She said she was a “blip” in Black Boston’s mayoral history, barely a reference in the record books.
But Deahdra Butler-Henderson, then a single mother from Jamaica Plain, took one small step in a long march through history for Black representation in City Hall when she began her impossible campaign for mayor in 1975.
She met the same doomed fate as other Black mayoral hopefuls — those who made it to the general election and those unable to launch.
But now, with former mayor Martin J. Walsh becoming President Biden’s labor secretary, Black Bostonians see a path to the mayor’s office in this fall’s election. Kim Janey, who is Black, has already partially broken through the barrier as the new acting mayor — a position she won by virtue of being the City Council president — but if history is a guide, said one local historian, winning the mayor’s seat for good could remain elusive.
“A Black person — or a person of color — will win this race if a white person doesn’t run‚’’ said Byron Rushing, a former state representative, noting disorganization in the city’s Black leadership. (Rushing has endorsed the sole Asian American candidate in the race, Michelle Wu.)
To date, all of the six declared candidates identify as people of color, though there is still more than a month before the filing deadline.
Black Bostonians, the city’s second largest racial group behind white non-Hispanics, have had a storied political history in the quest to elect a Black mayor. They seek a leader who identifies with their struggles and is best able to shrink the wealth and education gaps and tackle systemic barriers in policing and housing, advocates say.
In the past half-century, a little more than a dozen Black Bostonians have launched campaigns for mayor, including five in 2013. Just two, Mel King in 1983 and former Roxbury councilor Tito Jackson in 2017, made it to the general election.
Janey, who officially entered the race for mayor Tuesday, joins two other Black candidates who have declared their candidacy this year, Councilor Andrea Campbell and former City Hall Cabinet member John Barros, who ran in 2013. (State Representative Jon Santiago, who was born in Puerto Rico, and City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who identifies as Arab and Polish American, are also competing for mayor.)
The quest for a Black mayor can be traced to 1971, when Thomas I. Atkins, a civil rights lawyer and Boston’s first citywide Black city councilor, began his quixotic run against popular incumbent mayor Kevin White.
“Is Boston ready to elect a Black mayor?’' Atkins asked. The answer came in the preliminary contest, with White winning and Atkins placing a distant fourth.
Four years later, Butler, then a 24-year-old activist, was having lunch in Dudley Square with a co-worker in the conference room of the Women’s Inner City Circle.
They discussed running a poor people’s campaign, plastering fliers across the city and getting free publicity by calling press conferences. Figuring she had a name recognition problem, Butler and her supporters bought 1,000 orange bumper stickers that read “Who is Deahdra Butler?” She had her first press conference in the spring of 1975 holding a roll of toilet paper while declaring, “This is what I’m going to use to clean up the city of Boston,’' she recalled.
But her campaign lasted just a few months before she was disqualified that July, only able to get 1,998 of the 3,000 signatures required to get on the preliminary ballot.
“We knew that women never had enough resources to start campaigns, gather people together, and do the things you needed to do,’' she said recently. “But we didn’t have a political machine to do what needed to be done.”
The next Black candidate to enter a city mayoral race was King, who came with a long list of credentials: community organizer, educator, nonprofit leader, world traveler, state representative.
King, an outspoken grass-roots organizer, favored jumpsuits and dashikis, and had to be convinced to wear a suit and a smile.
“He knew that any time he entered the room he was representing [his community],” said Joyce King, his wife of 52 years.
He saw lots of things that needed fixing in the city and he felt he would “just go and do it,” said Joyce King, who like her husband is in her early 90s.
In 1979, King went up against White, the incumbent, and other political bigwigs, including former city councilor and state senator Joseph Timilty and school committee president David Finnegan. At a community forum, King slammed the mayor for his treatment of the neighborhoods, telling an audience that the Black vote was being “taken for granted” and got “no respect.”
When the votes were tallied, White and Timilty (both white) were the top two vote getters. King placed third, neck and neck with Finnegan.
For the city, a close enough loss offered hope that winning was possible.
By 1983, King was back in. This time the contest was wide open after White retired, and King had given up his state seat to focus on his mayoral campaign.
Residents paid extra attention when King almost tied with then-City Councilor Raymond Flynn to advance to the general election.
Victory at the ballot box for King seemed within grasp, even though Black voters were just roughly 22 percent of the electorate. King’s supporters had hoped the Black turnout that had propelled him in the preliminary would give King the edge that November. But the white turnout was stronger, Rushing said.
In the end, King got nearly 35 percent of the vote to Flynn’s 65 percent. As he did after his first loss, King spent much of the time consoling his supporters. They had never before come that far.
But for the next three decades, there was no real challenge by a Black person in a mayoral race. In 1991, Graylan Ellis-Hagler, a Black community activist and pastor, mounted a symbolic run. Bruce Bolling, a former Roxbury councilor, was part of a crowded field in the 1993 election that swept former mayor Thomas M. Menino — the first Italian-American — into office for the next 20 years.
In 2001, Menino crushed his opponents, including perennial campaigner Althea Garrison, a Black woman.
When Menino decided not to seek a sixth term, the floodgates flew open, as a dozen candidates attempted to succeed him in 2013, including five Black Bostonians: former state representative Charlotte Golar Richie, former school committee member John Barros, longtime city councilor Charles Yancey, community activist Charles Clemons Jr., and former teacher David James Wyatt, the lone Republican. City Councilor Felix Arroyo, the only Latino in the race, also jumped in.
But as the preliminary vote neared, some Black operatives feared the potency of the white political machine would once again prevail if the Black vote was divided among the diverse candidates.
At a meeting at Twelfth Baptist Church in September 2013, supporters of Golar Richie attempted to make that point. But backers of the other candidates, incensed about being asked to fold campaigns they had worked so hard to build, resisted.
“I remember standing up and I lost my s---,” recalled James Hills, a community activist and an adviser to Barros at the time.
Horace Small, a grass-roots activist who also attended the meeting, said the other candidates had no incentive to drop out.
The white machine prevailed, propelling Walsh and City Councilor John Connolly to the general election.
“We could have elected a Black man back in 1983 with Mel King,’' said Yancey, a city councilor for 32 years. “Boston has always been in the forefront in terms of challenging injustice and racism in this country. That has not translated into electoral victories.”
In 2017, Walsh defeated Jackson, just the second Black person to compete in the general election.
Marie St. Fleur, a former state representative, recalled being a young woman in the 1980s, when the Black community felt unified. There was a Black Political Task Force with a Black agenda, and candidates were vetted based on their views on key issues such as education, housing, and policing. But times have changed. The Black community is now fragmented, divided, in part, over who is truly Black — someone who is African American or someone whose heritage is in the Caribbean or Africa.
“We’ve never had a conversation about that as a people, particularly as it relates to diversity of the Black community in Boston,” said St. Fleur, a Haitian American who got community support to win her seat in the House of Representatives.
Now the question that Tom Atkins raised in that 1971 contest is resurfacing in 2021: “Is Boston ready to elect a Black mayor?”
But some believe the question should be: Do Black people want to elect a Black mayor?