Tufts University's Involvement in Public School Desegregation in Boston, Massachusetts, 1960-1980

By Rutenberg, Amy | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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Tufts University's Involvement in Public School Desegregation in Boston, Massachusetts, 1960-1980


Rutenberg, Amy, The Journal of African American History


When the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954 that segregated schools were inherently unequal, many hailed the decision as the beginning of the end of "American apartheid." However, by 1960, it had become obvious that it would take more than one court decision to desegregate the public schools nationwide, especially in the North, where discriminatory housing patterns, and not state laws, led to segregated classrooms. In 1961 parents and community activists in New Rochelle, New York, proved that grassroots efforts could bring about change when they sued the local school board for gerrymandering the town to create underfunded predominantly African American districts. Like the community of New Rochelle, the citizens of Boston, faced with an intransigent school committee, were forced to take action. (1)

The struggle to end de facto segregation in the Boston public schools has been the subject of several books. (2) Starting with a 1961 study conducted by the NAACP documenting the inadequacies of predominantly black public schools through the court-ordered busing of 1974 and beyond, the Boston School Committee staunchly denied culpability in promoting racial isolation. The School Committee members, led by Louise Day Hicks, blamed poor achievement on the character and background of the students rather than discrepancies in the expenditures for black versus white students, the temporary teachers often assigned to schools in black neighborhoods, and the lack of adequate resources. In such a climate, even the smallest victories were hard won, and the activism of Boston's African American community, especially that of the residents of Roxbury, has been rightfully acknowledged and commended. Moreover, the Brown decision involved many more people than the Supreme Court originally intended, and the less visible yet important involvement of other segments of the Boston population has often been overlooked.

Boston is one of the premiere college towns in the United States. This, combined with the vastly disproportionate numbers of student activists compared to the rest of the population, created a vibrant and vocal civil rights community throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. Admittedly, most university activity city-wide focused either on conditions in the South or on more insular issues pertaining to individual campuses. Yet the highly publicized and worsening conditions in the Boston public school system could not be ignored for long.

Tufts University, as an institution of higher learning and a member of the greater Boston community, played a unique part in the controversy. Like students at other universities, some tutored African American children and participated in the civil rights protests, but what set Tufts apart was its institutional response. Divisions such as the Experimental College and the Lincoln-Filene Center for Citizenship and Public Affairs helped to raise community awareness and spearhead the organized activities to insure that black children attained educational parity with their white counterparts. As such, the direct and indirect aid lent to the struggle to end de facto segregation of the Boston public schools by Tufts University, both as an institution and as a collection of individual students and faculty members, constituted an important block in the foundation of the community-wide efforts to realize the goals of the Brown decision.

AFRICAN AMERICANS AND THE BOSTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Beginning with Boston Latin School, which opened in 1635, Boston has the oldest public school system in the United States. Separate "colored" schools were established in 1820. In 1787 and again in 1849, African American parents tried to convince the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to allow their children to attend the same schools as white students. They finally achieved victory in 1854, when the legislature outlawed de jure segregation. By 1965, Boston operated two hundred public schools servicing 93,000 children and staffed by 4,000 teachers.

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