“A People’s Guide to Greater Boston,” published last July, is a very readable book that details the history of all the neighborhoods of Boston and some surrounding communities. It begins with a focus on how Native Americans were mistreated in the 17th century, the anti-slavery activism of the 19th century, the labor union movements of the 20th century, and actions of community groups over the past 50 years.
Joe Nevins, who grew up in Fields Corner and currently is professor of geography at Vassar College in New York, is the co-author along with Suren Moddliar and Eleni Macrakis.
In the Dorchester section of the publication, they cover some very important events. They take up the life of William Monroe Trotter, an important civil rights leader and journalist who lived at 97 Sawyer Ave. on Jones Hill. In 1901, he founded the African-American newspaper called the Boston Guardian. He also helped form the Niagara Movement with W.E. DuBois that led to the founding of the NAACP. It took a community campaign in 1969 to get the Boston School Committee, which was then not well-disposed to civil rights, to the Trotter School on Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury is named after him and it took a community campaign in 1969 to get the Boston School Committee.
The authors also cover the death of Rev. James Reeb, a civil rights leader who lived in Uphams Corner and was killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965. He had answered the call from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King for clergy from around the country to come after the infamous attacks on marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
On March 14, 1965, some 30,000 people gathered on Boston Common to remember him and support voting rights. Another 200 people from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) staged a sit-in on the same day at the JFK Federal Building downtown to protest the federal government not doing enough for civil rights. Reeb’s death and the fallout were important factors in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
They also dive into a 1965 controversy at the Gibson School — at the corner of Bowdoin Avenue and Morse Streets in Dorchester— involving teacher Jonathan Kozol, who was fired for reading to his students Langston Hughes’s poem “Ballad of the Landlord.”
Parents and supporters protested Kozol’s firing and demanded curriculum reform, actually winning some steps on that from the recalcitrant School Department. Kozol then wrote a searing book about the failures of the Boston Public Schools for Black students called “Death at an Early Age.”
The so-called “Mother’s Riot,” a three-day period of unrest that unfolded in Grove Hall in 1967 is also detailed. At the time, 515 Blue Hill Avenue in Grove Hall was the public welfare office. Thirty people from the group Mothers for Adequate Welfare staged a sit-in at the office on June 1, 1967, around 10 demands and said they wouldn’t leave until officials met them. Without any negotiations, the Boston Police stormed the building, dragged out the protesters, and beat a number of them. This sparked three days of protests and rioting.
And they write about Temple Beth Hillel, which was located at 800 Morton St., near the corner of Norfolk Street, and is now the Berea Seventh Day Adventist School. In 1968, Boston banks said they would finally give home mortgages to African Americans, but only in West Dorchester along Blue Hill Avenue from Grove Hall to Franklin Field to Wellington Hill in Mattapan. This led to 10 realtors opening offices there and using vicious blockbusting scare tactics to get the predominantly Jewish homeowners to sell their homes.
Two older teens appeared on June 27, 1969 at the nearby Glen Hill Avenue home of the temple’s rabbi, Gerald Zerlemyer, and threw acid in his face. The shock of this led to the temple announcing that September that it was closing and moving to West Roxbury, which was exactly what the blockbusting realtors wanted. I maintain they had to have paid the two people who attacked the rabbi.
And there’s more. They cover the activism on Columbia Point that was sparked when a dump truck heading for the landfill struck and killed six-year-old Laura Ewing, a resident of the public housing complex. Residents had long warned it could happen, as trucks daily brought garbage to the dump next to the development. Residents organized and blocked the street to stop the trucks and got the city to close the dump.
Not long after, the nation’s first community health center —now called the Geiger-Gibson Community Health Center — opened on Mt. Vernon Street.
There are other Dorchester cameos, such as the 1971 sit-in staged at the Fields Corner Army Recruitment Center by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, part of the national “Operation Peace on Earth.”
The book also touches on two shootings targeting the Boston Globe’s headquarters on Morrissey Boulevard, which mob boss and murderer James “Whitey” Bulger ordered to retaliate against the newspaper’s support for desegregation of the Boston schools.
That’s only the Dorchester part of the book, and see how much you learned? Thanks to Dorchester’s Joe Nevins and his colleagues for enabling people to learn so much about the rich history that took place where we live.
Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident.