People’s History Podcast episode transcript
People’s History Podcast is an audio series about struggles in the United States, produced in collaboration with Jacobin and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Each six-episode season covers one local story, told from the viewpoint of working-class people. Our first season, The Point, traces a social history of Boston from the urban rebellions of the 1960s, through busing in the 70s, into the Clinton era. People’s History Podcast was created with listening in mind, so we encourage everyone who is able to listen to the audio either below or via Jacobin Radio. Transcript is available below.
[Theme music: “Bella Ciao” by Marisa Anderson]
Tenant 1: See what types of resources we have in Columbia Point. None! We have none, and that’s what we’re asking for.
Tenant 2: 5,000 people. With nothing to take care of them, y’know. Nothing.
Alejandro Ramirez: From Jacobin Magazine, this is People’s History.
Tenant 3: People from the inside experienced Love, Tenacity, Willpower.
You’re listening to our first six-episode season, called The Point: Rebellion and Resistance in Boston Public Housing.
Tenant 5: The Point was not valued like it is today, in terms of being a piece of property.
Tenant 6: They’re like we want this property, we want people gone.
Tenant 7: Splitting families, c’mon now! That’s wrong!
Tenant 8: This is real intimidation. This is honest to goodness… this is life or death, here.
Tenant 9: The police invaded Columbia Point, so the men picked up their arms.
This is Episode Five: Carson Beach.
In the history of Columbia Point, the month of September 1974 is arguably the most important turning point. We really want to really focus on what happened during that pivotal time, and after, when the policy of busing in schools first went into effect in Boston.
This is the beginning of the end, when Columbia Point is subjected to the ugliest forms of police violence, white racism, and extreme neglect. But before we get there, we thought we should take a pause and review where we’re at in the timeline in the years leading up to busing.
Conor Gillies: So, from 1970 to 1974, federal and state governments became more conservative, and city hall brought in new developers and new urban renewal projects both downtown and at Columbia Point. It’s also a period of law and order, with the Tactical Police Force and the new state police barracks out on Carson Beach. Police power was built up so rebellions could be put down, like the one in New Bedford. These years — ‘71, ‘72, and ‘73 — marked a dramatic reaction to the civil rights era and the beginning of what’s often called “mass incarceration.”
Alejandro: All this time, the military and the CIA had a blank check to fund wars and interventions abroad. The United States bombed Cambodia, toppled a socialist government in Bolivia, and installed a fascist government in Chile. All while extreme poverty, hunger, and unemployment grew in housing projects like Columbia Point.
Conor: Still, in Boston, progressive social movements held strong. In spring 1970, students and radicals marched in protest of war, after Nixon bombed Cambodia. The march turned into an uprising in the streets around Harvard Square, with the help of the Black Panthers.
Alejandro: After a summer of rebellion in New Bedford, discontent was still in the air. When police in Cambridge beat a seventeen-year-old boy to death in November, 1972, kids in and around a public housing project called Roosevelt Towers took to the streets.
Conor: The Panthers may have left Boston in 1972, but the Black United Front continued the work of the Free Health Center. The Front was also involved with labor organizing.
Obalajii Rust: Well, we had the Black construction workers. We had organized just about all the sectors of the Black community in Roxbury and Dorchester. We had over 5,000 dues-paying subscribers.
Obalajii Rust was an organizer in the United Front who worked with Columbia Point tenants.
And of course you got to vote about what happened in the Black community at the general meetings that we had once a week.
He says, the front organized Black workers to protest infrequent garbage pick-up in Roxbury and they tried to break down racism in the trade unions by occupying building sites.
Arcenia Allen: They were not doing much hiring of Blacks or minorities. And we did demonstrate on that.
Arcenia Allen was another Front member. She was the Columbia Point neighborhood delegate.
Arcenia: You know, there were others involved as well, some just residents, that were not community-involved on other issues. But made a stand when it came to make a stand. And said, “It’s not just me, it’s not just you, it’s us.”
Alejandro: A group of high school students formed the Black Student Union, and acted as a youth wing to the United Front. They protested poor schools, and organized a school boycott in 1971. They demanded the hiring of Black teachers and guidance counselors, and demanded an end to harassment of Black students. Leon Rock led the union.
Leon Rock: And, with the Black Student Union, we advocated for change in the school system. And one of the changes we were advocating for was actually the desegregation of Boston public schools, or the de facto segregation that existed at the time.
Conor: In 1971 and 1973, some members of the Black Student Union worked on the campaign of Patricia Bonner-Lyons, a Communist and the only Black candidate running for a School Committee seat.
Patricia Bonner-Lyons: I think we need to look at it from the students’ point of view. The students are incarcerated in schools from 8:00 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon. And that is the way they see it. They see it as serving a prison sentence, and it is not anything that is adventurous and something they want to get into. Education should be one adventure that we should never get off of, no matter how old we are.
She may have lost, but she ran an impressive campaign on “community control of schools,” gaining most of the Roxbury vote.
Leon: And I worked with the NAACP, with folks like Elma Lewis, Ellen Batson and others, Melnea Cass.
Through all of this, struggle continued at the Point.
Rev. Bill Loesch: I’m Reverend Doctor Bill Loesch, and I began serving at the Columbia Point housing community.
Bill Loesch ran a Christian Center at the Point, which he let the Panthers and other groups use as an organizing space. He was a civil rights activist and a longtime ally to Columbia Point tenants.
Loesch: At that point I was living at Columbia Point. It was challenging because I think we were taking on a lot of politics of downtown Boston, politics of everything. We were taking on all the politicians.
This was one the most energetic times of resistance, from 1970 to ‘74. You have lots of things going on, all at the same time.
Loesch: Welfare, housing, education, recreation, police relations. Almost anything that was happening, that was my role, was to be involved.
You have the welfare movement, holding strong, defending gains made after Grove Hall.
