Never-Ending Struggle

Cambridge's Blacks

The first recorded Black history in Cambridge is far from pleasant: in 1755, when slavery was still common practice in this area, two Blacks were convicted of "petty treason" for murdering their master. Drawn on sleds to a public execution site, one was hanged and the other burned at the stake.

Little more record of the city's Blacks can be found for the next century; apparently a small colony lived quietly and inconspicuously. But by the last quarter of the 19th century, the Black population began to grow quickly--between 1875 and 1910, the community grew from 921 to 3500.

The influx, mostly from the American South and the distant West Indies, was not exactly well received. Historian S.B. Sutton reports that theCambridge Chroniclebegan to fill its humor columns with jokes about Blacks, usually depicting them as "childlike and slow-witted." Because "the color of their skin set them apart from all other members of the community, they gathered in tight districts in Cambridgeport," Sutton reports. Those who could afford good homes lived by Howard St.; more commonly, their residences were rickety old shacks on former marshland by the Charles.

A contemporary study reports that 2500 lived by the Charles in the two-story shacks, and about 1000 in the Howard St. quarters. The population was organized largely along state lines--of the 52 per cent that came from the South, most were natives of North Carolina or Virginia. The North Carolina immigrants tended to clump near Burleigh St., the Virginians along Howard St. But more than residence was affected by the divisions--even churches and fraternal lodges were sometimes split by state of origin.

Another group of Blacks came from Nova Scotia and the West Indies--often more educated, and, according to the authors of the immigrant historyZone of Emergencepossessing "a directness of manner and felicity of speech which was most attractive," they tended at first not to mingle with the other Blacks, in some cases sending back to the islands for wives. But by 1920, when Everton Johnson arrived, many of the differences had been muted. "Evidently at one time there was not too happy a feeling, but they began to marry into each other, so that soon they were quite close," he says.

One reason for the animosity may have been that the West Indians often found jobs more easily, since many were skilled printers, cabinetmakers or other tradesmen. While most Cambridgeport Blacks worked in Boston hotels, restaurants, or homes as domestic servants, Johnson--and others like him--found higher-paying work. Even for them, though, race made job-hunting difficult. "The first time I saw an ad for a printer and got all dressed up and went down," Johnson recalls. "The men were looking at me strangely. They must have thought I was applying to be a dishwasher. 'We have nothing today,' the head man said. When I told him I wanted to work in the print shop, all he told me was 'I'm afraid I'll have to find a white man for the job.'"

When Johnson, trained at the Barbados Advocate,finally found work as a printer, it was at the George H. Ellis Co. "At first, I got $25 a week, and eventually that got raised to $40. Everybody said I was very successful, so I was walking around with my chest puffed out, so to speak," he said.

But most Blacks were nowhere near so fortunate. Because white workers often refused to work side by side with Blacks, "a Black man would have had an easier time getting into Harvard than obtaining a job in the factory." Sutton says. A few succeeded--Clement Morgan became the first Black on the Cambridge Board of Aldermen near the turn of the century. Most, though, didn't even bother to finish high school, realizing the training would not make it any easier to find jobs. "On the whole," one historian explains, "there is a deep-seated feeling that it is useless to attend school because of the impossibility of using commercially such education as one may secure."

As a result, one study of Cambridgeport reported, "the majority (of Blacks) live close to the margin." Perhaps also as a result, the community banded tightly together--"there is much friendly and neighborhood aid, and they do not call on organized charity more than other peoples." Johnson described one such neighborhood source of help, the West Indian Aid Association. "When people came here, they had no insurance." So one enterprising man in the association decided to pick up 10 cents from people who wanted their families to receive money for burial expenses when they died.

In time, the association branched out by arranging dances, outinigs, picnics and speeches. "But the dues always remainded the same, 10 cents a week," says Johnson, who reports that the organization is still active. Other clubs included the Good Samaritans, the Galiean Fishermen, the Household of Ruth, the Heroines of Jericho, the Harvard Lodge of Oddfellows, and the Elks. Other Blacks congregated around the many churches in the community, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which served a large West Indian population. And for politically active Blacks, Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) served as a forum. Garvey, who favored a return of Blacks to their native homelands drew large crowds when he came to Cambridge. Most in the end, however, remined in Cambridge--"They found the United States a better place to earn a dollar," Johnson says simply