Black Women have Shaped Politics in Boston for CenturiesRoundup
tags: African American history, Boston, urban history
Kabria Baumgartner is an associate professor of American studies at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America (New York University Press, 2019) and is writing a biography of the African American lawyer Robert Morris.
At the end of February 2021, Kim Janey will probably vacate her position as president of the Boston City Council to become the city’s acting mayor. Should this happen, Janey will be only the second Black woman to lead a major city in New England and the first to do so in Boston. Janey, a Roxbury native, is well prepared for this role, given her decade-long experience as a community organizer and her work representing District Seven for the past three years. And importantly, she knows what this historic moment means. It’s a testament to the centuries of Black women’s organizing and activism in Boston.
Black women have long been a political force in Boston. They have debated politicians, influenced legislation and shaped public policy. And they have done so despite more than a century of exclusionary policies, preventing their election to public office and denying them full voting rights. Facing these obstacles, Black women turned to grass-roots organizing and community building outside formal politics, ultimately paving the way for today’s Black women political leaders to step into elected public office.
The myths of Boston’s past as the cradle of liberty, the birthplace of public education, home to abolitionists and a model city for racial harmony tend to whitewash the phenomenon of Black exclusion and the continuous struggle for Black civil rights in the city.
Almost two centuries ago, Maria Stewart became the first known Black American woman political writer and lecturer. In 1831, she published her 12-page pamphlet, “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality,” which invited African Americans to heed her trumpet call for resistance to slavery and racism. Though women were dissuaded from public speaking, she refused to be silent. She would travel Boston’s lecture circuit to urge African American men and women to act without fear.
Her hard-hitting criticism of the Black community, men especially, angered some residents. Frowns, scoffs and jeers greeted her even as she recounted the long history of women’s involvement in religious and political matters. The ridicule that Stewart received forced her out of Boston. But her impact was lasting. She validated the very political presence and voice of Black women in Boston and helped to solidify a culture of dissent there.