Opinion

farah stockman | Boston after busing

Did busing slow Boston’s desegregation?

Robert Lewis Jr. at the East Boston summer camp, 1970s.
Robert Lewis Jr. at the East Boston summer camp, 1970s.

What would you do if you ran into the person who drove you out of your home decades ago? What if that person had once been your friend? Not long ago, Robert Lewis Jr., a black civic leader, faced those very questions. He was giving a speech at a community center in East Boston, his old neighborhood, basking in the glow of old times. Then he recognized a face he hadn’t seen in years. His smile faded. Sweat soaked through his suit.

For a moment, Junior (as his friends call him) was 16 years old again, looking out the window of his apartment in the Maverick public housing development. His friend, a white boy, stood in the street. They’d gone to summer camp together. Played football together. Junior had eaten at this boy’s dinner table more times than he could count. But instead of walking up to Junior’s door, the boy raised his arm. His fingers clenched a glass bottle stuffed with rags. The bottle sailed through the air and smashed. Fire spread across Junior’s yard. The “friend” ran off into the dark.

After that, Junior’s family moved away, along with nearly every other black family in Maverick. The Swans, whose entire apartment burned. The Carnes, who had a Molotov cocktail crash through their little girls’ bedroom window. The Hornes, whose kitchen windows had been broken with baseball bats. Of 20 black families, only Ma Porter stayed. She announced on the nightly news that she’d never leave.

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Junior never forgot. And he never forgave. And he never breathed a word about who’d done it. The firebomber’s family had been so kind to Junior. He didn’t want to break their hearts.

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But now — decades later — the firebomber limped toward him, on a cane.

“All these years I always wondered what I would do if I saw him,” Junior told me. “In my head, I thought I would hurt him. I’m thinking: ‘My professional career is about to end.’ ”

It’s one thing to be harassed in your new home by strangers who wish you hadn’t moved in. It’s another to be uprooted from the place you grew up by your former playmates. Read about “ethnic cleansing” in Iraq or Bosnia, and you’ll always hear a sense of betrayal and surprise: We lived together. We were like one family. Overnight, they changed.

When toxic politics turn neighbor against neighbor in foreign lands, we inquire on the fate of the displaced. We study their trauma. We set up truth and reconciliation commissions.

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But in Boston, we just try to forget. We’ve erased this episode from our collective memory and replaced it with a myth: that no integration existed here back then. That Boston public housing didn’t desegregate until 1988. In fact, Boston public housing quietly desegregated in the 1960s.

“It’s absolutely a forgotten part of Boston’s history,” said William McGonagle, administrator of the Boston Housing Authority.

Black kids in Maverick grew up racing and kissing and going to school with Irish and Italian neighbors. But in 1974, when a federal judge ordered a more sweeping plan to desegregate schools using busing, whites seethed. Teenagers turned on the easiest target: their black neighbors.

In 1970, 164 blacks lived in the census tract containing the Maverick and Orient Heights housing developments in East Boston. A decade later, there were only 48. The tract containing two public housing developments in Charlestown was home to 68 black residents in 1970. A decade later, there were only 15. Even South Boston, a famously insular enclave, counted 155 blacks in the tract that includes Old Colony and Mary Ellen McCormack in 1970. Ten years later, how many remained? None.

This is one reason Boston remains one of the most segregated major cities in the country.

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Joyce Horne, who fled Maverick only to be firebombed in her new home in Brighton, finally moved deep into Mattapan. (Ironically, her daughter got bused to high school in East Boston.) Her experiences left her pessimistic that racism will ever be overcome.

“I don’t think things are ever going to change,” she said.

Which leads me to one of the deepest racial disconnects in our society today: 48 percent of blacks don’t believe they’ll achieve racial equality in their lifetime, or ever. That’s incredible, given how hard blacks have fought for it and how much progress has been made. Meanwhile, half of all whites believe equality has already been won.

Whites have a vested interest in believing that equality is already here. Why else did we go through the pain of court-ordered busing?

But for many blacks, the backlash to busing looms even larger in the mind. It felt personal and unforgettable.

“It was horrible because we started out as friends,” said Darneese Carnes, who was just 12 years old when a Molotov cocktail exploded through her window. “I never got over it. It made me hate. I know that I am mean and I’m hard, and I tell people that’s just who I am, because of how I grew up.”

Steve Weine, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied Bosnian teens, says being forced from your home as a child shapes your worldview forever.

“It’s a tremendous sense of betrayal when your neighbors all of a sudden turn on you, dehumanize you, and get rid of you,” he said. “We all walk around feeling safe and confident because we think things like that aren’t going to happen. Once it does, how can you ever establish trust again?”

Junior’s family had been the first black family in Maverick. His mother, who’d moved up from North Carolina as a teenager, worked as a hall monitor at East Boston High. Other black families followed. The mothers used to joke about who’d arrived second and third.

