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New book chronicles Black workers’ struggles in Civil War era Boston

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
New book chronicles Black workers’ struggles in Civil War era Boston
Jacqueline Jones’ book, published in January 2023. PHOTO: BASIC BOOKS

In the decades before and after the Civil War, Boston was a nexus of abolitionist activity. William Lloyd Garrison published The Liberator, in whose pages abolitionists including Frederick Douglass called for an end to slavery.

Despite the city’s reputation for liberal politics, Blacks living here in the 1800s faced rigid barriers to employment and were often relegated to domestic service and other low-paying menial work.

Historian Jacqueline Jones, a Concord resident who retired from the University of Texas after teaching at Wellesley College and Brandeis University, unearthed the histories of Black activists and laborers and the whites who employed them in her book, “No Right to an Honest Living,” published this year by Basic Books.

Starting with the story of 66 emancipated Blacks who arrived in Boston in 1847 and struggled to find work, Jones uses the stories of individual workers and civil rights advocates to describe the travails Black workers faced in 19th-century Boston.

Pioneering Boston attorney Robert Morris.

The stories of some of the more successful businessmen and entrepreneurs — including pioneering attorney Robert Morris, dance hall owner and barber Joseph Clash, clothier Lewis Hayden and educator-activist James Monroe Trotter — are woven in with those of countless workers who barely eked out a living to paint a picture of a constant struggle against the racist attitudes of white tradesmen and white abolitionists alike.

The following interview with Jones has been edited for brevity.

Boston is often presented as a hub of abolitionist activity. But when you peel back the layers, it’s not at all what people thought it was.

Right. I think Boston had a well-earned reputation for being the center of radical abolitionism. William Lloyd Garrison started the Liberator and Anti-Slavery Society. Certainly, Frederick Douglass was associated with Boston. You had Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips. Actually, abolitionists were in a minority in the city, although they made a lot of noise. They gave a lot of speeches, and they produced newspapers. But what I found was that when it came to an understanding of their Black neighbors, many of these white abolitionists were indifferent or they were openly hostile. They obviously cared more about enslaved people in the South, and we can’t fault them for their courage in standing up for abolitionism at a time when that was not popular among the vast majority of white people, but at the same time, it’s really striking to see how these whites — Garrison, Phillips, Theodore Parker and others — really were not that interested in economic justice for Black Bostonians.

I imagine you came to this project with a sense of that. Did anything that you unearthed surprise you?

Well, I really didn’t know what to expect. A lot of historical literature on the North focuses on civil rights like the right to vote, to serve on juries, for kids to attend integrated schools, [and] the right to intermarriage. Those have been the major issues that historians have looked at when it comes to the North during this period. Nobody that I found really was looking at the issue of work. And I thought that was odd because work is such a central life experience. We know that ordinary Black people — men and women — were consumed with the issue of work because it was so difficult to get a stable job. And there were so many barriers, so many kinds of discrimination. So, I really thought it was worth spending a whole book looking at the issue of work, even though other historians have looked at some of these other civil rights.

You put a lot of attention on individual stories of people, including those involved in criminal enterprises. What was the importance of surfacing some of those stories?

I took the title [of] the book from a speech that John Rock gave in 1860, when he said that Black people in Boston had no right to an honest living. But that left open the question, well, how about a so-called dishonest living? When I looked at what was going on in the North End — especially with the dance halls and brothels, the rat pits (gambling establishments), the gambling dens — I found a really multi-ethnic, multiracial community there with Blacks and whites fighting, sleeping together, drinking together, gambling. That was very different from the kind of legitimate economy that was very segregated. And what I did was I just looked at the jobs that some of these people had — pickpockets, prostitutes, dancehall purveyors. Joseph Clash, obviously, was a central figure here, but I just consider those as forms of work. We often put those activities in the category of crime and let it go at that. But if we look at them as kinds of work, we ask the same questions, like what’s the pay? I think that kind of suggests to us that, you know, there are all sorts of ways to make a living.  There are all kinds of ways to put food on the table and pay the rent. And these were options for some people who had very limited opportunities in the legitimate economy.

As formerly enslaved people came to Boston, it seems many went to settlement houses that operated with a mixture of altruism and opportunism.

They were kind of employment agencies or, I guess, placement agencies. The issue there, it seemed to me, was white women are fleeing domestic service and they’re writing about how awful it is, how demeaning, and the women employers are so mean-spirited and tight-fisted. And meanwhile, the Freedmen’s Bureau is paying for hundreds, literally hundreds of people to come up from Virginia, mainly women and children to fill those slots, and at a low wage.  But they’re told, ‘Please don’t bring your kids because these employers don’t want your kids in the house when you’re doing their work.’

It’s taken more than 100 years for employment opportunities to open up for Blacks, Latinos and Asians in Boston. In the 1970s and ’80s, major city departments — police, fire, schools — were under consent decrees to hire people of color.

Absolutely. And one of the issues here is if we look at the whole region and not just this city — the suburbs enacted zoning laws that limited housing to single-family dwellings on big lots and lots of open space. It’s hard to afford those kinds of dwellings. And there was accumulation over the years in Boston, where Black people were limited to menial jobs, to part-time jobs, to sporadic and casual work. They weren’t going to be able to build up their assets and afford to buy a house, especially in the suburbs. So, it’s really all of a piece, and I think that the work is the central issue here. I didn’t take the story past 1900 but I think all factors pointed to the continuation of these policies.