Black women have long been a political force in Boston. They have debated politicians, influenced legislation and shaped public policy. And they have done so despite more than a century of exclusionary policies, preventing their election to public office and denying them full voting rights. Facing these obstacles, Black women turned to grass-roots organizing and community building outside formal politics, ultimately paving the way for today’s Black women political leaders to step into elected public office.
The myths of Boston’s past as the cradle of liberty, the birthplace of public education, home to abolitionists and a model city for racial harmony tend to whitewash the phenomenon of Black exclusion and the continuous struggle for Black civil rights in the city.
Almost two centuries ago, Maria Stewart became the first known Black American woman political writer and lecturer. In 1831, she published her 12-page pamphlet, “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality,” which invited African Americans to heed her trumpet call for resistance to slavery and racism. Though women were dissuaded from public speaking, she refused to be silent. She would travel Boston’s lecture circuit to urge African American men and women to act without fear.
Her hard-hitting criticism of the Black community, men especially, angered some residents. Frowns, scoffs and jeers greeted her even as she recounted the long history of women’s involvement in religious and political matters. The ridicule that Stewart received forced her out of Boston. But her impact was lasting. She validated the very political presence and voice of Black women in Boston and helped to solidify a culture of dissent there.
Two decades later, Black women put their lives on the line in the fight for abolition and civil rights. In 1851, Elizabeth Riley, a nurse, hid an escaped enslaved person Shadrach Minkins in the attic of her Southac Street (now Phillips Street) home. Opposed to racial discrimination, Black women also spearheaded the Boston fight for equal school rights to secure a quality education for Black children. When Massachusetts finally passed legislation in 1855 forbidding school committees from using race to assign students to public schools, William Cooper Nell, a Black activist leader, thanked Black girls and women like Charlotte Forten who had gathered signatures for petitions, raised funds and lobbied school committee members.
The politics and practices of dissent were passed down to the next generation of Black women. Born and raised in Boston, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin witnessed the Black community spring into action to defend her and other Black children’s educational rights. She sought to harness that vigor and activism to fuel a campaign for Black women’s rights more broadly.
The decade of the 1890s saw St. Pierre Ruffin and her daughter, Florida Ruffin Ridley, turn Boston into a major site for Black women’s institution building. This mother-daughter team established the Woman’s Era Club, a civic organization for Black women with the motto to “make the world better.” They also published the Woman’s Era, the first national monthly publication for Black women, and convened the first conference of Black women held at Berkeley Hall, which led to the formation of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1896.
This “army of organized women” occupied public spaces and made their voices heard time and again, despite threats of retaliation and violence. On May 20, 1899, Ruffin Ridley and Mary Evans Wilson, a Black civil rights leader, led an interracial group of 200 protesters in an anti-lynching demonstration at Chickering Hall. In rousing speeches, they called for justice and called out politicians who failed to defend Black rights.
After the turn of the century, Black women continued to strengthen their leadership skills and knowledge, particularly in the field of education, because schools were political battlegrounds. In conjunction with the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), established in 1911, Black mothers persuaded the Boston school committee to remove a racist music textbook from classrooms. In 1925, Wilhelmina Crosson, one of the few Black teachers in Boston, founded the Aristo Club, an organization that advocated for Black history education in school curriculums and provided college scholarships to Black youths. Inspired by historian Carter G. Woodson, she launched a Negro History Week school program at Everett Evening School, which became the blueprint for the Negro History Week program throughout Boston public schools. Curricular change occurred because of the grass-roots work of Black women teachers.
As Black women led organizations and peaceful protests, they were also remaking civic identity by demanding their inclusion. By the 1940s and 1950s, civic leaders like Melnea Cass confronted voter intimidation, employment and housing discrimination and school segregation, specifically the Boston busing crisis.
She worked with Boston organizations that supported Black working mothers, domestic worker’s rights and anti-poverty initiatives. Under Cass’s leadership in the early 1960s, the Boston branch of the NAACP filed civil rights complaints and lawsuits against the Boston Housing Authority and the Boston school committee. Later, as president of the Women’s Service Club, she successfully lobbied for a Massachusetts state bill to extend the minimum wage to domestic workers. The bill became a national model.
Cass’s colleagues were awed by her energy and versatility as she moved “from one thing to another without losing sight of her goals.” When she identified “political strength” as the most important goal for African Americans, she defined a kind of politics that beat with the heart of the community. Cass galvanized the first group of Black female officeholders in Massachusetts, including Jean McGuire and Doris Bunte.
Over the past few decades, a growing number of Black women like Danielle Allen, Andrea Campbell, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Kim Janey have followed in their footsteps. Pressley, who claims many political firsts on her resume, was inspired as a little girl to pursue a career in formal politics after reading the speeches of Black congresswomen like Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm. Similarly, when Janey names education, community organizing and the fight for justice and equity as the principles that motivate her, she is building on the legacies of Stewart, St. Pierre Ruffin, Cass and others — purveyors of a tradition of Black women’s political leadership.
For so long, Black women have been forward-thinking, movement builders with a political agenda often articulated outside of elected public office. And that has been powerful in shaping legislation. Black women now can travel down a few more open, though rugged, paths: They can pursue formal politics, grass-roots organizing or perhaps a combination of both — such as Black Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.). This is an opportune moment as the 2021 Boston mayoral race is underway and the 2022 Massachusetts governor’s race nears. Right now, however, it would break new ground to see Janey at the helm of a city as mythical as Boston.