Disclaimer: Caleb Symons is a sports staff writer for the Daily. He was not involved in the writing of this article.
While the Jim Crow era will forever be etched into American history of the South, the racial segregation prevalent in Boston public schools has received far less attention on the national and international scale. Though Massachusetts prohibited school segregation in 1855 — nearly a century before the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that ended de jure segregation in public schools nationwide — ‘racial imbalances’ in Boston public schools were a matter of contention in the postwar decades and continue to persist to this day.
Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education Steven Cohen grew up in Boston and has been a teacher and professor in the Boston area for over 35 years. He reflected on the Boston area’s many responses to rampant segregation in schools, one of which was the Racial Imbalance Act (RIA) of 1965.
“By 1965, [Boston] had more than 45 schools that were considered racially imbalanced,” Cohen said. “A school is considered racially imbalanced when more than 50 percent of the population are students of color.”
The RIA once again outlawed segregation in Massachusetts public schools, but little action was taken to reverse the racial imbalances in public schools, largely due to racial segregation within neighborhoods and housing districts. By 1970, there were actually more racially imbalanced schools in Boston than there were before the passing of the RIA — around 70, according to Cohen.
In order to actualize the goals of the RIA, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) was founded in 1966. This voluntary program provides opportunities for Boston-area children in racially imbalanced school districts or children in isolated suburban schools to attend integrated public schools in the region.
When METCO was first established, it served 300 Boston students, according to Cohen. Today, it works with more than 3,300 students from Boston and Springfield, Mass., but it is difficult to get into due to its limited size and resources.
Nakia Keizer (G ’02) is a METCO alumnus who now teaches at Mission Hill School in Boston. He participated in METCO from ninth through 12th grade at Concord-Carlisle High School. Living in the South Boston/Roxbury area, Keizer would have gone to Cathedral High School or Charlestown High School in Boston if not for his involvement in METCO.
Keizer said that his experience participating in METCO was positive overall, partly because of his status as a student athlete.
“I was at the school two weeks before any other freshmen, because I had hell week for football,” Keizer, who played both basketball and football while at Concord-Carlisle High, said. “So I had an automatic built-in infrastructure of peers, centered around something that I loved, and that gave me an advantage over some of my METCO peers.”
He explained that attending school in a neighborhood far from where he lived created some difficulties for him.
“[There were] internal difficulties of not having a base at home in the Boston area and not establishing friends [there] because I spent so much time in Concord,” Keizer said.
Despite feeling close to his teammates in Concord, Keizer said he still felt like he was a visitor there. In some ways, he felt like a visitor in his own home as well. However, spending time away from his home made him appreciate where he came from.
“I grew up in a diverse community of black, white and brown people of many different cultures who were … connected by their socio-economic class,” he said. “I would not want to [have traded] having grown up in Roxbury and South End, even during a time period where there was high gang violence, for Concord-Carlisle.”
Cohen noted that many students from Boston see METCO as an opportunity to move beyond their local public schools and neighborhoods.
“METCO is very popular in Boston because [students] think it is their chance,” he said. “Many said that even though it was hard, it was worth it because the education was good. They often said that they learned how to code-switch and how to make it in a white world.”
The most valuable aspect of the METCO program for Keizer was the “social learning” it provided.
“For me, learning and talking with white men, learning the ways of wealthy white men and seeing what those conversations looked like really gave me an inside view of who runs the country,” he said. “The social capital that I was able to pick up really helped me more than any specific program within METCO.”
However, Cohen believes the program is lacking in scale and effectiveness. For example, he explained that METCO can have negative impacts on lower-performing schools that lose some of their most motivated students to the program.
“METCO is bigger symbolically than in reality, because 3,300 kids is really not that many,” he said. “For many Boston teachers, METCO is something that they are sad about because it takes 3,300 kids who would be model students … If you had those 3,300 kids spread out among Boston schools, they would probably make a difference.”
First-year Caleb Symons and his family currently host a METCO student in their home in Concord, Mass. The student commutes to Concord-Carlisle but lives elsewhere, with Symons’ family’s home serving as a base for the student when he is in Concord.
While METCO has been a positive experience for both Symons’ family and their host student, Symons said that METCO students often have to deal with an intense daily commute.
“[Our host student] talks about how long the commutes are and how he has to get up at 4, 4:30 a.m. to catch the bus or the train and he does not get home until 8, 9, 10 at night,” he said. “While METCO opens up a lot of opportunities, it’s a lot of sacrifice as well.”
Cohen emphasized that for some, the METCO program is not entirely positive, as they sometimes face prejudices at the schools they attend.
“I have had students who were in METCO, came to Tufts and still felt like outcasts in some way,” he said. “I had a student who I taught in Boston 25 years ago, and I showed [to her] class a film on the Little Rock Nine … She said that watching that video [reminded her of her] experiences at Lexington High School. That comment made a big impression on the people in that room, and it was not what we expected to hear.”
Keizer now has a daughter in fifth grade. Though he has considered whether METCO would be a good program for her, he also recognizes its limitations and the fact that it does not work well for every student.
“I always wonder about kids losing aspects of their culture by going into METCO so young,” Keizer said. “For lack of better words, [METCO students] need to be able to play the game, express themselves and advocate for themselves.”
Desegregation of Boston Public Schools
While METCO is a tool of voluntary desegregation, the 1974 district court decision Morgan v. Hennigan created a mandatory “busing” system in Boston within the area’s public schools. This decision forced students to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods to reduce racial imbalances in schools.
Cohen explained that Judge Wendell Arthur Garrity, Jr.’s 1974 ruling was met with a lot of resistance, some of which turned violent in the years following the court decision, especially in historically white, working-class communities.
“When the busing came around, Charlestown and South Boston did not react well,” Cohen said. “It was violent, it was ugly and it was mean. It had huge ramifications. It was a very ugly time in the city.”
Cohen explained that some white South Boston residents directly threatened the lives of black students who began attending their schools.
“There were times that black children were not allowed out for recess because it was not safe for them in the school yard and people would throw rocks at them,” he said.
Garrity‘s desegregation plan was also met with resistance from government leaders in Boston, according to Cohen.
“Most leaders [in] Boston turned away from desegregation,” Cohen said. “Politicians had to deal with it, and the poor [of South Boston and Roxbury] had to deal with it.”
Despite the resistance, Cohen believed that Garrity‘s decision was sound, even if the implementation of busing was controversial.
“The Boston School Committee in their own records made it very clear … They wanted to keep black and white children separate as much as possible, and when Judge Garrity made the decision in 1974, no one could say that the decision was wrong,” he said. “The Boston School Committee had cheated, and they had failed to do anything to take care of the [RIA].”
However, most schools in Boston remain racially imbalanced, largely because the decision did not target all of the schools and neighborhoods it needed to and because the ruling was not supported or assisted by affluent and powerful people in Boston. Cohen added that white flight — the moving of white residents to the suburbs — also contributed to the mixed results of the forced busing effort in Boston.
Cohen said that even today, most schools in Boston are still racially imbalanced, and much of the legacy of desegregation lives on.