For many U.S. cities, hosting a major convention in town is a significant economic boom for its residents, with the potential of attracting more conventions and tourists in the future. The National Urban League will commence their annual convention today in Boston. For Beantown, the convention is more than an economic boom; it’s an opportunity to heal racial wounds.
As many of you are aware, Boston has this unfortunate “racist” reputation. The last time the Urban League hosted their convention in Boston was in 1976 during the height of desegregated school busing. After a 1974 court ruling, black and white students were required to attend schools in different neighborhoods.
The integration plan drew much criticism and prompted violence throughout the city, especially in the predominately white South Boston, where its high school was guarded by 500 officers daily and installed metal detectors to protect black students. Most Americans remember the famous photo of black lawyer Theodore Landmark being attacked by anti-busing protesters with a pole and an American flag attached to it.
Since then, generally when the city makes national news in regards to race relations, it’s for negative reasons. In 1989 white store manager Charles Stuart made up a story that a fictitious black man killed his pregnant wife Carol after an attempted robbery. The Boston Police immediately ransacked black communities in search of the killer, only to later find out that Stuart killed his wife. Even after Stuart’s suicide, the city grew further apart racially.
More recently, Dr. Henry Louis Gates was a victim of “being-arrested-in-front-of-his-house-while-black.” Although this incident took place across the Charles River in the very liberal People’s Republic of Cambridge, Boston is guilty by association, and thus, African-Americans around the country saw this as “business as usual” for the city.
Because of its racial past, it has been very difficult for Boston to attract major black conventions and tourists of color. So when it was announced last year that NUL was coming to town, state and city officials and a host of community activists went above and beyond to make sure the needs of the convention were met.
Ahead of the convention, the local Urban League chapter released a report — “The State of Black Boston” — to review any progress and challenges in the city. Many of the findings are similar to national trends. Convention attendees will go to a series of meetings, tours and parties meant to showcase the “new Boston,” including a reception hosted by white politicians from South Boston to demonstrate racial unity.
“We get a lot of requests from local chapters nationwide to host the conference,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial. “The Boston chapter has been begging us to come for four years and it meant a lot to us when state and city officials courted us.”
However, as a lifelong Bostonian, I have to agree with some of the complaints made about my hometown. One major issue many Urban League convention attendees will notice is that the city is still racially segregated, especially in the predominately white downtown area where the convention is being held. Unlike Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, it’s very rare to see people of color at many of Boston’s fine restaurants and nightclubs. Recently a group of black Harvard students were denied entry to a club because they were “potentially gang bangers.”
The city’s neighborhoods are also distinctly separated along racial lines. Because of the feeling of not being welcomed, many of my friends of color I went to high school and college with have since moved away to more integrated cities. One friend from Fayetteville, N.C. I went to college with was told by his mother to moved back to his home state after graduation because of Boston’s racial history. It says a lot when a black person would much rather live in the middle of Klan country in the South than live in Boston.
For all the negative things that can be said about the city, there are also a lot of positive things that should be mentioned too. There have been major efforts by a number of people of color who decided against moving out of the city to make it a better place. This can be primarily seen in the political landscape. In the last five years numerous people of color have been elected as city councilors and state representatives.
Over in Cambridge, city councilors Ken Reeves and Denise Simmons were elected to respectively be the first openly gay and lesbian black mayors in the country. Mayor Setti Warren of the predominately white, neighboring city of Newton — the first black ever to be elected mayor in the Commonwealth — is currently campaigning to take over the seat held by U.S. Sen. Scott Brown.
Of course, Gov. Deval Patrick is the Commonwealth’s first black governor, the first black governor ever to be re-elected and currently the only seating black governor in the country. Since his re-election in November, Patrick has appointed the first black chief justice to the state supreme court, as well as the first Asian-American and first openly lesbian associates to the same court.
So why do I continue to live here, you ask? It’s home. Part of me says this is where my roots are, while another part of me follows what Gandhi once said. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I want to do my part to change Boston’s reputation, and I hope NUL convention attendees will also see the changes that are happening too.