Betty Ann Jones: A lot of my protests was with the welfare department, not giving African American people what was due them, you know. Poor people in general. So we protested the welfare department.
You have some successful rent strikes and protests, with other public housing residents, over housing conditions. And the corrupt BHA.
Betty: So we went from building to building, having building meetings. We had building captains and stuff.
Bill: All throughout, it would have been housing issues. Housing was controlled by downtown.
Betty: We protested the housing. Boston Housing wasn’t fixing up the property like they should, so we told them– We done a rent strike.
And you have real rays of hope and liberation, maybe most notably with the Black Panther Party, who organized the community around a Free Breakfast program.
[music clip: “We’re a Winner” by Curtis Mayfield]
There were also urban renewal protests. In the early 70s, when the University of Massachusetts decided to build a campus next door to the project, at the site of the former dump, tenants said “no way.” The Redevelopment Authority’s plan was to convert the peninsula into a quote “campus by the sea.” A construction site was set up, and so Columbia Point residents scaled the fence and set up a human chain. They blocked dump trucks, a little bit like they did in 1963.
The trucks were carrying infill, dirt and rocks to extend the land out into the water. Construction slowed because of the protest, but the plan went forward. Tenants who had suspected a shady land grab were vindicated, when it was revealed that the developer’s consulting firm was being used to embezzle funds. Various state and local politicians dipped their hands in the pot, including, according to one of them, the Boston mayor, Kevin White. SDS radicals said the college was being a “pawn,” quote, “masking the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s plan to remove poor people from Columbia Point.”
Alejandro: As far as radical Black politics, the Panthers were gone — but in their place, a militant group of Black Vietnam veterans raised the banner of armed self-defense. The group was called de Mau Mau, and they continued political education and defense training in the project. They were organized to defend Columbia Point against police and a growing trend of white gang violence in the lead-up to busing.
Betty Ann Jones: I was an organizer, my sister was an organizer, Dorothy Haskins, some other people…
Here’s Betty Ann Jones, she’s another one of the core Columbia Point mothers, and an ally of de Mau Mau.
Betty: When de Mau Mau came in, they began to patrol too and began to have school with the kids. With some of the kids, the younger kids, in Columbia Point. But all of us came together as one, with Reverend Loesch and stuff. We organized ourselves.
Lavaughn Howell: When busing was coming along…
This is another resident, Lavaughn Howell.
Lavaughn: If you had your parked car Mount Vernon Street, people use to ride in and break all the car windows. ‘Cause there was one one way in, and one way out. So they would drive through there at night, call, you know, “N*****, n*****, blah, blah blah, blah, blah,” break car windows out. So yeah, they started posting guards out there.
Jimmy Funches: Coming in at that time, it was a need.
This is Jimmy Funches, who grew up at the Point.
Qainat Khan: Were you involved with de Mau Mau or were you just sort of interested?
Jimmy: I kinda got involved. I kind got swooped in it. That’s how I got the name “Kujichagulia,” which means “self determination.”
Qainat: What was that about?
Jimmy: Okay, at the time– You have to think about what the time we was in. We were in the time of protection. So it was basically like playing security, up at night watching, making sure nobody comes in. Those types of things. Going from house to house. It was a gathering, yeah you gathered with people. But it wasn’t going out hurting anybody. It was just making sure no one got hurt. Making sure the Ku Klux Klan didn’t come in the development.
Jones: De Mau Mau was Stokely Carmichael, he was involved. Some other brothers from out of Africa.
Jimmy: They came out like saying, “We can help you, we want to help the community.” So you just woke up morning, and then as a young man, a lot of young people said, “This is something I’d like to be in, ‘cause it seems like it’s a helping thing.”
Betty: And they began to patrol our community.
Jimmy: The hut was where Mamasan was. Mamasan was the head de Mau Mau. She was the go-between in the Boston division because these divisions had multiple around the world. The de Mau Mu were not just in Boston, they were in Detroit, and even the name derives from an African name.
Betty: We were just all together, you know, just teaching and protecting each other.
Jimmy: We had lookouts on the roofs. Patrols going on. All those things they came in and set up when the Ku Klux Klan said they were going to come to Columbia Point.
Alejandro: We interviewed Jimmy at the home of his aunt, Betty Washington. Betty Washington is another major organizer in the history of Columbia Point. Some people call her “Big Betty.”
Betty Washington: At that time people who were living there that were non-Black started to move into South Boston. It became more Blacks and less whites. People were just separated.
Michael Patrick MacDonald: I guess it was a white flight that was happening before busing from Columbia Point. But it wasn’t like a white flight to the suburbs or anything. It was white flight to a housing project that actually ended up being one of the most dangerous places to live in Boston.
Alejandro: Here’s Michael Patrick MacDonald, the author who grew up in working-class Southie, in a project called Old Colony.
Michael: Also, when we moved into Old Colony project it’s important to note that, you know, there were Black families in Old Colony before busing and especially in D Street housing project. D Street was 400 units and about 75 of those units were occupied by Latino families and there was a substantial Black minority at the time as well.
Betty Washington: The people suddenly that had been our friends and had been our neighbors were suddenly our enemies. They started coming back and the kids were fighting and they tore down the mothers’ rests that they had in the back of the project. They would be throwing rocks and they were fighting with the children.
Conor: The De Mau Mau offered protection to Black residents who were facing increased threats from residents in South Boston, where a movement against busing had become a breeding ground for far-right reaction. Busing was the liberal establishment’s response to Black protest against segregation. The law was that, quote, “Any Boston school with a student enrollment that was more than 50% nonwhite was to be balanced according to race.” The plan was to mix Black and white students in neighboring districts by bus. As debate stirred around a court case and then a court order about school desegregation, the school committee, run by Louise Day Hicks, stirred anger among white mobs to oppose the policy. Like the Boston Housing Authority, the school system was a patronage system for whites.
