Conference Cues Reflection On Boston Race Relations

By Phillip Martin

Aug. 1, 2011

National Urban League president Marc Morial and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates speak at a forum on education during the National Urban League annual conference in Boston last Thursday. (AP)

BOSTON — The National Urban League’s 2011 convention concluded over the weekend. Organizers estimate that more than 6,000 people from 40 states attended the three-day event.

When local and state officials implored the national civil rights organization to convene in Boston for the first time in 35 years, they hoped to change a negative perception of the city that has lingered in the minds of many African Americans across the country.

In 1977, Boston was wracked by often-violent protests against court-ordered bussing. That year, a young attorney named Ted Landsmark was attacked by white youth using a pole bearing the American flag. The photograph of the incident won a Pulitzer Prize, and Boston became the place not to go in the minds of many across the nation.

"People of color are not safe to come here to Boston and we are asking people across the country of color to stay away," appealed state Sen. Bill Owens.

It resonated across the country. African-Americans stayed away in droves or left quickly after graduating from local colleges and universities.

But a quick survey of dozens of individuals who attended the recently-concluded National Urban League Conference suggest that time and experience have changed some minds about Boston, including that of Tony Waller from Bentonville, Ark.

"The reception from people, I mean had a great cab driver, got me here safe and sound, the hotel staff was wonderful, so it’s been a good experience for me," Waller said.

Pat Harris, from Chicago, agreed. "I’ve had some not so good experiences in Boston early in my travels, but I have to tell you, it’s been totally different," Harris said.

During the conference, Gov. Deval Patrick implored African-American professionals to stick around. "We are building a stronger, better commonwealth than the one you experienced when you were last here in 1976. We want everyone to be part of our Renaissance," Patrick said.

It left a solid impression on Janice Robinson, from Chicago. "It’s been fairly positive. I’m pleased to see the governor and the work that he’s doing and the advancements that he spoke about, so I think I’m encouraged," Robinson said.

Waller came back to the microphone to mention one other compelling reason why he’s come to like Boston. "Good eating. Great food in Boston," Waller said.

And the service was good too he said, in reference to a restaurant in South Boston, which 35 years ago was considered a no-go zone for African Americans.

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