Emancipated Century

Posted: January 13, 2014 by umnunity in Uncategorized

One fact that the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project didn’t fully appreciate or anticipate about the 40th anniversary of Boston’s busing/desegregation project was that it would fall in the midst of many anniversaries of the history of the struggle for race and class equity. The marking of these anniversaries around Boston have been transformative for the project and taught much about the terrain that must be covered to deepen the conversation on race and class equity.

Most profound for me personally in the many amazing events this past year was the Emancipated Century readings and forums put on by the Trotter Institute in honor of the 150th Anniversary of Emancipation.  The series included readings of all of August Wilson’s 10-play cycle chronicling the 20th century African American struggle and six forums on key themes and issues addressed in the plays. They offered a profound window into the complexity of race and class and the particularity and universality of the African American struggle for emancipation, for human liberation. It made it clear that the struggle for emancipation –as for quality education for all, for that matter—is not done once and for all. The plays likely left others, as it did me, with more questions than answers. But it left us with a powerful legacy of upholding human dignity and faith in the midst of often unimaginable oppression.

What an joy and honor to be participate in the last forum which is on education. BBDP’s Barbara Lewis has brought her amazing vision to fruition and the city is richer for it. Its gifts to Boston include providing a glimpse of how deep we must go to really understand our history and how committed we must be to—in August Wilson’s words— finding and singing our song. We hope you will attend!

Education, Empowerment, and Excellence: Emancipating Tomorrow

A Public Forum:

January 13, 2014, 6-8pm

Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theater

Sponsored by the Trotter Institute, UMass Boston, with funding from

The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities


Rallying for Educational Change, Long Over-Due

The theme: “Education, Empowerment, and Excellence: Emancipating Tomorrow” is drawn from the work and example of August Wilson, who wrote a ten-play saga celebrating the resilience of African American culture and community.  His 20th century decade-by-decade focus chronicles the move that emancipated men and women made, starting well over a hundred years ago, to make the promise of citizenship and equality real. Full of ambition, many of them left the fields of degradation and moved to northern cities, where they and their children could start fresh and improve their economic and educational prospects.   Those that remained in the South understood what they faced and they rallied to emancipate themselves and used the schools to create a ladder to success that allowed generation after generation to counteract the status quo.  Then the rules changed, and the century ended much as it began, with the stigma of inferiority still strong.

In the 1960s, Wilson’s genius was almost stymied by entrenched thinking at the hands of a northern educator.  The Brown legal decision officially ended segregation but did not, for the most part, reverse the misguided attitudes and assumptions undergirding it.  Many teachers, especially those in schools where the student body differed in complexion from the teachers, continued to believe in the inherent inferiority of students of color.  In the segregated schools, which Brown dismantled, teachers were often committed to the success of their students. But when Wilson turned in an excellent paper in Pittsburgh, he was labeled a cheater.  It wasn’t in his genes, his teacher said, to be anything other than second-rate.  No one of his heritage could write anything worthwhile, without assistance.  Their brains were just too deficient.  Wilson, who had put his all into his work, was outraged and never returned to the classroom.  In the library, he began emancipating and educating himself and honed his talent as a writer.  In the end, he showed the world that the words he put on paper were indeed worthy and undeniably his own.

The negative perceptions that confronted Wilson in the 1960s are still strong in the 2010s.  After Brown, school districts were ordered to integrate, and the mandate to bus children from one school or school district to another as a redistribution measure unleashed armed resistance.  In Boston, the fight against equalizing education was especially violent, and the city became known as the place where the American flag was made into a weapon of hate.  It has been a hundred fifty years since the Emancipation Proclamation, sixty years since Brown, and forty years since the legal ruling that began Boston’s busing era.  The educational advances that the last century sought to put in place have rarely happened, and children of color are often still seen as dishonest, underperforming, and leaning to criminality, like Wilson.  Thus, too many are plucked of promise and herded into public classrooms that are disguised holding pens.

Can we insure, once and for all, that education is the democratic road to parity and excellence, as it was meant to be?  That is what we ask in our Re-visioning Tomorrow: Emancipation for a New Century forum on January 13, 2014.  Inspired by Wilson and remembering the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the 1954 Brown decision as well as the 1974 order to desegregate the Boston Public Schools, we examine how education can be reclaimed and turned into an emancipation engine for real change that steers the future away from past failures.  We also endorse the belief that being smart is the province of all.  Our ultimate goal is counteracting the notion that communities of color have more than their share of backward, underperforming children on whom education is wasted.

This is an old story and an old charge, and nowhere is it older than in Boston.  As far back as the Revolutionary Era, tax-paying black Bostonians understood that public education was indispensable for full political participation, and they rallied to give their children every tool for inclusion.   In 1787, Prince Hall and a consolidated core of community leaders wrote the Massachusetts Legislature asking for equal education for the next generation; but their petition was denied.  Hall and his son would not be defeated; they began a school for community children, and it became an institution, supported by church and philanthropy.  In the late 1840s, that school returned to the center of political controversy.  A parent, whose last name was Roberts, wanted his daughter, Sarah, to attend a school near his home, rather than be segregated in the school that had grown from the seed that Hall and his son planted.  Roberts v. Boston (1850) became the legal platform on which Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) rested and was still being argued in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).  Remembering the 20th century history of Brown in 2014 and the divisiveness of Boston busing does not tell the whole story of the long fight for educational parity in this city and in this country, and there is no more appropriate setting for this discussion than Boston.  So please join us at Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theater, on January 13, 2014 as we revisit beginnings and milestones and follow the trailblazing lead that Prince Hall and his son and a latter-day cultural activist named August Wilson set, which is acting strong for tomorrow, recalling past efforts, and answering the needs of today in order to build a new, revitalized educational future.

The education forum, organized by the Trotter Institute, asks:  How do we empower and emancipate ourselves, widen the route to excellence, connect arts and research to counteract entrenched and negative labeling, and tell a bigger, bolder story about yesterday and tomorrow that elevates us all?

Barbara Lewis, Director, Trotter Institute

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