At first blush, it’s a daunting task: creating biographies for more than 1,100 Boston police officers who lost their jobs almost a century ago in a labor strike that had significant local and national implications.
But for Margaret Sullivan, it’s worth it. The Boston police strike of 1919, she said, “is the most significant event” in the history of the department.
“These people took a stand . . . they paid a very high price,” she said.
Sullivan wants to collect a biographical outline of each officer who went on strike in 1919. She hopes to unveil the fruits of the undertaking on the centennial of the event itself: Sept. 9, 2019.
Sullivan works as a records manager and archivist for Boston police, but is undertaking the project on her own. She is working with UMass Boston researchers and volunteers in collecting the information behind each officer. She hopes more people volunteer to work on the project, and is encouraging descendants of the strikers to get in touch.
Researchers for the project will comb through census and draft records, old newspaper clippings, and city directories in an attempt to flesh out the life of each cop, she said.
On Sept. 9, 1919, more than 1,100 Boston police officers who had unionized because they were fed up with stagnant wages and subpar working conditions went on strike after 19 of their leaders were charged with belonging to an outside group — the American Federation of Labor — and were slated to be fired. Violence and chaos in the city followed, with rioting breaking out in Scollay Square, according to newspaper accounts of the time. The strike made national headlines; President Woodrow Wilson denounced it as “a crime against civilization,” according to The New York Times.
The state guard was deployed to restore order. Many credit then-Governor Calvin Coolidge’s handling of the incident with propelling him to the White House. He garnered national attention, and was nominated to be presidential candidate Warren G. Harding’s running mate. Then, when Harding won and later died in office, Coolidge became president.
“Coolidge’s handling of the strike gave him a national reputation and set him on the road to the White House,” Sullivan said.
The hundreds of police officers who protested for a higher wage and better working conditions weren’t so lucky. The strikers lost their jobs, and their replacements, culled from an ample pool of World War I veterans, were given the wage increase their predecessors had sought for years. The strike, said Sullivan, ruined lives.
Last Thursday evening, Sullivan gave a presentation on the project to a small crowd at Boston Public Library. Sullivan, flipping through a slide presentation of sepia-toned photographs and alarmist, all-caps newspaper headlines from a bygone era, ran down the factors that led to the strike.
Wages for officers were frozen for several years, she told the crowd, and hyper-inflation during World War I meant a dollar did not go as far as it once did. Additionally, the officers had to sleep in the station houses, which were dirty and unsanitary, several nights a week.
On top of that, the hierarchy of the department was oddly constructed at the time, she said. The governor appointed Boston’s police commissioner, but the mayor funded the city’s payroll.
“It was very strange,” she said.
In the crowd was Curt Curtin, an 88-year-old retired professor from Worcester, whose father, Timothy, was a police officer working in Jamaica Plain when he went on strike in 1919, losing his job.
Curtin said his father didn’t talk much about the strike.
“I guess it was just a very sad thing,” he said. “He didn’t lecture us at all.”
He added, “From what I heard, the working conditions were terrible. The station houses were in very bad shape, the food was bad, everything was bad. And the pay was really low.”
Sue Bertram’s great-grandfather, Francis J. O’Neil, was on the other side of the labor conflict. He was among the Boston cops who did not go on strike, she said.
“He had a family,” she said after the event at the library. “He needed a paycheck.”
She brought her great-grandfather’s badge to the event and said she has Coolidge’s proclamation addressing the strike in a frame at home. She said she planned to help research the project.
“I’ve always been a history buff,” she said.Danny McDonald can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.