s. Access to quality education is sometimes taken for granted. Understanding these legal and social battles related to bigger struggles in ensuring equal access to Civil Rights for all citizens is important.”

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