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Nat Hentoff on his return to Boston: ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’

Nat Hentoff surveyed his old Roxbury neighborhood in November 2001.
Nat Hentoff surveyed his old Roxbury neighborhood in November 2001.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Dec. 16, 2001, edition of the Boston Sunday Globe’s former City Weekly section.

When I left Boston for New York in 1953, George Frazier — Boston’s most vivid, elegant, and controversial columnist — told me: “Now you’ll find out if you can make it on the varsity.” George, wherever he wrote — he later became a storm center at the Globe — was always on the varsity.

But I was more than somewhat apprehensive. Yet as time went on, and I survived, though never a member of any Establishment, I realized that much of what I had learned as a Boston boy had given me the courage, and sometimes the sheer stick-to-itiveness, to keep on keeping on. Recently, I renewed my roots and also became very aware that, as Mercer Ellington wrote, “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be.”

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As a boy in Roxbury, I learned early and quickly what it is to be an outsider. Boston, in the 1940s, was a pervasively anti-Semitic city. Riding by Franklin Field on this trip, I remembered losing some teeth there back then to a gang of readers of Charles Coughlin’s “Social Justice,” who recognized me as a killer of their Lord.

Except for a few non-Jewish Bostonians, keepers of the flame of abolitionists, there was little concern in the rest of the city about the common attacks on Jews in Roxbury and Dorchester.

A valiant exception was Joseph Dineen, a popular Globe columnist, who reminded his readers, especially all the youngsters in Boston, that “anti-Semitism is the cornerstone of facism,” pointing to a contemporary named Hitler. Dineen added: “If you are a juvenile and if you’ve heard nasty things about the Jews from grownups, or from your teachers, tell your father about it and ask him to do something about it. If he’s not interested, write a letter to me and sign your name.”

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That should have deserved a Pulitzer Prize, and a lot more.

One person I would have so wanted to see again, coming back to Boston, was Frances Sweeney who, when I was 15, gave me my first job as a journalist — no pay but plenty of psychic income. The daughter of a saloon keeper and a Catholic, she was the editor of the Boston City Reporter, a four-page mimeographed sheet, enthusiastically dedicated to exposing corruption in public office and uncovering anti-Semitism, its practitioners and collaborators.

Fran Sweeney, who died in 1944, taught me — as a cub infiltrator of anti-Semitic groups — about more than journalistic principles. She has never left me.

What also kept me regenerated back then was Boston’s lively jazz community. Having a jazz program on WMEX, and with the Savoy Cafe on Massachusetts Avenue, my second (and often first) home, I learned more not only about Jim Crow but about the world from Duke Ellington, Frankie Newton, and other lifetime improvisers than from any other adult I knew.

We passed by what had been the Savoy a few weeks ago, but it’s gone. Wally’s, however, is still there down the block, and Boston continues to have a vigorous jazz life.

What most astonished me about the change in the Boston I knew in the 1940s is the growth, to use an understatement, of Northeastern University. Having failed to meet the Jewish quota at Boston College (where, unaccountably, I wanted to major in Greek), I came to Northeastern, a largely working-class school then, where some of my fellow students were cops and there was one doughty labor organizer, a woman.

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Hentoff took notes while taking in a rehearsal of Duke Ellington tunes by students at Boston Latin School.
Hentoff took notes while taking in a rehearsal of Duke Ellington tunes by students at Boston Latin School.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File

At that time, the only building was Richards Hall, and our common room was at the YMCA across the capsule campus. Now, the main campus — just the main campus — sits on 67 acres, with 41 academic and administrative buildings and 27 dormitories and residential buildings. I wonder if Northeastern will eventually secede and become its own city.

At Northeastern, I became editor of the Northeastern News, where I picked up another lifetime obsession, along with jazz — the First Amendment. Our staff fancied ourselves as muckrakers — investigative reporters — and were critical of various administrators and departments, thereby greatly exasperating President Carl S. Ell, whose life was the university. He had built it from small beginnings and wanted it free of any negative publicity, especially coming from within its own bosom.

