African American Identity & Activism

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order to desegregate the United States military. Federal civil rights legislation was still years in the future, and Truman’s action was highly controversial, but it reflected the country’s changing political and demographic reality. African Americans were moving into primarily white urban areas in greater and greater numbers, hoping to find cities and communities where they could participate as equal citizens. In Boston between 1940 and 1950, the African American population doubled. As African Americans moved into white neighborhoods, schools, and jobs, they encountered resistance. Legal guarantees for equality came, but slowly.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled against de jure segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education, but a full spectrum of civil rights legislation was not created until African Americans had molded themselves into a political community that could no longer be ignored. By the time the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed, Boston’s African American community had organized to address the most pressing needs and injustices. The struggle in Boston, as elsewhere, has produced deep pride in African American heritage and accomplishments, and Boston’s citizens of color have celebrated them.

African American grassroots organizations and community leaders in Boston began to fight for better treatment, neighborhoods, and services before and throughout the civil rights movement. In 1917, the Boston Urban League was founded to assist black migrants. In subsequent decades, the organization has targeted low-income areas of Greater Boston for services and advocacy for education, career development, and employment for people of color. In 1949, Muriel and Otto Snowden founded the Freedom House to centralize community activism in order to improve neighborhoods, schools, and racial relations in Roxbury. The Roxbury Multi-Service Center, founded in 1964, and the United South End Settlements, incorporated in 1960, worked directly in Roxbury and other disadvantaged neighborhoods to provide services and support.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, members of the Citywide Educational Coalition took the issue of de facto school segregation into their own hands and became a powerful voice for change in the turbulent years of Boston’s school desegregation. Similarly, two organizations, Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity and Operation Exodus, were formed by African American parents in the early 1960s to address the inadequacy of Boston’s schools and the quality of their education. Looking beyond the schoolhouse to new career paths, the Boston Vulcan Society formed in 1969 to integrate the Boston fire department. These are just a few examples of African American activism for social justice.

Hand in hand with social and political action, grassroots organizations and community leaders have been driving forces in the creation and growth of pride in an African American identity. Elma Lewis, who founded the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in 1950, believed completely in the power of the arts to mold strong, thoughtful, and capable young people, and brought arts education into the African American neighborhoods of Boston. Muriel and Otto Snowden of Freedom House committed themselves to staying in their neighborhood of Roxbury and making it a community to be proud of, rather than simply moving to a “better” part of Boston. The creation of artistic havens like the National Center for Afro-American Artists, founded in 1968, and its accompanying Museum fostered African American cultural pride. Greater pride in a shared heritage translated into a growing realization of combined community power. A strong sense of culture and a strong sense of collective identity have translated into political will and often into political success in Boston’s African American community. The organizations and activities documented in this exhibit show that clearly.

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