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40 Years Later, Boston Looks Back On Busing Crisis

This story contains some offensive language.

BOSTON – Forty years ago this month, the Boston chapter of the NAACP filed a lawsuit that eventually led to one of the most tumultuous times in Boston’s history.

It was a class-action suit on behalf of 14 parents and 44 children against the Boston School Committee. The goal was equity in education, regardless of race and class.

After more than two years, federal Judge Arthur Garrity found the school committee had intentionally brought about and maintained segregated schools. It was a violation of both the U.S. Constitution and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he said. Garrity ordered the desegregation — through busing — of Boston Public Schools.

The crisis that ensued still scars the city.

Milford Jenkins grew up in Columbia Point in Dorchester. Back in the mid 1970s it was a housing project. He’d attended integrated grade schools nearby but he had no inkling of what awaited him on the first day of his freshman year at South Boston High School.

“I was the first one off the bus on top of that hill in South Boston,” Jenkins said. “When I got off that bus I was called a nigger. ‘Nigger, get back on that bus,’ by a Boston police officer.”

The police were in riot gear, wearing helmets and carrying billy clubs as crowds lined the streets.

“They started throwing golf balls, bricks at the bus,” Jenkins said. “It was so much noise, calling you spear-chucker, ‘Go back to Africa, we don’t want you over here.’ I remember that, I remember that.”

This scene was repeated across the city.

Christine Boseman remembers the shock of seeing parents and grandparents spitting and jeering at the buses as they arrived. She was entering ninth grade at Roslindale High School.

“It was chaos. So, when us as kids got in school, honestly, we continued to fight,” Boseman said. “We defended ourselves and that’s the way we had to go to school for a while, was to defend ourselves, mentally and physically. Every day, every day. Inside, outside.”

Tim Norton grew up in South Boston, a block away from the high school. He entered ninth grade the second year of busing and says it was still intense. As a white student, he was occasionally under pressure from other white kids to stay away from South Boston High.

“It was craziness — basically no teaching going on at the school. It was just total disruption,” Norton said. “Various groups would call, [and say] ‘We’re gonna have a boycott today, so don’t go.’ If you were white and you go, you were gonna get beat up. It was just a total waste of time.

“I think it was an eye-opener, certainly for many families. Why do we keep sending our kids to Southie high and get a poor education? Open people’s eyes, there are better schools.”

Norton stayed just one year at South Boston High until he was recruited as a basketball player to attend a prep school outside the city.

Jenkins also left South Boston High.

“Busing really, really destroyed us because, you know, I quit that school and joined the Army,” Jenkins said. “I was 18.”

The tensions in the schools spilled over into the neighborhoods. Donna Bivens, who grew up in Ohio, had just moved to the Back Bay after graduating from Wellesley College.

“And I was really shocked at the tension in the city. I remember walking with my little sister in Kenmore Square and having a bottle thrown at us and I got spit at once,” Bivens said. “All over the city there was just, this, such rage and a sense of not having control over things.”

Bivens said it was a confusing time for the city.

“It’s a paradox because at the same time, I remember, I used to go to Revere Beach to play softball with this huge, Irish-American family and they were so loving and inclusive,” Bivens said. “These two things were going on at same time; it’s like: where am I? It was a culture shock in a lot of ways.”

Bivens is now directing a project for the Union of Minority Neighborhoods called the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project.

“We’ didn’t say reconciliation because we don’t know that we are going to have reconciliation come out of this. What we do think is that, if we really see it as an issue of our whole city, and the system of public education here, if we really do that we can learn something,” Bivens said. “One thing I’ve learned listening to people talk about the era — everybody has something to learn.”

The project is in its early phase, trying to get people of all races to open up about their experiences. Bivens is video taping interviews, along with project organizer Meaghan Doran.

Doran grew up in Roslindale years after the busing crisis and attended Boston Public Schools. Her father was among the white bus drivers who ferried the kids to school. She says he doesn’t like to talk much about that time, but there are many others who feel the need to tell their stories.

“One of those stories is there were a lot of white parents who really wanted to support racial equity and did put their kids on buses, did really try to work within the system and they don’t feel like anyone’s ever heard about them,” Moran said. “It varies. Some people feel like, wounds are being ripped a little, you know, like what do we do with this?”

Bivens says some people have said that it’s hard to make that shift if you’re still hurting from old wounds.

“Often just acknowledging what people have been through and giving them a chance to tell their stories and acknowledging it can make a shift for them,” Bivens said. ”They said that they think one reason Boston is so hesitant to talk about race, to really put it on the table and [why] it’s such a skittish issue is because we haven’t dealt with that era.”

And, Bevins says, that’s why the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project has as the tagline “For truth, learning, and change.”

The Boston Busing Desegregation Project will hold events throughout the city on June 21, the anniversary of the busing order in the desegregation case filed 40 years ago this month.

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  • Cruca Deirge

    If the goal was was equity in education, regardless of race and class, why did Phase 1 involve Roxbury, the poorest black neighborhood, and Southie, the neighborhood with the country’s highest concentration of white poverty? This story does not deal with the class implications at all. 

    • MaPol

      That’s a very good point, with which lots of people agree with you on, Cruca Deirge.  Although I was neither a Boston Public Schools student or a native Boston resident (I was already in my 20′s and had grown up in a Boston suburb), I attended college and lived in and around Boston at that time and came to know a number of people who were either students at that time, or who were parents of kids who were bused to various Boston public schools.  I, too came to the conclusion that phase 1 of Judge Garrity’s plan that entailed the pairing of Roxbury and Southie was not only the most disastrous part of that plan, but it acted as sort of a “trigger” point, setting the tone for the rest of the city for that time.  Not good.

