Friday, September 8, 2017

Ted Kennedy, Anti-Busing Violence, and the Firebombing of the JFK Birthplace (Part II)

On Monday, September 8, 1975 (42 years ago today), someone firebombed JFK’s birthplace in Brookline, near Boston, Massachusetts.  But was the fire-bombing directly connected to the busing crisis in Boston?

It was the first day of school for children in Boston.  The city was engulfed in protests, police strikes, and anxiety about busing.  Some of that spilled over into Brookline. 

Senator Ted Kennedy supported busing, despite consistent and sometimes physical opposition from black and white Bostonians. White anti-busing protestors blocked him from reaching his car at an invited speech, slashed his tires in broad day-light, "jabbed at him with American flags," hit him with their fists, and threw rocks at him.  In one altercation, after voices in an anti-busing crowd screamed at Senator Kennedy, “Why don’t you put your one-legged son on a bus for Roxbury,” “Let your daughter get bused there so she can get raped,” and “Why don’t you let them shoot you like they shot your two brothers,” members of the crowd aimed tomatoes and eggs at him, and he sought shelter in the John F. Kennedy Building Federal Building.  After he made it inside, the crowd “pounded on the plate glass windows” and broke one.[1] 

But that Monday, sometime after the JFK Birthplace closed for the day and before the firebomb ignited the historic site, someone scrawled “Bus Teddy” on the sidewalk in front of the house.[2] 

Paradoxically, Edward “Teddy” Kennedy had never lived at 83 Beals Street; he was born after his family had moved just a few blocks away.  The national historic site was an unlucky symbol, pointing to the fact that the Kennedys, though Bostonians by reputation, had always raised their children outside the public school system of the city that they called home.  Ted Kennedy was, and also came to symbolize, the white, elite Bostonians who decided the fate of the city’s children.  Brookline had model schools, spending near state-high levels per student to ensure, and please, a highly educated population.

Public response quickly condemned the fire-bombing as an “affront to the nation.”[3]  After the 1975 fire, it seems physical attacks against Senator Kennedy stopped. 

But busing didn’t suddenly become popular among white or black Bostonians.  In fact the violence associated with white anti-busing protests wouldn’t subside for almost a year.  Many of us may have seen images of African American attorney Ted Landsmark as he was attacked with an American flag by a teen protestor after an anti-busing rally in April of 1976 in Boston.  There was violence all over the city in the weeks after photos of the attack were circulated widely. By the fall of 1976, most of the protests had stopped, but not because Bostonians had accepted bussing.  By 1979, 30,000 students had left the Boston school system, among them at least 1/3 of the white students in the school district.[4]




Next Up: The Damage and the Investigation


[1] Bob Sales, “Sen. Kennedy Jeered from Stage at Rally: Antibusing Crowd Throws Tomatoes, Eggs,” Boston Globe, September 10, 1974, p. 1.  Jerimiah V. Murphy, “The Day the Crowd Booed a Kennedy in Boston” Boston Globe, September 10, 1974, p.23.  See also Peter Anderson, “Bus Foes Shout Down Kennedy at Hub Hearing on Airline Fares,” Boston Globe, February 15, 1975, p. 1; Curtis Wilkie, “Busing Foes again Heckle Kennedy in Boston,” Boston Globe, March 8, 1975, p. 5; Richard Martin and Robert Rosenthal, “Kennedy Jostled, Rushed by Crowd of Busing Foes in Quincy,” Boston Globe, April 7, 1975; Ken Boatwright, “ROAR Vows to Continue Confronting Se. Kennedy,” Boston Globe, April 8, 1975, p.1; Boston Globe Editorial Statement, “Assaults of Sen. Kennedy,” April 8, 1975, p. 26.
[2] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Kennedy Fire Investigation – (9/8/75) Report,” Folder 14, Box 4, JFKNHS, Resource Management Records, 1963-2003, Series I. Management/Administrative Files; A. Central Files, A2615-A8215, Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 21.
[3] “JFK Site firebombing Shocks Neighbors” and “An Outrage” Viewpoint (editorial) Boston Herald American, September 9, 1975. 
[4] Many scholars have summarized the complicated history of busing in Boston much better than I can here.  Please seek out Matt Delmont’s Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (2016) and Jim Vrabel’s A People’s History of the New Boston (2014) as starting points.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Nearly Lost - JFK Birthplace and Boston Busing (Part I)

The city of Brookline, Massachusetts, was on edge.