There was also the factor of Whitey Bulger, the notoriously violent gang leader, sinking his hooks deeper into the underground economy of South Boston, subsidized by the FBI.
Michael Patrick MacDonald: You have a gangster who’s been given permission by the feds to do as he likes in the community. So it’s just a deadly equation. You have the highest concentration of white poverty in America. You have a busing plan that didn’t take class into account at all.
Along with this, a man named Jim Kelley organized through his right-wing South Boston Information Center.
Jim Kelley: Well the information center is a community organization. We are interested in everything that happens to our community. It’s basically and primarily an anti-busing organization, but we’re concerned with other issues as well.
The KKK began flyering. Bill Bulger, state senator and the brother of Whitey, supported the anti-busers. And it wasn’t just Boston. Richard Nixon had used a whole “southern strategy” to mobilize white voters across the country around euphemisms like “forced busing.”
Alejandro: According to the editorial board of the activist journal Radical America, the biggest factor in fueling racism was that the “white working class” of Southie did not want to lose their relative privilege over Black people, like those who lived across the bay at Columbia Point. As they wrote in an editorial, poor whites opposed integrated education as a way of defending their “material advantage,” however marginal that advantage was.
Linda Wade: Information, misinformation, coming out of South Boston. This propaganda, “Do you want these people to be a part of this community? This pristine, wonderful, close-knit community that we have. What do you think is gonna happen? It is going to look like Columbia Point once they’ve finished with it.”
Reactionary racist violence broke out in 1973, when white tenants in the D Street Projects shot and killed a Black teenager, who was part of the only Black family at the project. Afterward, several of the Puerto Rican families in the project were driven out by segregationists. MacDonald saw neighbors using racist slogans and supporting the KKK. “I was confused about that one,” MacDonald writes in his book, All Souls. “I had always heard stories from Grandpa about a time when the Ku Klux Klan burned Irish Catholics out of their homes.”
MacDonald: When busing happened in September of ‘74 that was just it. You just didn’t see Black or Hispanic families in South Boston’s housing projects. It just happened overnight. Like there are stories of people in September 1974 like packing up and moving out in D Street housing project, people who are who are Hispanic or Black. That was just the end of any kind of diversity in the housing projects.
Cappy: The South Boston Information Center was building a rank-and-file organization for years before the explosion, in the fall of ‘74.
Here’s professor Cappy Pinderhughes again.
Cappy: So they were base building for a very long time. And so then they brought out their troops and the things that you saw– Yeah, it serves their narrative to say this is a “spontaneous reaction.” But it was, in major part, it was very coordinated, as well. They were looking for a controlled explosion, and they got what they wanted.
Conor: As schools prepare to open their doors, the racist movement in Boston crystallizes. A Nazi party distributes literature and opens a headquarters in Southie. Louise Day Hicks and Pixie Paladino, a city councilor from Italian East Boston, bring together a new city-wide group opposed to busing called Restore Our Alienated Rights, ROAR. ROAR and the Information Center espoused an anti-Black, anti-integration line. They were supported by the Bulgers as well as Ray Flynn, an anti-abortion activist and state senator who, in 1976, led a men’s rights rally from his car, waving alongside confederate flags.
The writer Robert L. Allen put it this way: In the 70s, he said “white businessmen and politicians” opposed any move toward desegregation “because genuine desegregation would undermine their ability to manipulate and exploit both the Black and white communities: the breakdown of racial divisions between the Black and white communities would more clearly expose the class conflict between Black and white workers on the one hand and the capitalists on the other.”
Instead, angry whites, under their own deteriorating roofs, scapegoated Black people and, in particular, Columbia Point.
Betty Ann Jones: You know racism and stuff and the police broke it up. The men that were patrolling, it was a lot of harassment from the police and stuff, threatening them, putting them in jail and stuff.
The police were out in full force everywhere in the city where unrest was expected.
Michael: You know we woke up to find ourselves living in a police state in September of 1974. Every single day, there were helicopters above the rooftops. There were the police, the rooftops of our housing project were essentially lined with police in riot gear and it was all law enforcement. There was local police. Within the police, there was what I would call a paramilitary force within the police department, the TPF, the Tactical Police Force. There was also state police and there were of course federal troops were brought in and there were SWAT teams with SWAT teams on our roofs as well. So we lived in an armed camp.
Police were especially violent against Columbia Point tenants.
Cappy: Because a lot of the police officers had connections with white Southie, the approach that the police had to the Black community was, I think it was, I’m just saying: It’s systematic!
On Friday, September 20th, 1974, two white men took a blue van spray-painted with “KKK” on the side and drove into the project. They were shouting that they were going to burn down Columbia Point and kill all the Black people. According to the Boston Globe, two young Puerto Ricans stopped the van, and hit the driver in the mouth with a pipe, successfully fending them off. But then other night-riders were back on Saturday. Tenants at Columbia Point saw shots being fired from speeding cars. A group of neighbors, including the de Mau Mau, stood their ground, and shot back.
Betty Ann Jones was quoted in the Boston Globe, “They have been coming into our community and harassing us while the police stand on the side; so I say we’re tired, we’re going to protect ourselves.”
Betty Ann Jones: We protect ourselves. Yes. So the men, they picked up their arms.
Cappy: When whites from South Boston tried to night ride in there with guns they were met with gun fire. And so as a result, then, police came in because, you can’t have Black people respond with gun fire. Black people are not supposed to fight back like that.
On September 25th, the police led a full-scale occupation of Columbia Point. Here’s Leon Rock again.
Leon: For about 2 or 3 weeks, we had a police department armed and acting like a, you know, a gestapo on the residents of Columbia Point. It was police brutality at a significant level.
Bernie Sneed: In ‘74, busing was a major issue for Columbia Point.
This is archive sound of Bernie Sneed. He’s something of a mentor figure for a lot of Columbia Point residents, and was a community activist through the ‘70s and ‘80s. He watched these events unfold.
