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Town Reconciles With Black History

Roland Hayes
Roland Hayes

In 1619, a Dutch ship carried over 20 African slaves to the British colony of Jamestown, VA. This would be just the beginning of one of the most historically cruel and dehumanizing American traditions.

American history is filled with stories of racial injustices against many different minority groups, and Brookline’s story is not immune to that same racism found so prevalently in America’s development, including centuries of slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination.

The Edward Devotion School is a clear example of how the legacy of slavery in Brookline is still found today. Upon Edward Devotion’s death, much of his property was given to the town. This included a slave who helped build the Edward Devotion School.

Many slaves fought for the United States in the American Revolution—including several from Brookline whose names can be found at town hall—but it would be another century before slavery was abolished and replaced with new forms of discrimination.

A caveat added to many housing sales in the early to mid 20th century was that homeowners were barred from selling their house to any people of color. Racially restrictive housing covenants were used as a strategy to prevent African-Americans from moving into Brookline for decades.

According to The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, racially restrictive covenants were legally enforceable “contracts” contained within the deeds of houses and imposed upon the owners. Those who violated the terms of housing covenants risked forfeiture of their property.

Social studies teacher Malcolm Cawthorne explained that Roland Hayes, born in 1887, was an African-American son of slaves, who, despite being a prominent performer for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, faced extreme difficulty moving into Brookline.

“Roland Hayes becomes one of the most prominent concert performers of his time,” Cawthorne said. “He was the first Black person to sing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and did other really incredible stuff, but because of what are known as housing covenants, people wouldn’t sell their home to him here originally.”

Despite the many initial struggles, Hayes persevered and ultimately lived in Brookline for almost 50 years.

Cawthorne explains that other influential Brookline citizens, like Amos Lawrence, the Amos A. Lawrence School’s namesake, were also instrumental in some of America’s greatest anti-slavery movements.

“The land that was once where slaves worked and lived, now has a school that is named after a man who was a really fervent abolitionist, who helped John Brown fight in Kansas by sending rifles,” Cawthorne said. “Lawrence, Kansas is actually named after Amos Lawrence from Brookline.”

Junior Richard Desir worries that many people are unaware of this connection between historical and current events.

“I feel like there’s an issue of people not understanding or being able to empathize with other people’s situations,” Desir explained. “When you only see it on the news, people don’t necessarily understand why certain people are going through certain things.”

Cawthorne explains there is evidence that showed Brookline was a “sundown town.” This means that historically, African-Americans in Brookline have been racially profiled after sundown.

“Even in the current, you hear people talking about ‘driving while Black’ in Brookline,” Cawthorne said. “We still give a disproportionate number of moving violations to African-Americans in Brookline.”

According to the Brookline Police Department 2017 Year End Report, Blacks received 2,668–almost 18 percent–of the total 14,938 moving violations issued in 2017, despite Black people accounting for less than 3 percent of the total population of Brookline.

Even some of the most progressive and diversifying programs at the high school have somewhat dubious origins, Cawthorne explained. In the mid-1960s, the busing between districts to integrate schools began, and the METCO program arose in 1966 to respond to this.

“It is pioneering that we jump on and say, ‘this will help us become more diverse’, but there is also another backstory,” Cawthorne said. “This saved Brookline kids from getting shipped to Boston, and I think sometimes we have a hard time grasping that both can be true.”

In recent decades, many steps have been made to make Brookline more racially inclusive. An example of this is the formation of the African American and Latino Scholars Program (AALSP).

AALSP teacher Stephanie Hunt said that AALSP began in the early 2000’s as an X-block club with the goal of helping more African-American and Latino students earn a spot in the National Honors Society, but it has since expanded into a whole class with additional goals.

“Fast forward 15 years or so,  and it’s a program that serves about 130 students,” Hunt said. “It has grown with the goal still being National Honors Society, but also success in honors and Advanced Placement classes and admission into competitive and selective colleges and universities.”

Hunt explains one of her first experiences of being exposed to the benefits of the program was in a “clustered” honors Modern World History class that she was teaching at the time. AALSP students are grouped together in “clustered” classes to provide one another with academic and social support.

“The Scholars really helped and motivated each other, and for the White students that were in that class, it was great because it changed for them, even if it was only for one block a day, what an honors class looks like,” Hunt explained. “It helped to redefine who takes honors classes, and who can be successful in honors classes.”

Despite the numerous successes of the AALSP, incidents like the video on social media of an alumnus and a student at the high school publicly ridiculing the program and one of its members, show that the racism found throughout Brookline’s history is still present.

According to Desir, a member of AALSP, there are ways the administration could improve their response to these types of racist incidents.

“I think more transparency and displaying what the administration knows when they first hear about it to keep students on the same page with them is important,” Desir said. “A lot of students, especially students of color, felt like they had already heard about the situation. For the administration to wait multiple days before saying anything about it made a lot of people angry.”

Although he was disgusted by this incident on Snapchat, Cawthorne was not surprised at the latest in a long line of similarly offensive events.

“When I was a freshman here, on what was then called the point stairs, someone wrote ‘n***** go home,’” Cawthorne explained. “That was in the fall of 1984. For me, you have to take from there and go all the way up 30 or so years of these recurring incidents.”

Cawthorne said that it is important to remember that Brookline is no exception to the racism found throughout the history of America.

“Sometimes we think of Brookline as an isolation from this kind of racism, instead of just realizing that we are as much a part of it as any other place in America,” Cawthorne said.