Boston does a wonderful job commemorating its finest moments from long-ago centuries. It should also preserve a raw reminder of one of its most tragic.
The city intends to demolish the building that once housed Roxbury High School. The gloomy 1912 edifice, along with South Boston High School, was one of the epicenters of the Boston busing crisis in the mid-1970s. Buses carried black pupils past angry crowds into South Boston, while white students from Southie went to the four-story school in Roxbury. Or were supposed to, anyway: 300 white students were assigned to the school in the first phase of desegregation, but only 40 attended. With the whole school system reeling, and white enrollment down to 10 students, the high school closed in 1981; the building later reopened as the Dearborn Middle School.
Given the national significance of the busing crisis, and its continuing legacy in the city’s schools and neighborhoods, the building’s historical significance is incontestable. And, as the 40th anniversary commemorations made clear, there’s still
no common narrative of what happened during the busing period. “The pain that many suffered and often continue to suffer from this era compounded when it was never properly acknowledged, discussed, or healed,” said a report on the anniversary by the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, an activist group. Keeping a physical link to the turmoil would push the public conversation along, and help younger Bostonians learn about the desegregation conflicts. Principal Charles Ray, with his arm around a student, walked into Roxbury High School on the first day of school under the busing system. Globe file/1974 Principal Charles Ray, with his arm around a student, walked into Roxbury High School on the first day of school under the busing system.
Principal Charles Ray, with his arm around a student, walked into Roxbury High School on the first day of school under the busing system.
Luckily, there may still be time to preserve the building. The school department’s plans to knock down the school and construct a new one on the site have led to an outcry from some neighbors and preservation activists. Preserving a busing-era landmark isn’t the first thing on their minds. Activists want to save a building that was designed by distinguished architect Julius A. Schweinfurth and is notable for the two statues guarding its entrance. Neighbors would rather not endure the disruption, and argue that it would be wasteful to demolish a building with no major structural defects. If the school department needs a new, modern school building, they’d rather see it go on one of the vacant city-owned lots nearby, freeing the old school structure for conversion to housing. That idea is not far-fetched; several old public school buildings, including the former Jamaica Plain High School, have been turned into housing.
So far, though, the school department plans to go ahead with an entirely new building on the site; a school spokesman said they never even considered other locations. Officials tout the prospect of modern science labs, and the availability of $36.6 million in Massachusetts School Building Authority funding. But a new facility could just as easily be built elsewhere in the Dudley Square area, where the city wouldn’t have to incur the extra costs of demolition. The school building authority says the money is earmarked for that specific site, but the city could seek approval from the authority’s board of directors to move it to a different site.
The city should try. The neighborhood’s opposition to the destruction of the school presents a relatively rare alignment of neighborhood demands, historical preservation concerns, and the mayor’s policy goals. Mayor Walsh has pledged to make a priority of building more housing. Such construction encounters stiff neighborhood resistance in many parts of the city; in a situation where many in the community welcome the prospect of more housing, it would a mistake for Walsh not to seize the opportunity. Besides, keeping a landmark that will help Bostonians learn from a troubled moment in the city’s past would be an investment in a more unified future.