Bernie: Kids were going over to South Boston, the buses were being stoned. And the residents were concerned. They had no way of getting over there because a lot of them didn’t have cars. So we set up a rumor control center where we could call over South Boston and find out if there is anything going on. Plus, we had young adults as bus monitors riding the buses, so they would protect the kids and what have you.
Rev. Bill Loesch: There were some days that I rode the bus, some of us clergy volunteered to ride the bus. As a white person, I’d go over with my car to where the crowd was, come back, because there were no cell phones, go over and say, “This where the crowd is, we gotta take the bus.” So we sent a decoy bus up one way, where the crowd was, and then another bus with the kids would go another way. So as a white person I could sneak over there see and come back. We couldn’t deal with the cops because the cops were pretty much all on one side.
Bernie Sneed: And there was a rumor that de Maus Maus were shooting at the police. And here comes five paddy wagons of police with guns, they’re hanging guns out the window, M-16s, out the window and everything. And went and took over the rooftops, took over our rumor control center and the whole bit. And we stayed there for– We were put out.
Here’s Betty Ann Jones.
Betty Ann Jones: Bernie Sneed and myself, we was at our headquarters. And the police came and they started hitting on him, you know.
According to the Globe, the police stationed snipers on the rooftops, searched and occupied apartments, and took over the streets. They carried shotguns, rifles, M-1s and M-16s. They put up a road barrier, where they stopped and searched cars.
Betty Ann Jones: The police blocked us, blocked the residents in and blocked the residents out. That was the most traumatizing, one of the most traumatizing things that took place. I had to leave my job with the government to try and get to my children at Columbia Point. And they wouldn’t let anyone one, even though you were a resident. So I had to take a chance on them, as you said, as I came through the barricades, they would shoot at me. And I said well you have to have a good shot, because I was going to my kids. I was driving. Because my kids were home in the house from school, and I was at work at the VA. So that was probably one of the most traumatizing things. But God is still good.
Rev. Bill Loesch: The cops had never had a SWAT team back in those days. So this was the very first SWAT team that came in. So they were testing their power. So it became, these policemen came in, this highly trained SWAT team came in and they dropped some of the guys by helicopter onto the rooftops and some came in from the street. And they surrounded the whole place, thinking they had these militants they were going to shoot out. So it was more a rumor, kind of rumor, that the police were afraid of. And what happened is they moved into a space that I had control of which was the Columbia Point Christian Center, which was our church, a big hall.
Conor: According to a lieutenant in the police department, the cops took over the Community Center as a quote “command post.”
Bernie Sneed: Then we decided that, hey, we gotta get our rumor control center back. Tenants didn’t know. The kids were still going into South Boston and the buses were still being stoned, and this made it even worse. So, we said, “We gotta get our rumor control center back.” And we decided to do that that afternoon. And there was a lot of police there. 19 or so. And they seen us coming, and I was going to go right up. Well, 19 or so cops came down on me, with billy clubs, what have you. I mean I had stitches on my forehead, stitches in my eye. Knocked me out. When I woke up, they had me in a paddy wagon and they take me to a police station. And they booked me.
When they left, finally, it turned out they had trashed and vandalized the whole place, including the old Free Breakfast hall.
Bill: That was the most serious event in 30, 40 years of confrontation between organized police and organized low-income people seeking to improve their neighborhood.
Alejandro: The policy of busing was an ingenious concession to ten years of protest. In 1963, protesters had brought the issue of racism in the school system to the fore with the Stay Outs for Freedom. Year after year, the school committee kicked the can down the road, doing nothing to address conditions of schools. As Howard Zinn described it, the Boston busing policy “had the effect of pushing poor whites and poor Blacks into competition for the miserable inadequate schools which the system provided for all the poor.” Over the fall and then the spring, poor white students were bused to schools in Roxbury and Dorchester. Poor Black students were bused to schools in South Boston. Working class whites who could afford it sent their kids sent to private Catholic schools. So housing and schools became more segregated.
Leon Rock: I was there on the first day, being there on the first day as monitor, probably one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had in my life. It was one of the most scary experiences I’ve ever had in my life. The bottom line is, as we drove up to the buses, thousands residents of South Boston chanting “N***** go home” in unison. “N***** go home.” The police department was in concert with it — they never told people to move away, they never told people to disperse, what they did was allow the chaos to exist.
[sound of busing protests, chaos]
Angie Irving: Busing came, I really had a hard time because it was the same people I went to school with in the fifth and sixth grades were the people who were throwing rocks at these kids and we’d look at them and say, “Hey hey, you know this is Irving, this is Angie.”
Archive student: And they were throwing eggs at the windows.
Angie: And they didn’t even hear or see me anymore. All they saw was the color of my skin. And the next thing you know the rocks are coming.
Alejandro: Angie Irving remembers how, through the busing policy, the very idea of whiteness and the “white race” was being re-configured in real time.
Angela: When I was young, we used to go to all the St. Patrick’s Day Parades. I would wear my green, my mother would walk us up to Broadway. And we’d stand there. And the brigadiers were in the parade, the Black bands and everybody were all in this parade. And I remember there was a group of people that were of Irish descent who were like freedom fighters because they were fighting like– they understood some of the issues we were facing prior to busing.
They were talking about some the political issues that they were facing, and they were like against Kelly and all these other people, who were pushing sort of an early hatred. There were the Protestants, the Catholics, I mean Protestant-Irish against the Catholics. I was like amazed, and they were like, Angie read Thorn Birds, read How the Irish Became White, educate yourself about the plight that they were going through as well. I was like, “oh wow.” I thought white was white. They were saying, “No, no, no. It’s a privilege, and you gotta understand what that was.” So they were kind of educating us back then. And so, you are sort of like, okay, it’s good to know that we found commonality through struggles, and that if we put our efforts together, we can work out these kinds issues together against the political establishments and things like that, that have other agendas.
