Legacy of busing felt in Boston, 40 years on

Last modified: Sunday, April 28, 2013

BOSTON — Last fall, Ginnette Powell traveled from her home in Boston’s Dorchester section to her old middle school in South Boston — a journey of just two miles, but one that covered a huge emotional distance. Finally, she was able to leave the painful past behind.

Powell endured the explosive battle over desegregation in Boston in the 1970s. Tears come to her eyes when she talks about how it took her decades to return to the place where she never felt safe as an African-American seventh-grader.

“It was scary because of what you were going into, getting bricks thrown at your bus. I remember the bus windows being broken,” said Powell, now 48.

Nearly four decades later, Powell’s native city also is still working to move forward from the legacy of the school busing crisis. Last year, Mayor Thomas Menino created an advisory group whose aim was to work toward putting students back in neighborhood schools. And last month, school officials agreed to do away with the last vestiges of the desegregation-based school assignment system, beginning in 2014.

But raw feelings remain from that divisive time. And to explore and mend the divisions, the nonprofit Union of Minority Neighborhoods has been holding public story circles across Boston where participants like Powell can open up about their own experiences.

Organizers hope the airing of voices will help people of different races and economic classes learn from the city’s busing past so they can fight together for access to quality schools for all students. Project director Donna Bivens said the exercises are designed to be about listening and discussing, but not judging each other’s stories.

“I think that we can’t move forward, looking at how to improve our schools and access to our schools without looking at how the past impacted the present,” said Elaine Ng, executive director of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, which hosted the story circle where Powell described her visit back to her old school.

As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Ng learned to speak English as a kindergarten student in a Boston public school. But after her family moved from Chinatown to a white neighborhood in 1976, students threw stones at her when she walked to school. Ng said one of her frustrations is that people don’t recognize all the ripple effects busing had.

“It didn’t matter whether or not you were on a bus,” she said. “Racial tensions in the city were just really high.”

The uproar started in 1974, when a federal judge imposed busing after a lawsuit claimed black students were getting lower-quality education than children who attended mostly white schools. Black students were bused to schools in white areas, and white students went to black neighborhoods. The National Guard was called in amid demonstrations and riots; school buses got police escorts.

The unrest continued for years. In 1976, a news photographer caught a white teenager attempting to spear a black man with an American flag during a busing protest outside City Hall. In 1979, 15-year-old black football player Darryl Williams was left paralyzed by a white sniper’s bullet during a high school game.

Alexander Lynn, a 60-year-old African-American, was a young teacher at the beginning of the busing crisis. Later, he worked as a union organizer.

He was among several others, including Cassie Quinlan and Kevin Davis, who participated in the story circle with Powell.

Lynn said a white police officer once put a gun to his head and accused him of stealing a white child’s bicycle after officers stopped him in a mostly white neighborhood. But when police found out he was a teacher, he said, they apologized and returned his bicycle.

He views the busing conflict as a struggle between people of different classes, not just races, and said he had the protection of whites as he lobbied for unions in South Boston in the same era.

Quinlan, who is white, drove one of the buses that took black students from the city’s Roxbury section to high school in Charlestown. When she pulled up to the curb with a police escort, at least 100 white protesters would be lined up. Police would have to make a wall at the bus door so students could get into school.

“The black kids, they were nervous ...,” said Quinlan, now 69. “I used to wish that somebody would smile and wave good morning. No, there was none of that.”

Quinlan recalled returning to Charlestown in the early 1980s for a field trip. Then, she saw students of all races mixing together.

“I cried when I drove away, when I saw this, how much change had happened,” she said.

For story circle participants like Powell, talking about busing has been healing, as was her trip to South Boston.

“It’s sort of making myself whole ...,” she said. “I had no control as a child being bused, but as an adult I can go into these spaces.”


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