'The Voice of the Ghetto'

Report on Two Meetings In Boston Neighborhoods

The Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights conducted two open meetings in March and April of 1966 to receive information about the civil rights problems of the residents of the Negro ghettos of Roxbury, North Dorchester, and the South End of Boston from the residents themselves.

The Committee heard from more than 60 residents, as well as community and civil rights workers who live and work in the ghetto. There was also participation by some public officials who discussed their programs and responded to questions raised at the meeting, but many officials chose to ignore the Committee's invitation. Because of the fragmentary response by public officials, this report is limited to the remarks of the ghetto dwellers. It is not intended to be a full scale analysis by the Committee of the problems of employment, housing, education, welfare, and municipal services. However, through this report, the Committee hopes to increase public understanding of what it means to be a Negro in Boston.

Both meetings were purposely kept informal to permit spontaneity of expression. Hence many of the participants gave a vivid portrayal of life in the Negro ghetto. Many of the complaints heard at the Roxbury-North Dorchester meeting were reiterated at the South End meeting. Feelings of alienation, bitterness, discouragement, and hopelessness were evident in the statements of almost every person. The ghetto residents told the Committee of their constant struggle against the damaging effects of both poverty and prejudice.

An Overview

Ten percent of the residents of Boston are Negro. Almost the entire Negro population is concentrated in Roxbury, part of the South End and, increasingly, North Dorchester. The Negro in this ghetto is subjected to inferior schooling, sub-standard housing, restricted job opportunities, and a lifetime of underachievement.

It is harder for the Negro than for the White person to survive physically in Boston. Thirty-one nonwhite babies of every 1,000 live births die before they are on-year-old, compared to 18.8 of every 1,000 white babies.

According to 1960 census data, more than one-fourth of all the non-white families in the Metropolitan Boston Area had no male head of household. In Boston, 46 percent of all families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) are nonwhite.

The 1960 median annual income for nonwhites was $4,447 and $6,753 for whites. About 30.6 percent of all nonwhites earned less than $3,000, compared to 10.4 percent of all whites. The unemployment rate for nonwhites was 7.8 percent, and for whites, 4.1 percent.

Though some jobs are opening up, for every Negro newly hired, large numbers are being let go from unskilled or semi-skilled employment because of automation, to flood the job market.

On the average, the Negro with the same education as a white person earns less. Therefore, the Negro community believes that Negroes generally receive fewer benefits from education than whites do.

Of 201 public schools in Boston, 45 had at least 51 percent nonwhite enrollment. Twenty of these had atleast 95 percent nonwhite enrollment. The degree of segregation is intensifying.

The 1960 census showed that almost one-half of all the Negro housing was dilapidated or deteriorating, compared to 18 percent of white housing. Urban renewal has resulted in the relocation of families from slum neighborhoods to adjacent areas where equally bad situations are developing. Despite fair housing laws, Negroes are still largely restricted to the areas where they now live.

Integration of Boston's public housing has been token. Most projects still can be clearly identified as predominantly white or predominantly Negro.


A recurring theme during the four days of meeting was the powerlessness of the Negro community. Whether the people were discussing housing, employment, Welfare, the poverty program, education, or municipal services, they inevitably made the point that no one listen to them, no one consults them, no one considers their needs.

More than a score of speakers pointed out to the Committee that the Negro in Boston is devoid of political power. For a variety of reason he has been effectively excluded by the "power structure" from the decision-making process. Vital decisions which affect his life are made, not only without his participation, but without his consultation.

The Reverend Gilbert H. Cald-Well, pastor of the Union Methodist Church, charged: "The city naively assumes that whatever is good for Boston is therefore good for the Negro. The Negro leadership has failed because the city has not been willing to take it seriously. The city has not listened.... Much of the energy being expended in Boston in the area of race relations seems to be concerned with devising ways in which to say that there is no problem.... Until the city recognizes the problems faced by its Negro citizens, and demonstrates a massive commitment to solve these problems, the Negro will have no faith in the political leadership."

Melvin King, director of the South End Settlement House, Youth Opportunity Center, pointed out: "The Negro has no representation on the School Committee or in the city government. The people who have been degraded and discriminated against are denied the opportunity to express their feelings about those people who have discriminated and degraded them."

Not only does the Negro community feel its powerless but it believes that it is ignored and that Whites make no effort to communicate with its members until there is a riot.