But I think that when they saw that we were actually beginning to align ourselves, seeing commonalities, political issues, issues of poverty, issues of economics, et cetera. And race wasn’t part of that equation. I mean it’s always there, but it wasn’t the highlighted equation. It was more economics at that time. They said, “Okay, let’s bring the race up, Angie, and you are Black. And you are not Black,” you know, my neighbor.
Alejandro: When busing went into effect, the entire dynamic of the city changed.
Angie: South Boston and Columbia Point had changed greatly, like I said before, I was raised in South Boston, went to school in South Boston. I was familiar to this strange and hostile environment, to the point I feared that I would not go anywhere near South Boston. When my little kids were young, you know like I said, Columbia Point is this one way in, one way out kind of thing. And there were people from the South Boston community that would line themselves up on these bridges, on these trestles, bridges, and literally bomb us with cans and rocks as we were coming into Columbia Point. We would get stoned all the time. And luckily my kids were too young to go on buses. They were going to school in Columbia Point. But anyways, I rode the bus one time with them. And got st –, got so–
Everything. Mothers, fa– everybody. And I’m looking at people saying, like, “Cathy, cathy, it’s me, it’s Angie!”
“Pssh… Go home, n*****s!”
And all these rocks and bricks. And so that was the last of that. I said I won’t do that again. I said, it’s much too dangerous.
But other people stayed, you know tried to fight the fight and try to protect the children as they got off the buses into the schools in South Boston. We stayed away from Columbia, back then, Columbia Station or anything that would get you near Day Boulevard, because we knew that if anyone saw you. Black, or anything like that. You would get rocks thrown at them.
And my mother who was an extremely fair-skinned Black woman was coming home from a shop or whatever, in her car. And some people were just stoned from a group of kids in South Boston. And then they saw my mother, my mother’s arm was, driving, she had one arm out the car as she’s driving home. And they mistook her for a white woman. So the kids decided to retaliate when they saw a white person come. The Black kids were saying, “I’m going to get this white woman.” And started throwing stuff at my mother. And someone recognized my mother, “Oh, that’s Mrs. Irving, she’s Black! She’s Black! That’s Mrs. Irving.”
So we realized it became truly a color shade thing, and not so much– People were no longer identifying people fairly. Either you were Black or you were white, and if you fell into any categories that were gray, it was just best that you figured out how to maneuver around the community to get back in and out safely without getting rocks or cans. My children were fearful for a long time. They got barraged with their dad. They were on their way home from somewhere. And our car was tore to pieces. Fortunately, nobody was hurt badly. But the mind thing? It was like being bombed. Warfare. Real warfare. Missiles are being targeted at you. Open cans. I remember cans of soda bursting open. You know they would throw the tonic — we called it tonic back then — they would throw the tonic at us. And then they would burst. And you’d get covered with soda, all the sticky soda stuff, and tonic. And then they would throw dirt at you at the same time. They are throwing soda and then dirt. And then all of a sudden your whole body is stuck with the dirt, and sand, and rocks, and dog ****. Oh, it was just–
Angie: And there was no support whatsoever. We went through that kind of trauma. You saw your family and friends coming home with all kinds of bloody faces. But you consoled each other, but there was no formal trauma support.
Alejandro: Here’s Sheila Williams.
Sheila Williams: What I felt was crazy is how how when people were attacking buses with children, I was probably one of them, going into South Boston. I felt like if that had happened out here, they would’ve been more protected then they were. It was horrible, it was horrible, a very horrible situation.
In the summer of 1975, the first summer since busing policy went into effect, residents of South Boston declared that Carson Beach was closed to Black people. Columbia Point’s neighborhood beach, Carson Beach — the beach where residents used to go clamming, where tenants used to learn how to swim — was suddenly off limits. Irish-Americans from South Boston, on the other side of the bay, claimed the swimming area was now for “whites only.”
In August, white Southie residents attacked two Black men on the beach. There were more racist incidents.
Leon Rock: White children had assaulted some Black teenagers from Columbia Point that had gone to Carson Beach. They were just having a good time at Carson Beach and got assaulted. We reported it to the police department, Metropolitan Police, we reported it to the NAACP. Tom Atkins said, “Guess what, Leon, you know what we’re going to do, we’re going to organize a demonstration over at Carson Beach. And what we’re gonna do, instead of just a demonstration, we’re just going to go to the beach.” There was about, if I’m not mistaken, three or four hundred Blacks from Columbia Point and from Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. They had both the state police and the metropolitan police along with Boston Police. And they had horses and we said come on let’s go out and do some swimming.
Steve Meacham took part in the protest on Carson Beach. He says, as far as radical organizing, the busing question revealed stark contradiction and fragmentation on the left. Some self-styled socialist groups like the Revolutionary Union actually took the side of white anti-busing protests. Other groups like Progressive Labor Party and the October League stood by on the beach, in solidarity with the Black residents at Columbia Point, and the De Mau Mau protecting them.
Meacham was in the October League, which was part of a broad alliance of anti-racist groups defending Columbia Point.
Steve Meacham: There was a lot multi-racial, anti-racist activity. One such example was a march from Franklin Park to Carson Beach. The police on horses charged the march and everyone is saying, “Why are you driving us off, you should be protecting our legal rights to be here and wade. We’re not causing any violence.” And the crowd around us was throwing rocks over the heads of the police. The police, large sections of the police, were in league with the pro-segregation forces and weren’t going to do anything to push them away from us.
The crowd grew to about 6,000 people, mostly whites who were counter-protesting. The New York Times reported on the events. Conflict escalated between Black and white beachgoers, with taunts being hurled on both sides.
