Today, as we prepare for St. Patrick’s Day, we welcome a guest post from Millington W. Bergeson-Lockwood, author of Race Over Party: Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston, publishing in May from UNC Press. Bergeson-Lockwood discusses the creation of the monument to Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre, a unique moment of Black and Irish alliance in 1880s Boston.
In late nineteenth-century Boston, battles over black party loyalty were fights over the place of African Americans in the post–Civil War nation. In his fresh in-depth study of black partisanship and politics, Millington W. Bergeson-Lockwood demonstrates that party politics became the terrain upon which black Bostonians tested the promise of equality in America’s democracy. Most African Americans remained loyal Republicans, but Race Over Party highlights the actions and aspirations of a cadre of those who argued that the GOP took black votes for granted and offered little meaningful reward for black support. These activists branded themselves “independents,” forging new alliances and advocating support of whichever candidate would support black freedom regardless of party.
Race Over Party can be pre-ordered here.
Race and Remembering: How a Monument to the Boston Massacre Was and Can Be So Much More
This March, as every year, Bostonians and visitors will gather near the Old State House to view a reenactment and remember the events during the Boston Massacre. They will recall that on March 5th, 1770 British soldiers murdered five colonists, including Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American descent, and Irish sailor Patrick Carr. Some may even visit the memorial to these victims on the south-eastern side of the Boston Common off Tremont Street. Though passersby may stop and consider the surface meaning of this landmark, where black and Irish blood mixed in rebellion to British tyranny at a crucial moment, they will likely leave unaware that the monument itself was the result of a remarkable effort of interracial cooperation and solidarity.
Indeed, it was only through Irish and black Bostonian unity that this monument was ultimately constructed. Celebrating its 130th anniversary this year, this landmark stands as a symbol not only of shared revolutionary sacrifice, but of a period in Boston’s history when African and Irish-descended residents united in a coalition seeking to transcend racial division and transform, not just the city’s memorial landscape, but the political conditions of both groups.
During the 1880s, Boston’s Irish and African American communities drew from their shared histories of oppression and marginalization to make common political cause. Black Bostonians campaigned and voted for the city’s first Irish born mayor, Hugh O’Brien. In doing so, these so-called “colored O’Brienites” supported not only an Irishman, but a Democrat at a time when most African Americans continued to vote for the Republican Party. They drew parallels between the plight of African Americans and that of the Irish within the British Empire. These black Bostonians courted the support of Irish nationalists and forcefully advocated the Irish cause. In a prominent display of sympathy they organized a public benefit for Irish nationalist Charles Parnell’s home rule movement. O’Brien appointed black men to city positions and he joined other Irish leaders in publically calling for an end to black oppression.
The most enduring symbol of this cooperation would be the monument to Crispus Attucks and the other victims of the Boston Massacre. Advocates for such a commemoration had been working since before the 1880s, but their efforts met little success until O’Brien’s election. Irish city councilman Thomas Keenan joined with his black colleague Andrew Lattimore to galvanize Irish support for the memorial. “I desire to speak of the Irishman who stood by his friend Attucks when he went down,” Keenan told the city council, “but we make no social distinction with reference to honoring Crispus Attucks. . . .Of all the Bostonians who have honored Boston in the last century, no man stands higher than Crispus Attucks, although his skin is not the color of mine.” Some of Boston’s non-Irish white leaders opposed the monument, including members of the Massachusetts Historical Society who denounced any celebration of hooligans and ruffians who provoked British violence. Nevertheless, Keenan and Lattimore prevailed, and on the bright and chilly morning of November 14, 1888 a crowd gathered on the common and in Faneuil Hall to celebrate the monument’s unveiling. “I rejoice,” Mayor O’Brien declared to the crowd, “that after a lapse of more than one hundred years the erection of the Attucks monument . . . ratifies the words of that declaration, that all men are free and equal, without regard to color, creed, or nationality.”
This political alignment would not last and future generations would struggle to fulfill the optimism of those who gathered on the Boston Common that cold November morning. As highlighted by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team this past December, a very real and persistent racism and racial inequality limits economic and political opportunity for people of color in Boston today. Images of race relations in the city are often reduced to such indelible images as “The Soiling of Old Glory,” in which a black attorney was assaulted by a white student with the American flag during a violent protest against bussing in the 1970s, or the more recent incidents of racial slurs hurled at black athletes during Boston sporting events.
Remembering the events of 130 years ago does not gloss over this painful reality, but it offers a touchstone to a past that cannot be reduced to perpetual conflict or division. The Boston Massacre memorial embeds more than just a memory of shared revolutionary struggle, but a moment of political challenge as well, hidden in plain sight, when black and Irish Bostonians came together to celebrate their important contributions to the history of the city and nation and seek together a positive future.
Millington W. Bergeson-Lockwood is a historian of race, law, and politics in the nineteenth century.