Black Bostonian women have a history of getting things done. In 1781, Elizabeth Freeman, born enslaved, sued for her freedom and won. In the 1830s, abolitionist and women’s rights activist Maria Stewart made history by delivering speeches before mixed-gender audiences, something considered scandalous for women at the time. Melnea Cass, nicknamed the First Lady of Roxbury, was president of Boston’s NAACP in the 1960s, during the height of national civil rights protests.
Contemporary activists say they proudly carry on the legacy of these women and countless others like them who may not be as well known today as they ought to be, but who changed the history of this old, obdurate town.
“The work I’ve been doing since I was a youth … is really informed by the spirit of Black female activism,” said Kai Grant, 51, a Roxbury native and advocate for closing the city’s vast racial wealth gap. “Black women have been the backbone of all of the movements.”
As Grant and others walk in the tradition of Black women organizers before them, many said they sense a new chapter beginning in Boston.
A younger generation is stepping up and into the struggle. And, increasingly, Black women are being elected to the halls of power their predecessors spent generations petitioning and protesting. Boston expects to soon see its first Black woman mayor when city council president Kim Janey assumes the office vacated by Martin J. Walsh, who is on track to be confirmed as the Biden administration’s labor secretary.
“We are moving in the right direction — where we’ll be able to collect our stories, tell our stories, and control our narratives,” Grant said.
Black women’s activism is embedded in Boston’s history, said L’Merchie Frazier, director of education and interpretation at the Museum of African American History in Beacon Hill.
Frazier traces that legacy back to Elizabeth Freeman, born as “Mum Bett,” and her fight for freedom. Freeman appealed to Massachusetts courts to end the enslavement of her and a man known only as Brom. Their case was one of the first in a series lawsuits that helped end slavery in the commonwealth in 1783, more than eighty years before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery throughout the country.
Despite their contributions to American history, Freeman’s and other Black women’s names have too often been sidelined or forgotten, Frazier said.
“The narrative of history has not deemed people like [Freeman] important,” she said. “That is the quest of museums like ours, … to extol this history and tell these stories that are powerful and important to American history.”
In addition to the ways in which systemic racism and sexism shape Black women’s legacies, traditional approaches to history also contribute to their comparative invisibility in published accounts, said Crystal Feimster, a historian and professor of African American studies at Yale University.
“Historians are often looking for the charismatic leader who can anchor the narrative,” Feimster said. But Black women often “choose a kind of community organizing that’s rooted in a politics of participatory democracy, that isn’t about being out front as leaders.”
“A lot of the work that Black women are doing is about creating movements within communities that are organized by everybody — where everybody is invested and everybody is playing a role,” Feimster said.
Despite their omission from mainstream histories, or perhaps in part because of it, Black Bostonian women have long created spaces where they learn from and educate one another.
Grant, who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, absorbed stories of Black women’s political work at the after-school programs she attended at Aswalos House, a Roxbury YWCA branch created by Black women activists for “all sisters with a lot of soul.”
A new generation of activists is also centering community education in their work. Black Boston 2020, an organization founded by Black college-aged women last spring, hosts programming and develops curricula for people of all ages. The group also advocates for policy changes at the city and state levels and has led protests against police brutality.
“It’s very rewarding to know that you’re part of something bigger and that there are also Black women that share the same values as you,” said Alexandria Onuoha, 23, of Malden, director of political advocacy at Black Boston 2020.
Onuoha, a doctoral student in psychology at Suffolk University and Massachusetts native, said she was drawn to the group in part because she wanted to learn more about Black women organizers, whose stories weren’t part of conventional school curricula.
Even as Boston’s Black women activists are guided by a rich history, they said they have their sights set on the future — on the battles that remain ahead and the political doors finally opening to Black women in the city, state, and beyond.
“While we still face skepticism, cynicism, and systemic barriers to power, I’m encouraged by the progress we’ve made and inspired by a new generation of Black women activists who have picked up the mantle and are unapologetic in their demands for equity, justice, and true liberation for all,” said US Representative Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman elected to the state’s Congressional delegation and, prior to that, the first Black woman elected to Boston’s city council.
“Throughout our history, Black women have always been truth tellers and justice seekers, doing the work to protect and bolster our democracy,” Pressley wrote in a statement to the Globe.
Eleven years after Pressley’s historic election to the city council, four Black women now serve on the body. Janey, who is slated to be the city’s acting mayor, has said she is considering a run for the post in the fall. Andrea Campbell, another Black councilwoman, has already declared her candidacy. The highly-anticipated election includes several other candidates of color.
But representation, however meaningful, is not the political end goal, politicians and activists said. Real progress on defeating systemic inequities is.
“For me, accountability has no color,” said Monica Cannon-Grant, founder of Violence in Boston, Inc., an organization dedicated to helping survivors of all forms of violence in the city. “Being Black or brown and being an elected official doesn’t mean you get to escape accountability.”
Not that Cannon-Grant discounts the need for Black people to take part in the political process, whether as vocal citizens or attentive officials. Political engagement is an essential part of activism, and vice versa, she said, a lesson she learned as a teen organizer growing up in Roxbury.
“The struggles that the Black community and communities of color experience — all of it is political,” she said.
“We have a diverse council, primarily women of color, and I think it just speaks volumes to this moment in time, but the question is how we’re going to seize it to really build power,” said Julia Mejia, the first Afro-Latina elected to Boston’s city council. “I think we’re meeting the moment. But I don’t think we need to stay in this moment.”
The work of building a more equitable future propels Hodan Hashi, 22, one of the founders of Black Boston 2020 and a volunteer fellow on Campbell’s mayoral campaign. Since graduating from college last spring, she has devoted nearly all of her time to advocacy.
“At first, when you’re starting out, you don’t even think about it,” she said. “You’re standing up for people that are your people, but also people that you believe deserve more and deserve better.”
Hashi said she is proud to fight for justice in her hometown, a city increasingly rich with Black women demanding change.
“It’s empowering,” she said. “You see as a collective how much power we do have, how how strong our voices can be.”