Leon: We started swimming and then all of a sudden the state police and the Metropolitan Police say everybody out of the water. The police come in with their horses into the water and say, “everybody out.” Mel is saying, “Why, why are we leaving?” All of a sudden the officers get off their horses and attack Mel King and bring him down. It is pandemonium, chaos. The police start belting people, hitting people, pulling on girls with bathing suits. It was ridiculous. Unbelievable assault on Black people that were just doing one thing — having access to a public beach.
A clash broke out, and the Tactical Police Force pushed the Black demonstrators off the beach and back into Columbia Point, where they occupied the streets through the night. There were 40 injuries and 10 arrests. Over the next few years, Carson Beach would be a site of ongoing tension and struggle.
Angela Irving: Remember we were raised on Carson Beach- my mother used to go clamming before clamming became not a thing anymore. My mother would go out there, stamp, bring home clams, and we’d wash them and boil them or fry them — everything. Carson Beach was our home. We’d go to the beach and the beach next thing you know people are throwing rocks at us. We’re saying, this is our beach, what are you talking about?
Linda: State police, right on top of the beach, with no protection, no one to help. Yet they stood there and watched.
Angela: Suddenly it became a political football. And we couldn’t go on, you know without fear and terror, to go on a beach that was literally in our backyard. Literally in our backyard.
It was Jim Crow-style segregation and white mob rule rearing its head once again. Black people simply weren’t allowed to pass the police barracks guarding the beach, or they would face white violence.
Betty Washington: Living at Columbia Point we experienced a lot of things just trying to protect our children.
Things heated up again in the summer of 1977, when Betty Washington saw a car hit a young girl, playing in a hydrant on the street. In fact, three Columbia Point children were hit by cars while trying to cool off in hydrants that same week. Residents had had enough with the extreme isolation. They wanted to swim on their old beach. Betty, along with other Columbia Point parents, this time leading the march themselves, decided to fight for Black families to use their local beach, despite the threat of violence.
Betty: My story is a story that just came about suddenly. I never was a person who was involved in any kind of political activities. And that day that that child got ran over by the car, it just changed my life.
Now she got ran over, and there’s a beach right out there that we can see. She should be able to go to the beach. She shouldn’t have to be in the street. So I started calling up people, and telling them, “Let’s call the radio, and let’s see if we can’t do something and have these kids go to the beach instead of being out there in the street.”
It was during the time of the busing and there had been a time when we could go to the beach, and suddenly we couldn’t. And again, that was because of most of the white people moving over to South Boston, and those same white people were fighting with us. And just because we wanted to use a sandy, dirty beach. And I didn’t even like the beach. I never liked to go the beach, I never liked sand and dirt, but I went. I was making a statement: We just want to use the beach. That’s all we wanted.
Dorothy Haskins helped organize the wade-ins with Betty Washington.
Dorothy Haskins: My father took me, 6 years old, to Carson Beach. I remember right to this day. So we went over to the beach, everything was fine then the time came when the kids were going into the water. The police department came over officer came over to me and asked me, can he speak to me. And I asked, to speak to me about what. And he said, “Some people here I want to know if you know who they are.” I tell him, “Oh no. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I’m here to exercise we’re all here to exercise our rights to use a public beach. I’m not over here to help you arrest nobody.” The next thing I knew the kids went in the water and were having fun and these white kids came in the water and attacked them and it was a sad situation. It was really was, for it to be a public beach and you can’t go there.
In some ways, the wade-in protests marked the last significant tenant movement at Columbia Point. The project was still losing families and residents, including leaders like Dorothy Haskins, as conditions continued to deteriorate.
Archive from Down the Project film: The things that we had seen there when we were growing up weren’t there any more. They knocked out all the lawns, took out all the lawns and paved them over. Cut down all the trees. They broke it down to basics, man. Before that it wasn’t basics, man. It was– Everything you need was there, man. A kid could grow up down there and look around and there’d be trees, there’d be flowers, gardens.
Columbia Point was isolated, empty, and lacking resources. and that made it a prime candidate for an ambitious redevelopment plan to privatize the project.
Leon Rock: When someone moved out, or when the condition was so uninhabitable, the decision was made to move them out into another public housing community. It was natural attrition. So they began to board up the buildings. In fact, the Housing Authority was told to mothball buildings.
Starting at least as early as 1975, the BHA started to “mothball” buildings — that is, they left apartments vacant and boarded up entire buildings. They did this even as the waiting list for public housing grew longer.
Linda Wade: It looks like a ghost town. These seven story buildings being boarded up because elevators that don’t reach to the top or fall or whatever, problems that they had.
Angela Irving: Maintenance was cut down in half. Remember we used to know the maintenance people? And then suddenly there were a bunch of people we had no idea who they were and they weren’t working as people. Yeah there were not–
Linda: Lots of rats, lots of big water rats, that also invaded the community in big giant droves. They used to eat through concrete.
Bill Loesch: If they had done some preventive maintenance, if they would have done something preventive– There was, to me, it was a racist move by the city to get everybody out of there. Once they got everybody out, their goal was to get everybody out of the whole project so they could rebuild the whole project.
Donna Haskins: I have to say the BHA basically did not keep up the property or didn’t enforce the keeping of the property as it did in the earlier years. So it started going down.
Alejandro: That’s when Joe Corcoran came into the picture. Corcoran grew up in the Upham’s Corner neighborhood of Boston and became a real estate developer. He was also involved with the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, a powerful real estate lobby. As a developer, he always had his eye on Columbia Point. At least since 1963, when Ed Logue’s BRA first highlighted the peninsula’s potential for development.
In 1967, Corcoran approached Kevin White with an idea to redevelop the Point, but the mayor shrugged off the plan. However, the 1970s saw big changes to the landscape of the peninsula, including the building of the JFK Presidential Library in 1977.
Now, with the BHA having totally abandoned the point, Joe Corcoran saw his opening. In 1978, he, Joe Mullins, and Gary Jennison — the core leaders of CMJ — met with leaders of the newly formed tenant task force, including Esther Santos, Ruby Jaundoo, and Terry Mair.
