February 26, 2011
-by Barry Brodsky
In 1974, I found myself living in Brockton in a federally subsidized housing project called Battles Farm Village, going to UMass-Boston on the GI Bill, and working as a tenant organizer for a statewide housing organization.
While at a meeting one night, I met someone who worked at something called The Boston Community School. He told me about the school’s mission – bring classes to adults who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend them. I told him about the tenant union I was part of in Brockton, and he said to check with the tenants and see if they were interested in having a class taught at the project. Back home, several people said they’d love to learn more about the history of community organizing in America, and did this school have a class like that? I relayed that message to the school.
A few days later, I got a phone call from Howard Zinn. He told me he taught at Boston University, was volunteering with the Boston Community School, and that he would love to meet on a weekly basis with tenants active in the tenant union to discuss the history of community organizing.
For the next 12 weeks or so, Howard drove down to Brockton one night each week to deliver a lecture and then talk with the men and women cramped into a living room about ways people band together to fight for their rights. I attended three or four of the sessions. I still remember him talking about eviction blockings during the Great Depression, and about a citywide rent strike in New York City. He brought readings for people to study for the next session. He did it all for a cup of coffee (or maybe tea, I forget) and a piece of pastry each week.
People rotated apartments in the project, and would usually put out a flyer inviting their neighbors: the flyer would read something like “Come hear BU Professor Howard Zinn tonight in my living room” and describe the subject of the evening’s discussion. There was a core of about a dozen people who attended every session, and then there were others, like me, who would show up occasionally.
And then one week sessions were over. One of the tenant reps told me that Howard had wrapped up the night before. I felt badly that I missed most of the sessions, but during the next couple years, when we’d have a meeting and some issue or other would come up, it wasn’t unusual for one of the tenants, in the midst of a heated debate, to say something like “remember when Howard talked about…” and a lively discussion would ensue comparing the current situation to some historical event they had discussed with Howard in someone’s living room.
I started writing plays in the 1980s and was delighted to find Howard was also writing plays. I went to see his play “Emma” and hoped he would be there, but he wasn’t. I saw him speak a few times at rallies and events, but never approached him to remind him of those classes he taught in the living rooms of Battles Farm. I wanted to tell him how much it meant to all of us, and how empowering it is to know that what you’re doing is part of the flow of American History. I have a feeling, however, that he already knew.