I was commanded — as in present-day journalism in China — to cease all negative coverage of the university or leave. I and all but one member of the staff proudly but sorrowfully departed. (It’s very hard to lose a byline). As a private university, Northeastern was and is outside the bounds of the First Amendment, but I dedicated my first book, “The First Freedom,” on that source of all our liberties against the government, to Dr. Ell. He had inadvertently ignited in me an abiding passion for free speech and press.

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There was another institution in Boston that changed my life. When I was in the sixth grade at the William Lloyd Garrison Elementary School in Roxbury, our class’s fiercely demanding teacher, Miss Fitzgerald, marched down Elm Hill Avenue, turned right on Howland Street, and descended on my parents like Betsey Trotwood in “David Copperfield.”

“This boy,” she pointed to me as if I were being indicted for a felony, “must take an examination for Boston Public Latin School!” My parents, both born in Russia, knew very little if anything of Boston Latin School. I did, but wasn’t sure about passing that exam. However, my fate was decided for me; and for six years, I learned that ceaseless hard work, however tedious, also involving at least three hours of homework a night, paid off. Not only in the diploma, but in the realization that if you can make it at Boston Latin, you can make it anywhere.

The highlight of my commingling of past and present on this trip was my return to Louis Pasteur Avenue and Boston Latin School. A fellow alumnus, the renowned foreign correspondent and chronicler of presidential campaigns, Theodore White, had mentioned in one of his books that 40 percent of the students had dropped out from the school during his and my time there.

While Malcolm Flynn, Boston Latin’s assistant headmaster, was squiring me around, I mentioned my pride at having survived those rigors. “Actually,” he corrected Teddy White, “it was the graduation rate that was 40 percent of those who first entered Boston Latin.”

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On the first day that this first-generation American had filed into the auditorium, I was awed and intimidated by the names of previous graduates high on the walls: Cotton Mather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, George Santayana. What was I doing there — this child of Jewish immigrants, so despised by so many Bostonians?

At Boston Latin School, the names of famed former students lined the auditorium’s walls.
At Boston Latin School, the names of famed former students lined the auditorium’s walls.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File

But the masters (as the teachers there are accurately called) didn’t care where we came from or how poor we were (and many of us were, this being the Great Depression). They expected us to learn. Indeed, they insisted. And that — cutting through all education theory — is how all schools should function.

As I found before my return, the same expectations and fulfillment of those expectations continue at Boston Latin. One difference is that when I was there, there were very few black students. And no girls. Girls Latin, where my younger sister went, was across the street.

Now as I looked around, Boston Latin is one of the relatively few integrated public schools in the country — where there are more segregated public schools in 2001 than in 1954, when the Supreme Court unanimously declared that segregated public schools are unconstitutional. And, on the front page of Boston Latin School’s handsome newspaper — though sometimes censored by the administration’s forgetfulness about the First Amendment — the bylines now include both Ximin Sun and Coleman Flaherty.

Our library, back in the 1940s, was a small, dusty room with books published not far from the turn of that century, including an American history text dated 1913 describing the happiness of the slaves strumming their banjos on the plantations.

The Boston Latin School library is now the most inviting, comfortable, and spacious I’ve seen in any public school. Nor could I have envisioned then the media center with computers, television production equipment, and a center for live music. There I saw a front-line saxophone section of young women and black students rehearsing works by Duke Ellington. The Ellington voicings for reed section were so personal and complex that few contemporary orchestras can even approximate them.

Boston Latin School’s program director for visual and performing arts, Paul Pitts, vigorously kept the rhythm wave going with drumsticks on a stool as these intent musicians actually got it! They’d found the Ellington sound and colors on “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be.”

I told these jazzmen and jazzwomen that I’d known Duke Ellington when I was working in Boston radio and later. He had been one of my mentors. After listening to them keeping his music alive, I said to these Boston Latin musicians who had done their listening homework, that Duke would’ve been very pleased to hear what they’d accomplished.

And so was I. But I regretted that in the Boston Latin School I knew, jazz was never heard, let alone played. Had there been a band and musical director like this one, I might have one day lived my fantasy of working in Duke Ellington’s reed section. But I had to find a day job as a writer instead.