On September 8th, 1975 parents and school children woke up to the start of a new school year and to the beginning of Phase II of Boston’s controversial busing plan, which aimed to desegregate Boston’s public schools.  That morning nearly 26,000 students were to be bused to new schools.  That is if they and their parents weren’t boycotting the first day of school altogether.   Many parents, both those opposed to busing and those who supported it, planned to keep their children at home that day, because they anticipated violence.  Just the day before schools opened for classes, 10,000 people protested busing at Boston’s City Hall Plaza. The city had been “occupied” for two days with some 600 national guardsmen –there at the order of Governor Michael Dukakis. 

These guardsmen were specially trained to put down riots, and they were there in such high numbers because 965 of the city’s police officers participated in an organized “sick out” strike that same day.  Many Boston officers refused to participate in drills to prepare for the first day of school, while others were angered at recent changes in overtime pay.

Things had gone so poorly with Phase I of Boston’s court-ordered busing that a federal judge ordered that no protests could happen within 100 yards of a school, with the implementation of Phase II.  This time, the city planned that each of the 288 school buses would have adult monitors to keep children safe from protesters and themselves; school officials would walk students from buses into the classroom; and that 1000 Boston police officers, 350 state police officers, 250 MDC police officers, and 100 federal marshals would protect students on their way to and from school. [1]

In nearby Brookline, Massachusetts, where John F. Kennedy had been born, and where his birthplace had been made into a national historic site, there had been busing concerns as well.  Brookline’s population had strong community engagement in anti-racist politics and policies in areas of housing and education.  The town had been one of the first communities to sign up in 1966 for a new state program called METCO (short for the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity Program) that bused black students from Boston in to Brookline.[2]  However, these students, and the cost to educate them, were not universally supported by all Brookliners.[3] By 1975 a federal court decision decided that Boston should bus students within the city limits, rather than sending “promising students” to the suburbs. [4]

Though the town of ~58,800 was surrounded by Boston on three sides, things were quiet that day in Brookline.  But just after 10:00 P.M., someone threw a bottle bomb (sometimes called a Molotov cocktail) through the back door of the Kennedy birthplace.  The firebomb exploded, immediately engulfing the tiny entryway and kitchen, and spread quickly into the hall. 

Coming soon -- Part II: What Happened Next




[1] David Rogers and Joe Pilati, “Antibusing Leaders Urge Nonviolence,” Boston Globe, September 8, 1975, 1, 14. Michael Kenney and Robert Ward, “600 Guardsmen moved to city; protests follow,” Boston Globe, September 8, 1975, 1, 15; James Worsham, “25,000 pupils in grades 1-12 to be bused,” Boston Globe, September 8, 1975, 1, 15.  Stephen Curwood, “Chinese parents vote to keep children home,” Boston Globe, September 8, 1975, 13.  Michael Kenney, “Both sides agree: Central issue in Boston police sick-out is money,” Boston Globe September 8, 1975, 15.  Robert J. Rosenthal, “Guardsmen in Boston specially trained to assist police,” Boston Globe, September 8, 1975, 15.
[2] Lily Giesmer has identified Brookline’s Fair Housing Committee as one of the first in the Boston area to organize and canvas for fair housing.  They saw 80% of Brookliners who were asked supported equal access to housing, see Giesmer’s “Good Neighbors for Fair Housing: Suburban Liberalism and Racial Inequality in Metropolitan Boston,” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 30, No. 3, 454-477.  For a study of METCO students and their experiences see Susan E. Eaton’s The Other Boston Busing Story: What's Won and Lost across the Boundary Line (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001).
[3] An organization opposed to the “cost” of educating Boston students forced a Town Meeting on the subject of submitting a bill to the commonwealth for the difference in cost between that paid by the state per student ($1,474) and that actually expended per student by the Town of Brookline per student ($2,458).  At the town meeting, a majority voted to “postpone indefinitely” any such request.  Fletcher Roberts, “Brookline delays asking state to pay for Metco,” Boston Globe, Oct 27, 1976, 7.
[4] Note on Brookline Medium income.  National median income for the U.S. was at $11,800, and $12,339 in the Northeast, see http://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/historical-income-households.html. Brookline’s official population in the 1970 census was 58,886 and in 2010 was nearly the same, at 58,732.

