Desegregation 1974: Final Reflections

Movies and television can have a profound effect on our emotions and ways of thinking. In Professor Juravich’s Digital Public History course, which I took as a final semester student finishing up my two-year Public History MA, the documentary Eyes on the Prize captured my attention completely.

A line of people, standing tall, marches forward over a hill. Several of them hold American flags.
The cover image for Eyes on the Prize. Photo courtesy GBH.

Eyes on the Prize, specifically an hour long section titled “Keys to the Kingdom,” focuses on the fight over the desegregation of Boston Public Schools in 1974-1980. Desegregation had been a long time coming in Boston, but even still, its implementation sparked anger and violence primarily on the part of white Bostonians. Even today the geographic segregation of the city into areas primarily occupied by white populations versus people of color is very stark. Boston still struggles very much with its discriminatory legacy.

I was blown away by the primary source footage of desegregation efforts in 1974 Boston shown in Eyes on the Prize. More importantly, I was astounded by the way the filmmakers allowed the footage to speak for itself. There were no talking heads, no academics – just the voices of people who lived through Boston’s desegregation of its public schools. This documentary, and the emotions it inspired in me as a student of history and a human being, was the ultimate reason I chose to focus my digital exhibit for the Boston Teachers Union collection on desegregation in 1974.

This period of history was completely out of my traditional wheelhouse. I usually study English colonial history in the eighteenth century, which meant the sources available to me for this project were much more multisensory, utilizing audio, video, and oral history interviews, than the traditional letters and diaries to which I was used to using. It was a unique challenge to learn how to incorporate and work with these new (to me, at least) sources.

A white anti-desegregation protestor charges at a Black man with a sharp flagpole.
This picture was taken in the midst of anti-desegregation riots in 1976. While two years later than the 1974 protests, this riot occurred mere blocks from where the 1974 protests took place. (Photo courtesy NPR.)

Usually in my previous work, and even in an exhibit I was building at the same time as this class, I had to struggle with not having nearly enough sources. In this project, I had far too many! It was difficult to choose between oral history interviews of BTU teachers from the time, the BTU digitization day images, and the Judge W. Arthur Garrity collections at Healey Library. Despite honing in on one specific year in BTU and desegregation history, I still found a plethora of first-person stories in UMB’s collections.

Moving forward, I plan to continue working on the project as I am able. It is important that as many voices of Black educators, parents, and students are showcased as possible – to that end, I would like to continue adding oral history interviews throughout the exhibit. The connections between “Snapshot: Desegregation 1974” and other students’ exhibits are also an area for further exploration.

Screenshot from Marielle Gutierrez’s UMass Boston Capstone Project.

Meghan Arends’ “Women & the BTU” would be an interesting place to investigate the role women played in desegregation. There are a few women in particular who became strong voices both for and against the work of desegregation efforts. Additionally, Eleanor Katari’s “Black Choices, Black Voices: Navigating the Layoffs of 1981,” as well as Matty Patten’s “The Unified Facilities Plan” both address the fallout of desegregation several years afterward.

While I am pleased with my ability to highlight one specific year in BTU history, following those narrative threads further ahead in time would help us to connect 1974 to today, and desegregation’s effects to Boston’s current conversations surrounding racism and discrimination. After all, isn’t the point of examining the past to live in a present that is better for everyone?

An Elephant in the Room: Desegregation in the BTU

A political cartoon showing two children walking through a school hallway, talking to one another. One is white and one is Black. The white child says to the Black child, "My father wants me to have everything he didn't have as a child - like an integrated education."
“Judge to Rule on Staff.” Courtesy University Archives and Special Collections, UMass Boston: Boston Union Teacher, October, 1974. Detail.