As kids, Junior and his friends played black-against-white basketball games with Timothy Bibbo and Billy Marangiello, older white boys from Maverick. Racial slurs got tossed around. But in the end, poverty and fatherlessness bonded them.

Junior enjoyed the fame that came from playing running back in Eastie-Southie football games. He dated an Italian girl, served as prince of his junior prom and vice president of his class.

But busing — which began his freshman year of high school — changed his life. Fistfights broke out with Bibbo, Marangiello, and their friends. Over time, it got more violent.

One night in August of 1975, a mob of white teenagers amassed outside Junior’s apartment, with stones and bats. Some people said they saw Marangiello with a gun. Junior’s mother called everybody she could think of — the police, the FBI, a priest, and a group called “People Against Racism” — to help her protect her home.

The police arrived. But they did not disperse the crowd. Instead, they ordered the “People Against Racism” to leave, claiming that their presence was agitating the mob.

“You can’t tell my friends to leave,” Junior’s mother said. “I pay rent here.”

“Just watch me,” the officer replied, according to testimony in a lawsuit Junior’s mother filed.

In the end, police carted her off in a police van, along with seven of her friends. Junior, away at football camp, watched it in horror on TV.

“What outrages me is that East Boston didn’t stand with us, as a collective community,” Junior said. “But I can tell you 20 or 30 people who did.”

Sal LaMattina, now a Boston City Councilor, stood by him.

Sal and Junior had gone to school together ever since the first grade. Junior loved Sal’s grandmother’s risotto. Sal loved Junior’s apartment in Maverick, which contained luxuries that Sal’s house lacked: a bathtub and a living room. Sal’s mother didn’t mind when black kids from Roxbury were bused to his middle school. But when a federal judge ruled Sal could be bused to Roxbury, she got upset.

“My mother was scared to put us on a bus to a neighborhood that she knew nothing about,” Sal said. “She didn’t own a car.”

A few days before his freshman year of high school, Sal’s mother took him to an antibusing rally. It was his first time to see City Hall. He still remembers the colored bon-bons on Pixie Palladino’s hat.

Meanwhile, Junior’s mother supported busing. Junior got to school early to welcome the buses, so they’d see a friendly black face.

Despite their differences over busing, Sal and Junior remained friends for life.

When Junior moved away, Sal was the first to visit him in Villa Victoria. Junior — who still attended East Boston High — often stayed at Sal’s house after school. They roomed together in college, where Sal became a member of the New Africa House at UMass-Amherst. And when Junior’s mother lay on her deathbed, Sal came to the hospital and drank champagne with Junior’s oldest friends.

Only once did their friendship falter: last year, nearly four decades after busing began.

Sal declined to support a symbolic resolution on the City Council, commemorating the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. He apologized later, saying he’d confused the resolution with an endorsement of busing. Angry constituents took him to task for it.

“What were you thinking?” Junior asked him. “Our friendship is on the line here.”

Sal didn’t have to tell Junior what busing had cost him. Sal’s brother had been stabbed at school, by a kid who’d been bused. Another brother had dropped out. His cousins moved to New Hampshire to get away from the chaos. And to the litany of disasters, Sal always adds this: Junior, his best friend, had been firebombed.

“Come on, Junior,” Sal told him. “You know me.”

It’s striking how “busing” came to define a generation in Boston. Perhaps even more than the black kids who’d been forced out of Maverick, it defined the bullies who’d chased them away. For a time, opposition to busing gave their criminal mischief the veneer of respectability. But eventually, it caught up with them.

Timothy Bibbo, who’d broken the Horne’s windows, got shot to death by an MBTA cop in 1983. Billy Marangiello, who’d allegedly brandished a gun outside Junior’s house, got sentenced to Walpole for robbing and beating a deaf man.

Even the firebomber went to jail for stabbing a white classmate. Recently, I tracked him down and left a message asking him to tell me his side of the story. But he never called back.

“He’s changed,” his sister told me. “He’s made his peace with God.”

Junior heard a rumor about how that night had gone: Older boys put a Molotov cocktail in his friend’s hand and asked, “Are you one of us or one of them?”

How many others in this city had been forced to make the same fateful choice? For years, Junior wanted justice. Revenge. Or an apology.

This was his chance. The firebomber inched toward him, looking old and broken. Junior felt successful and fit. He’d worked at City Year and the Boston Foundation. Recently, he founded his own successful sports program for youth called The Base.

The firebomber stood in front of him. Junior thought of all the times he’d dreamed of knocking him down. But instead, without fully understanding why, Junior opened his arms and hugged him. “Great to see you,” Junior said.

This piece is part of a series of columns about Boston — four decades after busing — supported by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation. Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.

Read the Lewis lawsuit