Black History Highlights of Fort Hill / by Jason Turgeon

In honor of Black History Month, I thought I’d take a stab at recapping what little I know about our neighborhood’s relatively recent black history.  I’m almost certain to miss important events and people, so if I missed something, please give me details in the comments.

Most people think of Roxbury as a neighborhood that is majority African-American, but it wasn’t always that way.  In fact, it was only in the second half of the Great Migration that Roxbury, especially Fort Hill, became home to a large black population.  But its black history does go back to the earliest days of the town.

Fort Hill’s black history, like the rest of the new world, starts with the slave trade.  Slavery was documented in the colony as early as 1624, well before the founding of Boston or Roxbury.  Many people in the Boston shipping industry participated in the slave trade, and Roxbury was not immune.  The National Park Service has a guide (PDF) that does a nice job recapping what little we know about slavery in Roxbury. Dr. Joseph Warren, whose name lives on in Warren street, owned a slave, as did General John Thomas, of the Dillaway-Thomas house at Eliot Square.  Roxbury counted 22 slaves aged 14 to 45 in 1771, but chances are that the number was higher because of the way they counted for tax purposes.  But there were also at least 4 free black couples living here at the time.  

For a more in-depth look at slavery in Massachusetts, the website has a good summary, and the Massachusetts Historical Society has a great set of documents and info about the end of slavery in 1783 at this link.

One problem with trying to track black history anywhere in the US is that there simply aren’t many records related to black people in the early days of the country.  Racism was still endemic, even after the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision in 1783 that ended slavery in the Commonwealth, and black people rarely owned property or businesses, so they didn’t leave much of a paper trail.  But we can get hints as to what life might have been like for the handful of black residents in our neighborhood from places like the Journal of a Residence and Tour of the US, written by visiting British author Edward Abdy when he visited the country in 1833-4.  

Throughout the book he takes a hard look at slavery and the treatment of free blacks, and his visit to Boston, recounted in chapter 5 of the book, is no different.  As he notes on meeting some black men at an anti-slavery meeting he attended

There were several of the same race present; all of them decent in their dress and decorous in their behavior. Some of them appeared to be in easy circumstances. There are fewer of them in Boston than in New York; but they are not better treated. One of them complained to me that he had experienced, great difficulty in obtaining an employment in which he could get his bread decently and respectably: with the exception of one or two employed as printers, one blacksmith, and one shoemaker there are no colored mechanics in the city.

It’s a fair assumption that the circumstances for blacks in Roxbury weren’t any different.

Abdy was a contemporary of William Lloyd Garrison, our neighborhood’s famed abolitionist and the author of the Liberator.  I’ll write a full post about Mr. Garrison somday.  For now, I think it suffices to mention his involvement in bringing about the end of slavery nationwide and simply link to his bio on wikipedia.

William Lloyd Garrison

After Garrison, there’s not much info on the neighborhood’s black history for many decades.  As Fort Hill changed from a bucolic suburb into a densely populated city with its own industry, it stayed largely white.  The neighborhood was sometimes called “German Hill” because of the thousands of German immigrants who lived here 100 years ago.  But given the industrial workforce and the many blue-collar jobs available at the time, it’s a fair guess that there were at least some black families living in the area.  We certainly know that there was a community of Caribbean immigrants around the turn of the last century that congregated at St. Cyprian’s in Lower Roxbury, including the Roxbury Aunties.

But the neighborhood’s changeover to a largely African-American population didn’t happen until the 1940s.  Census records from 1930 onwards are available online at the BPL, and although there isn’t one census tract that neatly encompasses Fort Hill, we can use Roxbury as a whole as a proxy.  Here’s what Roxbury looked like in 1930 - 48% of its residents were white immigrants fresh off the boat, another 20% or so were the children of immigrants, 15% were whites who had been in the country at least 2 generations, and about 15% were black.

Unfortunately, there’s no similar analysis for the 1940 census, but we do have access to some data from the 1950 census.  In the intervening 20 years, Roxbury stayed largely white.  Of the 112,000 people in the neighborhood in 1950, just under 26,000 were listed as “non-white.”  

By 1960, though, things had changed dramatically.  The overall population had fallen by nearly 25%, to 85,000, and the non-white population was at about 38,000, or just about 45%.  Sadly, an increasing black population was closely tied to a decrease in income, status, and services in the neighborhood.  By the end of the 1960s, Fort Hill was a desolate place, bordered by the wastelands that remained after the failed urban revitalization and transportation projects of the era.  Our once-beautiful housing stock fell into disrepair, our parks were neglected, and even the neighborhood’s most prominent landmark, the Cochituate Standpipe, was not immune to decay.

Cochituate Standpipe on fire, 1960s

By 1970, Roxbury was firmly an African-American community, with the census listing about 41,000 blacks out of a total of just 63,000 remaining resident - a decline in overall population of almost 50% from its prewar peak.  But while the neighborhood was in decline overall, the seeds of something great were being sown in Fort Hill.  Community-minded groups took advantage of the rock-bottom prices, prime location close to Boston, and some remnants of civic pride to salvage the neighborhood.  

One of the most prominent of those groups was the Roxbury Action Program, which wanted to form a “model black community” under the charismatic leadership of George Morrison.  Their story is detailed in Stewart Perry’s marvelous history of RAP, which is partially available online.  I was lucky enough to find a copy of the original book on eBay, and I hope to write a much more detailed post about RAP at some point in the future.

RAP, with help from many other groups, was able to stabilize the neighborhood and save many of the old buildings from destruction, including the Norfolk House and several blocks of rowhouses.  It’s not entirely clear that they succeeded in their vision of creating a model black community in Fort Hill, but many of Boston’s black leaders have called the area home, including Chuck Turner, Byron Rushing, Ed Cooper, Celia Grant, Darryl Settles, Derek Lumpkins, and others.  

Recent historical information is always a bit harder to find online, both because of copyright issues and because many people don’t think of recent events as “history” yet.  But if you want more, check out the oral history project housed at Northeastern University.  The archives at Roxbury Community College are also a good place to start.

What happens next for the Black History of Fort Hill remains to be seen.  While some worry about gentrification and an influx of affluent white newcomers, it’s worth noting that even in the darkest years of the 1970s and early 1980s our neighborhood always remained more integrated than other parts of Roxbury.  Black and white neighbors have formed a tightly-knit community over the past 30 years that transcends race, a sad rarity in a town that is still largely racially divided.  Hopefully this continues, with newcomers augmenting a great community, not replacing it.