Collaborating with tenants was CMJ’s signature move. The conversion of King’s Lynn — a public housing project outside of Boston — to mixed-income housing relied on a fifty-fifty partnership with the tenants. Corcoran was sure the same model would work at the Point.
But CMJ needed approval from BHA and HUD to take on such a project. The BHA, at the time, was in crisis. In 1975, some public housing tenants sued the BHA over mismanagement. The judge overseeing the case gave the agency a few years to get their act together, but in 1980 — because no progress was made — the judge placed the BHA into court-ordered receivership. The receiver in charge of the BHA was Harry Spence, a housing official who had most recently worked in Cambridge’s housing department. Spence rejected Corcoran’s proposal, because he was a political liberal still adamant about keeping Columbia Point public. CMJ would have better luck with HUD.
In 1980, Reagan was elected president and with him came a shift towards “small government,” pro-market politics. CMJ was able to push the plan through by going over the BHA’s head and seeking support from Reagan’s friendly HUD administration. In fact, HUD said they would only release funds to Columbia Point if the project was privately redeveloped, not just rehabilitated.
So the plan moved forward. Harry Spence’s case for a public project was shot down and CMJ was brought in as the new manager of the property.
A year later, representatives from the task force signed a “Columbia Point Redevelopment Agreement” with BHA and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, setting out a plan to develop the Point into “mixed-income” housing. It was funded with $10 million from HUD. The plan was to guarantee all existing Columbia Point residents housing on the peninsula at a cost not to exceed 25 percent of their incomes.
Deliberate neglect at the Point had left many of these tenants desperate for change, and under these circumstances, CMJ’s proposal was appealing. Some tenants described it as a fight to preserve any subsidized housing at the Point under the threat of total redevelopment and takeover by institutions like UMass. Esther Santos was on the task force and was in support of the redevelopment by CMJ.
Esther Santos: We saw, in the early 80s, the task force really began to talk about that that we knew that something else was not done that no one will be here. Because by then talk was that University of Mass wanted the buildings for housing. We said that if you give people a clean decent living area, new units, they would take care of it. And we decided that let’s pursue, let’s figure out who we start meeting with — HUD for one thing. We wrote letters asking them for information as to how to go about you know talking about redevelopment. We weren’t thinking so much as knocking down buildings. We were just talking about to do it in such a way that would give people a decent place to live.
Leon Rock: Our concern early on was that they were conspiring to close down public housing as we know it. Particularly in Columbia Point being the first stage. So they did conspire, because they didn’t involve residents in the planning process. A conspiracy on the part of the University of Massachusetts, on the part of the Kennedy Library, on the part of the Massachusetts Archives, on the part of First National Bank, on the part of Boston Redevelopment Authority, on the part of so many of those institutions to close it down and provide an opportunity for a new community. But they didn’t anticipate residents would organize to at least demand a “mixed income” housing community.
CMJ was good at selling the idea of a private, “mixed-income” community. They had consultants, secretaries, and evidence on their side — like the development at King’s Lynn. At the time, Leon Rock saw these improvements and advocated for CMJ.
Leon: I was supportive of it, in fact I was one of the people that educated the residents to the fact that “mixed-income” housing may be the way to go versus keeping it just public housing. And so I was the advocate for it. And in fact I think based on the fact that I was the advocate, and the residents took their position to Harry Spence, Harry Spence began to do some research and find out that “mixed income” housing may be a way to go.
Conor: “Mixed income” housing had strong support from Michael Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor who had made funding available for the privatization of the project in Lynn.
Dukakis is a key character in that he represented the leading edge of a new faction of right-wing Democrats, alongside figures like Gary Hart and Paul Tsongas. This is a faction that would eventually take over the party in the 80s and 90s, most notably with Bill Clinton. The group had a lot of names: “neo-liberals,” “suburban liberals,” “New Democrats,” “Atari Democrats,” “technocrats.” But all these terms refer to the same thing: Politicians who pushed market solutions to social issues. They abandoned the old New Deal coalition with unions, and got their funding from white-collar professionals and the high-tech industry. They often ran to the right of Republicans on issues like law and order, housing, and welfare. Here’s the historian Lily Geismer:
Lily Geismer: Mike Dukakis is in many ways the kind of classic suburban liberal who supported this idea that the size of government had gotten out of hand. So this idea that I’m going to kind of come in and clean up– clean up government. One of the big programs that he focuses on is welfare and really reducing the size of welfare rolls of taking the sort of trying to sort of limit who had access to the program and making it that it was only the really, really needy. This engendered a huge amount of backlash from liberal critics and then also from this very active welfare rights movement. So this actually fits very much in line with kind of Dukasis’s and this new generation of Democrats’ sort of ideas about the importance of “earn it,” like the power of work as a means of upward mobility and opportunity. It’s somewhat more meritocratic.
Conor: Figures like Dukakis claimed to be anti-ideological. Policies like “mixed income” housing were framed as common-sense fixes to failures brought on by big government. But their supposedly unbiased pragmatism obscured a deep commitment to the free market, to low taxes, and to a government that served business over people.
Alejandro: Linda Wade held a seat on the tenant task force and was more skeptical of CMJ. She felt tenants were being wined and dined, and that CMJ wasn’t giving them the full picture of the plan.
Linda Wade: I think we were blindsided by the sale of Columbia Point by Boston Housing Authority. We didn’t have all the information that was asked to sign off on quite a bit of things we didn’t quite understand. I was the one who had the dissenting vote all the time.
Because I wanted more information. I wanted to be able to understand, there’s no way! So the new task force needed a solution to work with Boston Housing. This is before we knew that there was already a plan from Boston Housing with the Corcoran Jennison Mullins corporation. So when they introduced themselves and said that they can improve Columbia Point, and the people here could live better, and take advantage of all wonderful amenities that we never even heard of before like a clubhouse and all kinds of things, and this work would be in “phases” and buildings being torn down and people being displaced, really thrown out and evicted—quite a few. Also, we are being wined and dined by CMJ. You know, so they really put sparkles in our eyes.
