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Oral histories on race relations in Boston

Dan F. (41)

My mother, Jeanne Ferris, was born in 1953 and was raised in West
Roxbury in an Irish Catholic household. She has experienced many of
the issues we have discussed lately in class such as busing and the
Charles Stuart case very intimately, and she gave me some unique views
on the issues that had never even crossed my mind. It is strange that
I have never tapped this fountain of knowledge that is my mother
before, but like most high school studenst I am not very eager to say
"Hi mom, let's talk about racial tensions when you were growing up."
Talking with her has given me a much clearer picture on racial issues
that hit close to home (she went to Girls' Latin School) and has given
me some insight into how the average white, Irish Catholic girl lived
in the 70s and 80s.

My mother grew up in West Roxbury surrounded by Irish and Italian
families. She never experienced any discrimination against her
because of her Irish background, and to put it in her own words "we
ran the city by then." She never saw a black person just about
anywhere when she was a little girl; they were not on the streets of
West Roxbury for sure, and she could not even recall seeing a minority
even on the television.

However, after elementary school, where she never saw any minority
children, she went to Girls' Latin High School. When she met minority
children there she never really felt they were much different from
her. The issue of racism was one she had never heard discussed, and
she did not feel any need to dislike someone based on their skin
color. One of her best friends was a black girl, another one of her
best friends was an Asian girl, and yet another one of her best
friends was a Jewish girl who lived in West Roxbury. Apparrently she
had not received much prejudice from the Catholics in West Roxbury.
My mother's naļive lack of understanding why anyone should dislike a
person based on the color of their skin or their religion brightened
my spirits somewhat. After hearing so much about racism I had almost
started to assume that people just naturally hated each other based on
race, and when I heard my mother say that they were all just "kids
trying to get through high school" I couldn't help but smile.

However she did not paint a picture of a racism-free West Roxbury;
when she brought her good friend home who happened to be black, the
neighborhood was outraged and her father (who is by no means racist)
was reluctant to let her come over due to what the neighbors would
think. She also was not allowed to visit her friend's home in Roxbury
because of riots that had occurred in 1967 or 1968 due to something my
mother could not remember. She stressed the importance of
neighborhoods at that time, saying that people did everything in their
own neighborhoods and never left if possible. She felt that racism
was not as much of an issue during her highschool days because the
Vietnam War had brought people together. All the people at her school
were middle-class people, and they all knew somebody who had been sent
off to fight in the war. The idea that the Vietnam War was bringing
people together seemed to make sense to me, but it also disturbed me
that it would take something that terrible to make people forget about
their petty differences.

My mother became a teacher in 1974 and taught at the Tynan school in
South Boston when busing had just begun. As a teacher she experienced
the protests and riots first-hand. She described how the buses would
pull up at a safe distance and the troopers would form two line where
the children could run safely through. Even the Special Needs
children who she taught were not safe. She was extremely against
busing and said, when I asked her what she thought of it, without any
hesitation "It was a terrible idea." She then went on to say that
something had to be done about the segregation and poor quality of the
schools, but that busing was the worst decision imaginable. She did
not entirely blame the people of South Boston saying that all the
government was doing was busing one group of poor kids to another
group of poor kids, and all it did was make things inconveniant. In
West Roxbury, some elementary schools simply closed because nobody
would go to them; parents sent their children to private schools or to
Needham or Newton.

In addition to the Tynan, she taught at the Holland, the Marshall,
and at Dorchester High, all in Dorchester. Not only was there
desegregation of students, there was also desegregation of teachers.
There were many teaching jobs that people could not put in for because
they would have the initials B.O. (Black Only) before them, signifying
the job was reserved for black teachers. Many of the people she
taught with had been given jobs due to the BO system and were not even
certified teachers. When I asked her if she noticed any gradual
change in the segregation of schools, she said that there were always
mostly minorites wherever she taught. In Southie many of the white
children simply refused to come, and in Dorchester there was a
majority of black students.

When I asked my mother to give an account of the Stuart case, she
said that in the year it happened there was a record number of murders
and that most of them were due to "street violence." She said that
the white population did not seem to care because most of the violence
was "blacks killing blacks." Then, when the Charles Stuart incident
happened the police, according to my mother, "went crazy" and started
accosting random black people in Mission Hill. She said that they
were too quick to jump to conclusions and then added when people
finally started investigating Stuart himself, he "jumped to his own
conclusion." To hear it put so bluntly finally made me fully
understand the severity of the police's actions.

I then asked her about how she felt about race relations today and
how they have improved. She said that segregation had definitelynot
stopped in Boston altogether, and that she would not doubt if black
people still had a hard time getting a house in West Roxbury today.
She commented about how when black people move into a neighborhood
there is still "white flight" but went on to say that the city as a
whole was much more tolerant and the neighborhoods much less
segregated.

This interview, even though I only talked to a person who I talk to
to every day of my life, was actually something of an eye-opener to me
on a few fronts. Hearing someone who actually experienced the riots
and segregated schools we have seen and heard so much about in class
made the idea finally hit me that these things did not happen long ago
and are in fact still going on. Since this interview I have started
to notice a few things that have not changed very much. The other day
while boarding my charter bus to Latin School from Hyde Park, I looked
over and noticed a school bus filling up with highschool kids. Every
single person getting on the bus was black. It seems as if busing has
merely shuffled the neighborhoods, not desegregated them. Hyde Park
was mostly a "white" neighborhood when my mother was growing up and
now it is mostly a "black" neighborhood. The Stuart case happened
when I was actually alive, and happened during a time that I had
always thought was basically without widespread racism. Looking back
on it I realize that Mission Hill was still mostly black people, and
still is today. Overall, racism is less common in Boston, but
segregation and stereotyping is still alive and well in every
neighborhood in town. The question now is: when do we take the next
step?

Posted by freemanjud at November 17, 2004 10:53 PM
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