Reviving a Lost Blog

Reviving a lost blog…is a bit like reviving a lost house.

Look out for new work on the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, literary homes, sexuality and house museums, and other musings.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Baltimore Poe House Update

News just found its way to me via Facebook, and now the Baltimore Sun Times is reporting it as well: the Poe house in Baltimore--recently shuttered due to financial struggles within the city's tightening budget--has been vandalized.  Its steps were stolen shortly after it closed and now the house has seen other acts of vandalism. 

While, I understand all the reasons why a city has to chose to take care of its citizens in hard times before it can prioritize historic properties, I worry that the plans to reopen the house may be moot if the house is not secured. 

How can we manage historic properties in seriously distressed areas?  How can we steward museums in neighborhoods and cities that are in dire straights?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Another Lost House? Poe's Baltimore House

Poe's Baltimore house museum has been closed.  The Baltimore Sun Times and other sources, indicate that the house will reopen under "new management."   I'm reporting this new quite late in the game, but I am stunned that the City of Baltimore has shuttered the home without a concrete plan in place to reopen it.  It's rare that house museums reopen after a period of financial duress, but I hope this precedent does not apply.

The long-time director there, Jeff Jerome, came to Philadelphia in 2009 and participated in a great event sponsored by the Free Library of Philadelphia: THE GREAT POE DEBATE. (You can listen to the pod-cast here, although I have to warn you this was a spectacle sport and some of it doesn't transfer to plain audio). At the debate, Poe aficionados duked it out over which city had the right to "claim" Poe.  It was both absolutely hilarious and touching.  I attended and dragged Seth, who admitted it was a great time; I was sore from laughing.  There is a great uproarious spirit in these people who love Edgar Allan Poe and who work to preserve his historic sites.
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Kate Henry, here at Temple, who is currently thinking about Poe and Philadelphia--how his time here influenced his writing and what this might mean as we seek to understand him, his writing, and history of Philadelphia.  And I have a number of students who are writing about the Poe House this semester.

I have to think, if we didn't have the NPS Poe National Historic Site, it would be harder for us to "see" Poe here in Philly.  Poe was impoverished much of his life.  He lived in several houses other than the one that the Park Service has preserved, but, as far as I know, none of them are extant. We largely remember Poe here, because of the fact--the presence--of this house.

Now with the looming "fiscal cliff," I'm worried about the Park Service's ability to keep all of its Philadelphia sites up and running.  It's much more likely that this Poe house would be shuttered than many of the other sites that make up the Independence National Historical Park system.  And once again, I find myself wishing that the National Parks had been a much larger part of the the recent stimulus efforts--and that local sites like the Poe house in Baltimore had been too.  The CCC, during the Great Depression, insured that we have many of these sites today, and without Federal investment--through the creation of jobs that both teach us how to preserve and do the work of preservation--it's likely we'll see more such sites closed before the economy ticks back up enough to create the revenue that local governments need to keep these sites open.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Literary Philadelphia

With the help of my honors class at Temple this semester, I'm finally returning more concretely to Literary Philadelphia!  Toward first steps in mapping Philadelphia's literary heritage, we have this humble Google map.  I've just begun to plot a few known sites, but some of Philadelphia's most traditionally recognized literary minds aren't quite mapped or easily mappable quite yet.  Among the missing are George Lippard, Christopher Morley, Charles Brockden Brown, and Robert Montgomery Bird, and many others. 

On the left is an image from the City Archives of the Edgar Allan Poe house from sometime before the house came under the City of Philadelphia and before the City donated the house to the National Park Service.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mark Twain's Homes and Literary Tourism

My book Mark Twain's Homes and Literary Tourism is out!  You can find the publisher's description of it here.

If you are in the area, I'll be speaking at Elmira College on October 3rd, 2012 on "Mark Twain’s Homes and Haunts: Mark Twain Museums and Public History." As part of their Trouble Begins at Eight series, I'll be at the Quarry Farm Barn, which is part of the farm where Mark Twain spent many summers with his family and writing.  It's the perfect place to think about Mark Twain and Public History.