Late Historian Thomas O'Connor Saw Boston As A 'Constantly Changing Mosaic'04:15

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The man considered the unofficial dean of Boston history was buried Thursday. Thomas O'Connor had taught at Boston College for more than 50 years and wrote more than a dozen books, including "Boston Catholics," "Civil War Boston," and "The Boston Irish." He died Sunday at his home in Milton at the age of 89.

Part of O'Connor's legacy is having created a new generation of historians, and among them is Jim Vrabel, an independent Boston historian who was guided and mentored by O'Connor. In a conversation with WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer, Vrabel said O'Connor changed the way Boston history is taught.

Jim Vrabel: For a long time, Boston history, in a way, stopped in the 1880s, when the Brahmins stopped writing down their accomplishments and left it to others to write about theirs. No one really picked up the ball until Tom O'Connor came around. He actually brought Boston history into and through the 20th century and into the 21st century.

Sacha Pfeiffer: How was history written before him, and then how did he change it?

There's a phrase: "History is written by the winners." And the winners in Boston were the Brahmins, who owned and ran the city up until the 1880s. The Irish came as a result of the potato famine in the 1850s and gradually they assumed control of the politics of the city, if not the economy of the city — and when they did, that's really when written history about Boston stopped. Tom O'Connor kind of picked up the ball.


About the Boston Irish he said: "They harbored the conviction that they were not good enough, important enough, deserving enough, influential enough to be considered part of real history." And Tom O'Connor changed that — not just for the Irish, but for everyone who came later.

How did O'Connor bring his own Irish-ness to the way he taught Boston history?

There's a certain class consciousness that he brought, both for Irish and Catholic working-class, and for all working-class poor people. He looked at the city's history through that prism. He wrote stories about people and about people's struggle and about the city in light of those struggles.

O'Connor wrote:

The old Boston, the Boston we have known in history and literature, no longer exists. Some time ago it ceased to be the Boston of John Winthrop, Josiah Quincy or James Jackson Storrow. It also ceased to be the Boston of John Fitzgerald, James Michael Curley or John F. Kennedy. All that may be wonderfully romantic and nostalgic, but it is now part of the city's past, not its future. Instead of Yankees, Irish and Italians, Boston is increasingly populated by African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans. These are our New Bostonians.

So Tom O'Connor took the Irish struggle, but he extended it, and he saw the city as a constantly changing mosaic whose own struggles would make and break the city.

Tom O'Connor was a life-long Boston guy. He was born here, he had degrees from Boston Latin, Boston College, Boston University — all of them. Tell us a bit more about his background.

Well, he grew up in South Boston, not noted as a place that pushes academics on its young people. He worked early on for the Boston Public Library. He actually honed his research skills there, he says, and then he continued at both Boston College and Boston University from then on. And he stayed here, but he kind of mined the stories of Boston that other people had been passing on as oral history. He wrote them down.

O'Connor, as you said, wasn't just from Boston; he was from South Boston, which of course is such an important part of the city's history. How did O'Connor teach and write about one of the most controversial and unattractive parts of Southie history, which is busing?

As with everything else, he taught it in a very even-handed way. He saw the problems of busing, he saw the discrimination and the lack of equity that had been shown in the Boston public schools toward African-American students. But he also saw the problems that busing brought to neighborhoods and the harm it caused neighborhoods. So he wrote with a great understanding and sympathy for all parts of the people of Boston.

This program aired on May 24, 2012.

Sacha Pfeiffer Twitter Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.