To me there was just a level of misunderstanding and a level of people were not, on the Board, that was purposely there that people were not asking questions. Didn’t matter about me being there because I was voted down all the time. I wanted to know when, why, how, who and what. It was not just CMJ that for the bid, they made it seem. But they already had made the deal, so I thought. It was a 99-year lease that would allow CMJ to own, not the land, the property on the land, for 99 years, before allowing them to own that peninsula.
Cappy Pinderhughes: I would refer you to a very prescient book published in 1969 by Robert L. Allen called “Black Awakening in Capitalist America.” And he talks about how on a national basis, the rebellions were counter-insurged in part by the development, the beginning development of a new Black middle class. The promotion, the developing, of the Black petty bourgeoisie.
Conor: Cappy Pinderhughes, the sociologist and ex-Panther, along with Linda, connected what was going on at the Point to the rise of “Black capitalism.”
Cappy: Now this neocolonialism was in the process of development. This was nationally now. But the mechanisms that were utilized, were utilized also in Columbia Point. Although in the case of Columbia Point, they weren’t trying to develop an actual, a major Black middle class but were looking to develop individuals who could then manage the rest of their neighbors.
Alejandro: While five developers ultimately made bids, the task force eventually voted in support of their closest collaborator, CMJ. This meant that, in 1984, Columbia Point would be the first federally subsidized project sold off to private developers.
Angela: They said they were going to name it Harbor Point, keep the Point in there, you know because we can always call it “The Point.” I remember that big campaign- calling it “The Point.” And a lot of people thought it was going to be better. But after they finished, they said, well, this section here is for the people to come back, and this section here near the waterfront, not one community person could live in.
Donna Haskins: That’s when they changed it–
Dorothy Haskins: That place, the name should have never changed.
Donna: I don’t think I should have changed either.
Dorothy: It should have never changed.
Donna: ‘Cause to this very day, anybody who grew up in The Point–
Dorothy: That’s right.
Donna: –we all was signified as C.P., C.P., Columbia– Columbia– Columbia Point. Where was you from, Columbia Point, C.P.
Sister Joyce McMullin: When it became Harbor Point, it was all under CMJ. The Task Force is paid by CMJ. The security is paid by CMJ. The Housing Opportunities Unlimited Resident Services—CMJ. So, everything in my opinion is controlled. There’s no way that the people can have any way of organizing any kind of real voice.
Alejandro: That’s Sister Joyce McMullin, who ran an organization on Columbia Point called Project Care and Concern with a fellow nun. The two nuns clashed plenty with Corcoran and the task force, especially when their organization lost its space at the Point in 1988. Tenants and friends of the nuns held a vigil in protest.
Sister Joyce: …Not being able to stay there. We were gentrified out.
Conor: CMJ got tax breaks and support thanks to Democratic allies like Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. They got $21 million in grant money from HUD, $75 million from private equity, including, later on, $34 million from Chevron. They got a $151 million dollar mortgage from the Massachusetts Housing Financing Agency and $3 million more directly from the Massachusetts government via chapter 884. This was a provision established after the Lynn privatization, and, quote, “provided a legal basis for Housing Authorities to demolish projects when renovation was deemed economically infeasible.” According to the New Yorker in 2009, Barney Frank, quote, “shepherded” this whole privatization process at Columbia Point. We never found out whether this meant greasing the wheels early on when he was in the mayor’s administration, or when he was in Washington. When we interviewed him, he denied having anything to do with the conversion.
Alejandro: In preparation for construction, tenants were all consolidated into a few buildings. The groundbreaking for the new Harbor Point was in 1987, and the celebration was attended by politicians like John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Joe Moakley, Mike Dukakis, and Bill Bulger.
Leon Rock: There was essentially a long term plan for Columbia Point anyway. Something that the residents weren’t involved in, anyway. So if you’re going to say a 50-year plan or a 30-year plan you can look at it now and it’s come to fruition.
Leon Rock supported CMJ.
Leon: I would say that, looking backwards, we did the right thing at the right time trying to realize some real outcomes for the residents. But from what I understand the numbers are less than 100 current residents still living at Columbia Point 20, 25, 30 years later.
Today, he recognizes the Harbor Point project for what it is.
Leon: Unfortunately, the power brokers in City Hall, the power brokers at the BRA, the power brokers with the developers were able to develop that property and they essentially gentrified Columbia Point, and poor people are now not well-represented in Columbia Point anymore. The learning curve on this is that unfortunately we became the unwitting participants of a gentrification of Columbia Point.
CMJ didn’t just change the name and appearance of the Point. They also took over as management, bringing in a new set of rules to make the property attractive to market rate tenants. That meant policing, intimidation, harassment and in many cases, eviction. The developer called it “the blitz.” That’s next time, on People’s History.
We want to dedicate this episode to Reverend Bill Loesch, who sadly passed away during the making of this documentary, and more recently, Chuck Turner. Two really important leaders who helped us a great deal. Thank you.
People’s history is produced by Alison Bruzek, Rehanna Fernandes Nuñez, Alejandro Ramirez, Conor Gillies, Rosie Gillies, and Qainat Khan.
Research and production help from Patrick King, Caitlin Rose, and Ed Paget. Fact-checking and editing by Laura Foner and Bill Cunningham. Editorial help from Ben Shapiro, Alissa Quart, and David Wallis. Our theme music by Marisa Anderson. Our score is by Visitor, which is a project of Liz Harris and Ilyas Ahmed.
People’s History Podcast is an independent radio series. It is not related to the book, A People’s History of the United States, or related projects.
It is presented by Jacobin magazine with help from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Thank you for listening.