In elementary school, Talullah Morgan read from a book so old it had her friend’s father’s name scrawled inside. By the time she got sent to a middle school with white kids, she had to work hard to catch up. She wanted better for her own four children, so she lent her name to a lawsuit, Morgan v. Hennigan, that’s now famous. Or infamous, depending on who you talk to.
The judge’s decision, issued 40 years ago, brought about forced busing and roiled Boston in a way we have yet to fully come to terms with. Extremists firebombed houses. A white kid got stabbed. A black football player got shot. Disillusioned and frightened by the negative forces that had been unleashed, nearly all the black parents on Morgan’s lawsuit moved away, along with countless white families who similarly escaped.
Morgan is now a 71-year-old grandmother living in the suburbs. She doesn’t give interviews to reporters who show up on her doorstep. Nor did she attend the special session at Boston City Hall on Thursday night to commemorate the anniversary of the busing decision.
But many, many others did. They packed the seats of the public gallery for a communal reckoning that felt like part history lesson, part church service, part truth and reconciliation commission.
Christine Boseman, a black woman from Dorchester, stood at the microphone and said: “I’m here because I want you guys to know that it was awful.”
She said she dropped out of high school due to the stress of the insults and rocks hurled at the buses they rode, and the fights that broke out in the classrooms daily. She has since graduated, and gotten a master’s degree, she told the crowd, which clapped. But she still feels robbed of precious years of education. Why couldn’t new books have been brought into black schools?
Bill Forry, who is white, also addressed the public.
“I grew up in an anti-busing household,” he said. “Judge Garrity’s name was mud in my house; I would wager in most white households in my part of the city.”
But don’t blame the judge, Forry said; blame the politicians. They were the ones who didn’t have the courage to craft their own plan for desegregation that would have avoided federal action. Still, Forry, editor and publisher of The Dorchester Reporter, sees the good that came out of the era. His parents sent him to Catholic school, where he met and befriended Haitian kids. When he met his future wife (state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian-American) they shared that bond.
Catholic schools gave parents of all ethnicities a safe place to send their kids, he said. They were “where diversity found a real authentic home.”
Across the room, City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, who was a freshman at East Boston High the year that busing began, listened and nodded gravely.
“I grew up in a poor white household,” LaMattina told Forry. “Mother on welfare, with four boys. We could not afford to go to those schools.”
People gave him a loud and sustained applause.
“And it’s the same today,” he added.
Cassie Quinlan, a bus driver in the gallery, remembers the police escort that drove alongside her every day in 1976, from Roxbury to Charlestown. Six years later, the police were gone. “It should have been a big event,” she said. But the absence of violence — the return of a sense of normalcy — rarely makes the papers.
What does it mean that 40 years have passed and we’re still deciding what busing gained, and what it cost? What does it mean that students in Boston Public Schools learn about Little Rock but are rarely taught about the integration battle in their own backyard? How can we possibly build a common future when we can’t even agree on the past? People long for closure. Perhaps that’s why “truth and reconciliation commissions” have cropped up across the United States in places like Greensboro and Detroit.
But sometimes there is no closure to be had. No confessions to be heard. The only apologies left are from ghosts. Yet people milled around in the hall after the hearing, as if there were something more to say, or more to do.
“People act today based on the pain that happened yesterday,” City Councilor Tito Jackson had told the crowd. “There is no point in bringing up history unless we are going to do something about it.’’Farah Stockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.