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H-Block: A community standard

Melvin B. Miller | 2/21/2013, 11:48 a.m.

Americans have a strong belief in the potential for success. As president Obama so persuasively states it, “If you work hard and play by the rules, you can attain the American Dream.”

Blacks are able to sustain their optimism even during periods of economic difficulty. According to studies by the Pew Charitable Trusts, blacks remained more positive about the future than whites, even though their unemployment rate in January was 14.3 percent compared with only 7.6 percent for whites.

Last week in celebration of Black History Month, the Banner published an excerpt from an article entitled “The Original H-Block,” which was first printed on Feb. 15, 2007, six years ago. The objective was to provide an insight into the functioning of a productive black Roxbury community some 65 years ago.

This was a time before the Civil Rights Movement had created a broad public awareness of the evils of racial discrimination. Adults in the community knew that they and their children had to thrive or fail as a result of their own efforts. There was no such concept as affirmative action, and there were few laws to protect residents against blatant discrimination.

Emboldened by the spirit of community solidarity and caring neighborliness, the progeny from black families that had settled around Munroe Park produced extraordinary achievements. Wade McCree became the first black Solicitor General of the United States; Cliff Wharton became the first black president of a major university (Michigan State) and the first CEO of a Fortune 100 firm (TIAA-CREF); David Nelson became the first black federal district court judge; and his brother JD Nelson founded RhumbLine Advisers, which now manages $28 billion in assets.

The original article can be found in the Banner archives on the Bay State Banner website in the issue of Feb. 15, 2007. Other outstanding former residents will be listed there. However, there are numerous individuals from the community who have achieved academically but are not listed because their professional or business careers are somewhat less prominent.

One would think that living through racial bigotry during that era would engender great anger and hostility that would foment violence, even among community residents, but that was not the case. There was little serious violence, and residents felt no compulsion to keep their doors locked and bolted.

So what went wrong? The name for the article came from the fact that gang-bangers now living in the neighborhood had declared that Harold Street, Humboldt Avenue, Harrishof and Holworthy Streets are their turf — thus the designation “H-Block.” They have even had some armed battles with boys from the Heath Street projects in Jamaica Plain.

There is certainly something to be learned from the ethos of a community that was once so academically and professionally productive. And more importantly, it is significant to consider what caused such tranquility to the quality of life back then, even though family incomes were modest.

Unfortunately, the movement forward that is defined as “progress” requires the rejection of anything seasoned enough to be called “old-fashioned.” Yet contemporary values are clearly inadequate to discourage black youth from an apparent commitment to self-annihilation.

Optimism about the future is a wonderful thing, but experience has shown that the development of community solidarity is as important as personal effort to create an environment for real sustained progress.