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AG Healey investigating racist incident at the MFA

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2017/Globe Staff

State Attorney General Maura Healey said Thursday she is investigating allegations that middle school students were subjected to racism at the Museum of Fine Arts during a field trip in mid-May.

Healey’s office said its civil rights division had been investigating the incident ever since the allegations became public about three weeks ago. The office said it would provide details about the investigation to the public when it is complete.

“Our educational and cultural institutions must be welcoming to everyone — especially to our young people,” said Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for Healey. “We take allegations of discrimination seriously and can confirm that our office is investigating this matter.”


Students of color from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester said they were subject to racist insults and close scrutiny on a visit to the renowned art museum last month. The students said they were greeted by a staff member who described the museum’s rules as “no food, no drink, no watermelon,” and were tracked by security while a white group of students nearby wandered freely. One patron likened a student to a stripper, and another complained of “[expletive] black kids in the way.”

“The school appreciates the involvement of the Attorney General Maura T. Healey’s office and looks forward to fully cooperating with the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division in its investigation of the incident,” Davis Academy said in a statement.

The museum said it “welcomes the opportunity to work with Attorney General Maura Healey in her investigation,” and it is “committed to becoming stronger through inclusivity and accountability to our communities.”

Soon after the field trip, the museum issued a public apology and conducted an internal review, ultimately banning the two patrons who had made racist comments. The review also said that the employee who greeted the group recalled relaying as part of a standard greeting that “no food, no drink, no water bottles” were allowed in the galleries.


The review also said that guards went on and off break, and occasionally overlapped as they moved from one area to another, perhaps explaining why students felt they were followed.

But activists and some participants on the field trip found the review lacking, partly because the museum punished external visitors while withholding judgment on interactions involving its own employees.

“It is never a good idea for an institution to investigate itself,” said Tanisha Sullivan, the president of the Boston NAACP.

News of Healey’s investigation comes a day after the MFA announced it has hired former state attorney general Scott Harshbarger of the firm Casner & Edwards to conduct a separate external investigation.

Three families and an educator from Davis Academy have retained counsel and sent a letter to Healey this week requesting an investigation, before Healey confirmed an investigation was already underway.

Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.