Boston Negroes who participated in the meeting said that public employees fail to show them respect and that public agencies fail to inform the Negro community of available municipal services.

Guido St. Lauriant of the Blue Hill Christian Center, Men's Division, said: "You hear people talk about the suburbs, but Roxbury is really a suburb because we are out of everything. We don't get any communication. The average man who really needs to know about MDTA [Manpower Development and Training Act] or some other program has no knowledge of it. The people are not aware of what the program is or who is administering it, or what it might mean to them. They advertise cigarettes. They can advertise these programs too."

Mrs. Gerturde Cuthbert of the Roxbury Multi-Service Center said: "If you do not hear complaints about the voluntary agencies, it does not mean that they are so wonderful and have such a high quality of service, as much as it means that these agencies are so scattered in the community that nobody realizes that they are here. These private agencies are run by boards of directors, and I wonder how may residents of Roxbury sit on these policy-making boards."



The overall picture of employment opportunities in the Roxbury-North Dorchester-South End areas of Boston was bleak and unencouraging. Because if the persistently high rate of unemployment and under-employment, several residents suggested that vigorous implementation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 dealing with equal employment opportunity might bring some relief to the chronically unemployed.

It was also suggested that patterns of discrimination rather than individual cases be attacked by the Federal and State enforcement agencies. Certainly, high unemployment among Negro male adults constitutes a serious danger in the Roxbury-South End areas. However well-intentioned the efforts of the State and Federal officials may be to end job discrimination, these efforts have not been sufficient to correct this condition.

The impression of the area residents is that officials of the Division of Employment Security of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the MDTA are not sufficiently aggressive or resourceful in finding employment or training opportunities for Negroes.

However, self-help programs, such as the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) in Roxbury, may improve the economic lotof many in this area.


The majority of residents in the Roxbury-South End areas are tenants. Participants told of the poor condition of housing and the exhorbitant rent which many tenants must pay. In addition, the Committee heard charges the Negro families are uprooted because of urban renewal; that racial discrimination against those who seek housing is scarce, especially for large families; and that public housing continues to be segregated.

Enactment of more stringent housing code regulations have brought some relief and the city has attempted to enforce theses codes more effectively. It has distributed a brochure about code enforcement and a Spanish language version is in preparation. Despite these efforts, participants in the meeting held the common impression that the inhabitants of housing in ghetto areas are paying excessive rents for the inferior housing.

Other participants complained of the difficulty of securing mortgage money form local banks and of the inequities that arise when public authorities seize private property under the laws of eminent domain.


The most frequent complaints about the public schools were that:

* The open enrollment system is ineffective and cumbersome, and that the Boston School Committee has no intention of doing anything about de facto school segregation. Its refusal to abide by the provisions of the Massachusetts Racial Imbalance Ace has caused mounting frustration and anger in the Negro community.

* Many teachers in the Boston public schools lack sympathy for or understanding of the Negro student and have low academic expectations of him.

* The schools in the Roxbury-South End areas discourage parent participation, and Boston's parent-teacher organization, the Home and School Association, does not provide for adequate parent involvement. The Association was frequently referred to disparagingly as a "company union" which does not deal with the problems of the school.

* The schools have made no effort to teach children about the role of the Negro in America, and Negro History Week tends to be a sham.

* Many parents denounced the quality of education provided students attending the predominantly Negro schools as well as the excessive emphasis placed on discipline and the use of corporal punishment.

* The Boston school system has neglected its responsibility to Puerto Rican children. There were no special courses for them and, in many in-stances, older children were forced to attend lower grade classes in order to learn English.


It was generally felt that welfare officials and workers were discourteous to recipients, especially to Negro and Puerto Rican recipients. Participants repeatedly cited hostile and punitive attitudes of public welfare officials.

Among specific complaints, the following were notable:

* No literature in either English or Spanish. It was noted that other cities have published such handbooks setting forth uniform roles of eligibility. This lack of information regarding their rights has made many recipients bitter.

* Many welfare recipients are financially penalized when they or their children seek training or employment. Furthermore, the low wages which an unskilled male worker can earn, as opposed to the benefits paid to large families, create a temptation for the husband to leave home so that the wife may become a recipient to Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

* Little effort has been made to establish day-care centers so that mothers can take advantage of job training or employment opportunities and, thus, break the cycle of dependency.