Black Boston : Negro life Garrison's Boston, 1800-1860

George A. Levesque, Binghamton University--SUNY


In recent years American Ethnic Studies has truly become one of the significant new frontiers in American education and scholarship. New curricula, books, and not least significant, government and private largesse, all attest to the desirability of promoting an interest in, and encouraging an understanding of, America’s ethnic minorities. However, to applaud the overall aims and objectives of this belated concern is not to suggest that it has been attended without unfortunate and unintended side effects.

In the field of Afro-American history, for example, one of the unfortunate concomitants has been a publication explosion which has not been nearly as fruitful as the volume produced would suggest it might have been. The solicitation of manuscripts by zealous publishers who hoped to capitalize on the market, and the premature “rush to judgment” by young writers seduced by the seductive strains of the printing press account, no doubt, for much of the shoddy outpouring. Thus motivated, it was inevitable that the focus of much of this work would be disproportionately contemporary and on so-called “relevant” subjects. And not unexpectedly, much of this sociologically-oriented work has been shallow, and frequently misinformed, largely because much of it has lacked the benefit of historical perspective. Having said this it should be added that the absence of historical insight in much of the current black-oriented sociology is not to be charged simply to the perversity of contemporary sociologists: in many instances, these have simply lacked the solid historical monographs to fall back on when conducting their own investigations.

Expectedly, the history of the Negro in America has been largely the history of the Peculiar Institution in its Southern setting. And given the pervasive influence slavery has had on all aspects of Negro life, it would be wrong to insist that this emphasis has been misplaced. But while the effects of slavery are, and will continue to be of prime importance in understanding Negro life, the focus should now be directed elsewhere, namely, on the history of free blacks in the Northern cities in the antebellum years. To date, the history of non-slave blacks has been largely confined to their role in Southern urban centers, in the carpetbag legislatures of these same Southern states after the War, and in the Northern states, but here only after the mass migrations of the twentieth century, migrations commonly believed to have produced the black ghetto. While this work, like that on slavery, is meritorious and should certainly not be abandoned in toto, the redirection called for here is long overdue. This redirection, one requiring a methodological approach historians have been reluctant to adopt, is the subject of Black Boston.

While free blacks in antebellum America has not been a favorite subject, any writer audacious enough to offer yet another study focussing on the metropolis of New England owes his reader a word of explanation for contributing to an already imposing literature. Boston, to say the least, has attracted its share of historians (not to mention sociologists, economists, urbanologists and other social “voyeurs”) who have peeled-back the successive layers of the city's development as one would an onion. The result, not a few would contend, is that like Chicago and New York, Boston is a known city. The contention is not easily dispelled, for in most respects it is true. There is virtually no subject, human or topical, about which one cannot find several or more book-length monographs; all of the leading lights from the seventeenth-century Puritan Commonwealth on through the founding fathers of the Revolutionary generation to the great names in nineteenth and twentieth century American social and political reform have found their biographers. The city's topography has been surveyed street by street; studies detailing the public (including mental) health of the inhabitants “cover” the city almost decade by decade from Cotton Mather’s day to our own; the same, it can safely be said, applies to another dozen subjects: different aspects of the city's economic and political life have been the subject of painstaking investigation, as has the social side of the city’s make-up; attracted, no doubt, by the comparative abundance of documentary and monumental remains, a horde of social investigators in recent years have studied the city’s architecture, the life of its common folk, education, immigration, pauperism, police, reform, reformers and urban sprawl. Have we, then, not reached a saturation point with Boston? Can a writer offering yet another work on this city justify his labors?

For all the scholarly attention this city has received, it can be said of at least one other: “it fills a gap in the existing literature.” That subject is the community life evolved by the city's small black population in the half-century before the Civil War. To be sure a good many investigators have considered aspects of the city's black population in the course of their investigations and it would be fatuous to suggest that the present study constitutes a virgin effort. But while the present work has drawn on, and benefited from, the available published material, because the central concern was to offer as complete a portrait as possible of a people who have left few written records—other than their vital statistics—the available literature which others had examined, as well as the more traditional historical sources—newspapers, letters, organizational records, etc.—would not have carried the subject far beyond what already existed, which is to say the effort would not have justified itself.

In the pages that follow, an attempt is made to describe the multifaceted community life evolved by city blacks, a community life connected with, but in many respects autonomous from, that of the surrounding white society.