City Snapshot: Boston

Boston is one of the oldest cities of the United States and the capital city of Massachusetts. Home to about 692,000 people, Boston is 44 percent white, 25 percent Black, 19 percent Latino, and almost 10 percent Asian. Boston’s many colleges and universities (including Harvard, the US’s oldest university) and consistently blue voting record make it an American bastion of progressivism to some. However, Boston is also home to one of the most virulent resistances to desegregation in US history, and is one of the few major cities in the US that became significantly more segregated over the past two decades. Even extremely segregated metropolitan areas such as New York and Chicago have decreased slightly over the same time period. So what did desegregation look like in a northern city like Boston, and why has it been so hard to maintain?

In the 1950s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) set forth cases in lower courts to challenge segregation in K-12 public schools after a string of successes at the university level. Five of these cases were appealed to the US Supreme Court and came to collectively be known as Brown v. Board of Education. Though it took two years, the Supreme Court finally ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The ruling was an undeniable win for desegregation. But enforcing the ruling was an uphill battle from the beginning: rather than providing an implementation plan with the ruling, the court required states with formal segregation laws to submit desegregation plans. The court maintained that local solutions would be necessary and, in a second ruling, urged municipalities to adhere to the ruling of Brown v. Boardwith all deliberate speed.

The devolution of responsibility to state and local governments had mixed results throughout the South as formal segregation laws and policies were challenged piece by piece. But as de jure school segregation started being dismantled in the 1950s and 1960s, de facto segregation remained in much of the US.

Nearly two decades after Brown v. Board, the 1974 ruling Morgan v. Hennigan by the US District Court for Massachusetts ordered Boston schools to desegregate. But Boston had resisted desegregation orders before Morgan v. Hennigan: The Massachusetts State Board of Education had previously commissioned a study of school segregation, resulting in the 1965 Kiernan Report. The report concluded that the existing school segregation in Massachusetts public schools was indeed harmful to students. The district spent an average of $60 less per pupil in majority Black schools than in non-Black schools that year. Later that same year, state legislature passed the Racial Imbalance Act making segregation in state public schools illegal and ordering a busing plan. No busing plan was implemented. At least, not in response to the Racial Imbalance Act of 1965. The Boston School Committee ignored the order, much as they dismissed the Kiernan Report. “No one in their right mind is against civil rights,” said chair of the Boston School Committee, Louise Day Hicks. “Only let it come naturally.”

Hicks was not alone in the sentiment. Many Bostonians claimed to not be “for segregation,” just vehemently opposed to busing and other “forced” measures of integration. Bob Schwartz, now a professor emeritus of education at Harvard, was a mayoral advisor of education in the early 1970s. “At every point where the school committee had a choice,” he told local radio station WBUR, “the school committee opted for segregation.” According to Historian Jim Vrabel, the Boston School Committee had used busing as a tool to create segregation in Boston schools previously. So when the 1974 Morgan v. Hennigan ruling was upheld, first by the US Court of Appeals, and then by the US Supreme Court, busing began that fall.

Pushback was swift. Judge Garrity, the ruling judge in the Morgan v. Hennigan case who would oversee the order to desegregate, received many angry letters. These letter writers, many of them white and working class, aired their grievances, fears, and indignation about the changes. Many were quick to point out that Judge Garrity himself would be unaffected by the changes because his own children attended school in the well-off suburb of Wellesley. The mayor, Kevin H. White, had been preparing all summer. He held coffee hours and town hall meetings trying to assuage parents’ anxieties. In some ways, it worked. On the first day of school, September 12, 1974, many parts of the city were calm. But South Boston, a largely white, Irish-Catholic, working class neighborhood, erupted. South Boston was adjacent to Roxbury, a majority Black and Latino neighborhood, and many families in south Boston were vehemently opposed to sending their kids to Roxbury. So much so that many kids from south Boston boycotted going to school at all. The NAACP office was firebombed. As buses from Roxbury arrived in south Boston, crowds filled the streets throwing bricks, eggs, bottles, and stones. Kids huddled under bus seats as glass from bus windows scattered around them. Police clashed with jeering mobs so that kids could enter and exit school buildings.

The calamity only escalated. Parents pulled their children out of school, not believing the city could protect them from the growing unrest. Families received death threats for participating in the integration efforts. In October that year, the National Guard was deployed. Over the next decade, hundreds of court orders were ruled on to continue the busing plan. Enrollment in Boston’s public schools fell. Still, between 1967 and 1980 the number of highly segregated white schools declined from 101 to 7, and the number of highly segregated Black and Latino schools dropped from 25 to 3. The busing was working, but between 1970 and 1990 Boston lost half of its school-age population as white families with children fled to the suburbs.

The city’s desegregation efforts stopped in 1999 but its population has not recovered. While Boston’s total population has begun to rebound, 5 to 17 year olds remain a much smaller proportion. Though many major cities are seeing declines in families with children overall, many middle- and high-income families leave Boston when their children reach school-age. The result is, once again, an intensely segregated public school district. A 2018 report found that almost 60 percent of Boston public schools have student bodies where 90 percent or more are students of color. This trend is represented in Boston’s overall population, too: Boston’s Black and Asian populations haven’t changed that much since 1980, but Boston’s Latino population has increased steadily and its white population has decreased by 20 percent between 1980 and 2010.

Anti-integration efforts no longer look like angry letters, mobs, or a repudiation of busing. Still, integration eludes Boston.