      Class, as well as race, did play an important part in Boston’s school busing crisis, and many people did not or would not realize that.

  • Michael Jacoby Brown

    So, important to understand our history if we are to create our future.  Michael Jacoby Brown

  • anonymous

    This was a difficult time for both African Americans and Caucasians.  Both were emotionally and physically scarred by this volatile period.  Too often, however, only one side of the story is told.  No one won in this war of the races and the battle still rages.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gary-Hall/100001466597987 Gary Hall

      White hatred won!

  • JC

    Thanks for sharing this story! I was born in 1975 and I really didn’t know much about this until now.

  • Mary Aranyos

    Kudos to Ms. Bevins, Ms. Doran, and the Boston Busing/Desegration Project! This is such an important part of Boston’s history. Race is still very much an issue in Boston, and the impact of “white flight” continues to reverberate. We will never really heal or move forward until these issues are looked at head on and honestly, from all sides.

  • Anonymous

    METCO is alive and healthy and the minority community clamors to find a better education in their own flight from the Boston Schools.  In places like Arlington, Lexington, Wayland and Weston,  they have found it.

    Busing in Boston destroyed education for 3 generations.  White flight was a pure survival mechanism, (no METCO for poor whites). School population in Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester, The South End, The Fenway and Jamaica Plain reflected the populations in those areas with Black, White and Asian faces filing the class photos and yearbooks in the late 60s and early 70s, show us the truth.

    What busing did succeed in achieving was gentrification of most of the city and a completely different suburban landscape. Maybe the way to find peace, is for the City to apologize for destroying the lives of  a million students.

    The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft agley

  • Afmacon

    I was 9? 10? 11? yrs old, living in Columbia Point and attending the Paul A. Dever School when the Boston bus wreck exploded.   It’s tough to forget the daily vigilance required on public transit from Andrew Station, the excitement/terror of nighttime calls to arms, or the moans of grieving parent-neighbors and our childish abashed/awed sympathy for maimed playmates.   The sights and sounds of that time may have faded over the years, but they have imperceptibly impacted every facet of my adult experience.  I want to believe that Boston, and all it’s children, can heal.

  • Savvvvylady

     I was 7 years old(77) and forced to ride on a bus with other white children from my neighborhood to attend a school in a not so nice part of JP.  We were not allowed to attend elementary schools with in walking distance of our homes. So what the meant was a long walk to a bus stop and an hour or more ride each way. Attending school was  a nightmare. The minority kids picked on us,hit us,punched us,as it is deemed now bullied us. The principal did nothing about this daily abuse. The school itself was filthy. Cockroaches,mice and trash littered the lunch room. The bathrooms were even more vial! There wasn’t any toilet paper,soap. paper towels and doors on the stalls.
    When my parents were told about this,they contacted the school dept. Lots of “we will look in to this”type of conversation was had. I was terrified each day to go to school because of the abuse,environment and lack of support from the teachers and administration. My parent were not wealthy enough to send us to private school, like most of the other kids did the following year.
    Busing was the worse mistake that Boston ever made! The minority children that were forced to be bused away from their local community schools endured abuse as well. My parent taught us that people are people and not a color. We suffered because we were white and not wanted in minority community schools. We were called names, hit ,punched and told we didn’t belong as well.
    Our education suffered. I honestly believe that nothing was done by the school administration for fear of another suit for discrimination.
    Where someone chooses to live is where they should be able to go to school.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=518378236 Ali Sunderland Perry

      I was a scrawny little white kid in the spring of 1975 when I got surrounded by a bunch of black girls and punched, kicked and humiliated on the playground of the Elihu Greenwood School, my neighborhood school. This was just one of many experiences that still haunt me. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

  • Valey

    I told my mom for the first time tonight what it was to survive forced busing and the scars it has left. I did not blame my parents because they thought they were doing what was right. I would greatly approve of a formal apology from the city for ruining several formative years of my life. I would like to thank the educators and staff at Boston Tech for making it bearable. I no longer reside in boston nor have any desire to even visit.

    • whathefunpeople

      Valey I went to Tech as well and one of the benefits we had was it was an admission school just like Latin so we were bused but not bused like other kids where. I can remeber that because our school located in Roxbury would have issues because what was going on over at South Boston High and we were in a predominately black neighborhood. Other than occasional police presence and rocks thrown threw school windows and at buses I don’t feel that we suffered like others..

  • http://twitter.com/MatanzasGV LA CUBANA DE BOSTON

    I grew up and grad from Girls HS on 1964 when we could choose any school. I am so glad that we never had tp suffer as my Afrikan desc had.. So glad that our parents taught us a lot better

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=518378236 Ali Sunderland Perry

    I grew up right behind Hyde Park High School. I was ten years old in September of 1974 when busing started. I saw kids thrown out third floor windows of HPHS, mounted police chasing kids through our yard, kids’ futures compromised because they chose to drop out of school instead of facing violence every day and countless friends who moved away rather than being bused across the city. A generation of children was sacrificed for a failed social experiment that ruined the neighborhoods of our city.

  • Lynn Nash

    I grew up in East Boston. In 1974 I was 12 years old. I didn’t understand then what the big deal was. I remember my mom saying that the FBI tapped our phone because she was on the committee against force busing. The school board had dissolve the PTA’s. Most of my cousins ended up in Catholic Schools. Some of them still got report cards from their assigned desegregated schools even though they never attended. The cards always had straight A’s. I believe now that the biggest mistake was that desegregate took away from what was important: providing all the children of Boston with a quality education. We eventually moved out of state like many other familes.

  • http://thenonlatinaafricanfromcuba.blogspot.com/ MilagrosGV

    Only failed because people forgot thier humanity and socialized with Whitey Bulger types smh

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