For Ben Carson, bleak memories of his time in Boston
Candidate tells of long-ago blight and violence, but others from Dorchester, Roxbury look back more fondly
It’s a memory that Ben Carson refers to on the campaign trail and in his autobiography: How, as an 8-year-old, he witnessed horrible violence outside his front door, and how it motivated him to seek a better life.
“It was a pretty horrible environment,” Carson told a room of New Hampshire voters recently. “I saw people lying in the street with bullet holes, stab wounds.”
Where was this nightmare of a neighborhood? Dorchester and Roxbury, where the GOP’s new presidential front-runner lived for two years during his youth. A brief chapter of Carson’s childhood took place in Boston more than 50 years ago, but this flicker of time left an impression on the White House hopeful.
“Boarded up windows and doors. Sirens. Gangs. Murders,” Carson said recently of the sights and sounds of these neighborhoods in the early 1960s. “But I think the thing that impressed me the most though were the roaches. They had large aggressive roaches.” He spoke at the RiverWoods Retirement Community in Exeter, N.H., last month.
Other Dorchester and Roxbury residents from that era remember the community more favorably. Interviews with longtime Boston residents, archival documents, and newspaper clippings paint a picture of a dynamic black community wrestling with the realties of segregation — high unemployment, subpar schools, and dilapidated housing — while organizing to improve life.
Both descriptions could be true. “Roxbury is not one big blob of slums,” read a Boston Globe article about urban renewal from 1959. “It is many areas. Some good. Some sliding. Some the worst in the city.”
Carson, his mother, and his older brother, Curtis, moved to Boston from Detroit after his parents divorced, staying with his aunt and uncle, William and Jean Avery, from 1959 to 1961. Carson’s family lived in two homes during that time, one at 37 Stanwood St., which has since become part the Stop & Shop in Grove Hall. The other, a three-decker at 6 Glenway St., across from the Franklin Park Zoo, remains. Both homes were just off Blue Hill Avenue, a thoroughfare once known for many Jewish shopkeepers’ bustling businesses.
Neighborhood residents — some of whom still live in Dorchester and Roxbury — also recall black-owned social clubs and pharmacies and law practices in their neighborhood, as well as several civic and service agencies.
At one point, a stretch of Blue Hill Avenue was known as “agency row” because of the number
of community organizations headquartered there. Some of these organizations helped integrate Wonder Bread and Hood Milk through boycotts and negotiations, forcing the companies to hire black drivers to make deliveries in the days before big box stores and supermarkets.
“I, being a social worker, was working in the community,” Dan Richardson, who at 77 is a lifelong Roxbury resident, said in a recent interview. “There were some incidents happening at that point but none that I recall with bodies on the street, never a whole lot of criminal activities. That’s just a vast exaggeration.”
Richardson and others say Roxbury, North Dorchester, and the South End — the neighborhoods where most of the city’s black residents lived — was a typical, American black community for the time. It was a place where community leaders were pushing to make sure people got what they were supposed to from those in positions of power.
Carson’s parents divorced when he was 8 years old, just before the move to Boston. His mother, he says, had discovered that his father was a bigamist. And after the divorce, Carson’s mother struggled emotionally and financially, he says in his 1990 autobiography, “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story.”
“When the load became too heavy, she checked herself into a mental institution,” he wrote. “We boys never had the slightest suspicion about her psychiatric treatment.”
But money soon became too tight, so she rented out their Detroit home and moved to Boston. His aunt and uncle, both of whom have died, “became like another set of parents,” he wrote.
“A lot of winos and drunks flopped around the area, and we became so used to seeing broken glass, trashed lots, dilapidated buildings, and squad cars racing up the street that we soon adjusted to our change of lifestyle,” Carson wrote. “Within weeks this setting seemed perfectly normal and reasonable.”
He was in the fourth grade at the time and, according to published reports, attended Berea Seventh-day Adventist Academy, which is now located in Mattapan.
At the time, though, the school was located at the church on Seaver Street. A representative of the school said Carson’s attendance could not be confirmed.
Carson, who led a national primary poll for the first time Tuesday, did not respond to several interview requests or e-mailed questions about his time in Boston or attendance at the school. The devout Seventh-day Adventist described Berea in his books as “not as demanding as it could have been.”
The time Carson remembers with such condemnation is a time that Sarah-Ann Shaw recalls as a time of renaissance.
“Urban renewal was happening,” said Shaw, a lifelong Roxbury resident who graduated from Boston Latin Academy when it was Girl’s Latin School in 1952. “There were all kinds of things going on.”
Yes, she said, some of it was “bad stuff but there was also good stuff.”
These were the days before Shaw became the city’s first female African-American television reporter in 1969, and newspaper headlines and nightly newscasts would have caused you to believe otherwise. Shaw left Boston University after two years to work with civil rights organizations.
“We recruited students, mostly not all but a lot of them were white, to tutor kids because the schools were in bad shape,” she said. “We helped to develop an economic boycott because we didn’t have people driving milk and Wonder Bread. They were selling stuff in the community but we really didn’t have the jobs.”
Still, Boston’s black community had a thriving professional class that lived among pockets of poverty.
“I suppose you can say all those things existed at the same time — and that’s a reasonable argument — but the streets were not running red with blood or anything,” Richardson said. “It’s a very complicated story.”
There were 27 homicides in Boston in 1960, according to a Globe report from the following year (crime data for each neighborhood was not available). In 2014, police statistics showed 52 homicides in the city, most of which were in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury.
Richardson pointed to a political class that lived in Roxbury at the time.
Edward Brooke, the first African-American attorney general of Massachusetts — or any state — and first African-American elected to the US Senate in the post-Reconstruction era, lived in Roxbury on Crawford Street. Silas “Shag” Taylor, who owned Lincoln Pharmacy at Tremont and Kendall streets, was also a black Democratic political activist. (Roxbury’s boundaries run from Massachusetts Avenue to Sever Street.)
Jean McGuire, the first black woman elected to the Boston School Committee, helped buy her mother a home along Blue Hill Avenue in 1960. She was working as a teacher at the time, one of only a handful of black educators working in the public school system. This was more than a decade before court-ordered busing sundered the city and images of the outrage were broadcast around the world.
McGuire had just moved from what she called “a crappy apartment” without heat that cost $15 a week. It was in a South End tenement that is now the Whole Foods on Harrison Avenue.
“It was never a question of being afraid to be living here,” she said. “It was a real issue of class. Everyone was [moving] to the suburbs. Blue Hill Ave. changed from Yankee to Irish to Italian and to Jewish to black.”
Not all of Carson’s memories from Boston are bad, though, remembering fondly his walk to school.
“One of the nicest things was the walk through Franklin Park to get to school,” he told the Bay State Banner in 2010. “You could hear the lions roaring in the morning as they were being fed and stuff like that.”