scorecardresearch Skip to main content

What does Boston owe descendants of the enslaved?

In exploring the issue of reparations, the Boston City Council’s new slavery reparations commission must highlight the devastating human toll that flowed from unjust and discriminatory workplaces.

Members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment marched up Beacon Street in Boston for the rededication of the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial, near the State House, on June 1.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Boston City Council’s new slavery reparations commission provides a unique opportunity to study the city’s complicated Black history. However, to identify and assess fully any proposals for reparative justice, it’s imperative that the commission consider not just slavery and the slave trade but the city’s post-emancipation social division of labor. The end of slavery in Massachusetts in the early 1780s and the end of the international slave trade in 1808 signaled not only the dawn of a new era of freedom for Black Bostonians but also the onset of new forms of injustice that they were forced to navigate as freed people.

Black people made up no more than 10 percent of colonial Boston’s population, but those workers were well integrated into the city’s seaport economy. They toiled at the skilled trades and contributed to the city’s prosperity born of a vibrant international trade. However, they became legally free without much of anything in the way of cash, land, credit, the tools of their trade, or other resources and so remained impoverished. White New Englanders generally condemned Black people as poor by nature, destined to become a drain on the public dole; at the same time, many white workers resented Black men and women who pressed for equal job opportunities and better wages. These white residents feared that giving Black people their fair share of jobs would deprive white laborers of their privileged position in the workplace and, as a result, reduce white families to penury.


Nevertheless, antebellum Massachusetts claimed to be a beacon of racial enlightenment and progress. By 1860, Black men of the Commonwealth could vote, their children could attend integrated schools, and Black and white people could intermarry. Too, in the years leading up to the Civil War, Boston earned a hard-won reputation as a center of militant abolitionism. Still, even the most eloquent and physically courageous white anti-slavery agitators proved indifferent to the economic well-being of their Black neighbors. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips showed great sympathy and concern for enslaved Southerners; but these white men understood that an appeal to economic justice for Black people in their own city might alienate potential donors to the abolitionist cause, wealthy white men who were also employers. Many members of the white laboring classes refused to work with Black people, and employers deferred to the prejudices of their employees. City officials reserved employment on public works projects for white men exclusively, and textile mill owners hired only white machine operators.

During these years, Boston was home to hundreds of Black freedom seekers from the South. Some of those who chose to remain in the city became prominent leaders and shop owners, but the vast majority had to scrounge for day work as waiters, window washers, and floor sweepers, regardless of the skills they had learned as enslaved workers. Indeed, this form of skill dilution among Black workers was not unique to Boston. At the Colored National Convention in Philadelphia in 1855, the Black delegates created a census of northern workers divided into two categories — those who were skilled carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, and other trades people and those who were barred from “working at their trades and professions.” This distinction highlighted the fact that many northern skilled Black laborers, including fugitives from slavery, could not practice their craft because white labor guilds refused to admit them and white customers preferred to patronize tradespeople of their own race.


During the Civil War, soldiers of the famous all-Black 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry received lower pay than their white counterparts, an injustice that was not rectified until three long years into the war. In the meantime, their wives and children back home faced great hardship.


In the postbellum period, white women got jobs in the retail and clerical sectors, while white men continued to dominate the skilled trades, business, and the professions. Black women could find work only as domestics and laundresses, while their menfolk, too, were, for the most part, relegated to menial labor. White Republicans served as inconstant allies of their loyal Black supporters, doling out a handful of spoils jobs in the postal service and the Customs House to a favored few but refraining from any criticism of a social division of labor that marginalized Black people and condemned them to intergenerational poverty. By the end of the 19th century, the city was employing hundreds of white men on park and street maintenance and construction projects, providing a safety net for Boston’s immigrants.

Despite the loss of 750,000 lives during the Civil War and the emergence of new sectors of the economy afterward, Black workers remained confined to jobs that neither paid well nor offered the possibility of upward mobility, for them or for their children. Deprived of the means to buy a home, they remained at the mercy of white landlords, unable to accumulate the assets that homeownership would provide.


Soon after the war, a Boston clergyman, the Rev. C. L. Woodworth, wrote an eloquent plea for reparations for Black people, arguing that the city of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the nation generally had profited handsomely from the system of slavery for generations. Enslaved people had grown the cotton that fueled the mighty textile mills in Boston’s hinterland and enriched even modest northern villages. Woodworth, who was white, wrote, “Capital has made sure returns … Disguise it as we may, we have grown rich by robbing the poor, and mighty by taking the energies of the weak.” Added to this great injustice was the shameful treatment accorded Black soldiers, especially because their courage helped win a Union victory: “In the day of our calamity two hundred thousand strong [enlisted] and filled up our thinned ranks.” Thousands of them died “with a rare and magnificent heroism.”

The new commission created by the City Council must take into account not only the enormous wealth of city merchants and sea captains generated by the transatlantic slave trade but also the arduous labor of Black men and women who, after emancipation, continued to toil at low wages with little or no hope that their children or grandchildren would someday enjoy better job prospects. In exploring the issue of reparations, the commission must highlight the devastating human toll that flowed from unjust and discriminatory workplaces.


Jacqueline Jones is the author of No Right to an Honest Living: The Struggles of Boston’s Black Workers in the Civil War Era.”