Boston, A Love Story

Boston, A Love Story

Derek Lumpkins, an HBI board member and the principal/founder of Re|Fresh Strategies, shares the story of Boston’s Civil Rights Era and the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and Corretta Scott.  Through his career, Derek has pursued ways to engage our communities differently and to create something better than what we had before. In a year when the United States feels on the edge of a deeper reckoning on race and more openly acknowledging that representation matters, I’d like to see Boston evolve its own narrative. Below is an article Derek shared on Linkedin.

“Let me tell you a love story.”

About ten years ago, when I was a tour guide in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury, I used that sentence to introduce the Civil Rights Era and two people who were central to the movement. I said it when we were on Massachusetts Avenue and passing by either Martin Luther King or Coretta Scott’s homes when they were university students. Although the information I gave was more of a series of anecdotes that were a small part of a larger story, I could see the participants’ eyes light up in surprise and wonder. Not only did these two icons live less than a half mile apart, but they actually met in Boston!

I mention this as the world eagerly awaits the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine and a return to normal. However, here in Boston, I’d like us also not to miss out on potential opportunities to engage our communities differently and to create something better than what we had before. In a year when the United States feels on the edge of a deeper reckoning on race and more openly acknowledging that representation matters, I’d like to see Boston evolve its own narrative. This city’s story of itself feels trapped in amber. It’s a glossy, pre-pandemic tale where we honor, celebrate, and enshrine the patriots and revolutionaries from the 1700s into a nearly-$8 billion tourism industry. But a significant portion of that wealth, and the narratives used to generate it, is primarily drawn from and concentrated in a few select areas of downtown Boston. A broader representation of the city is often only the distance of another half mile away. But it has often been treated as being less accessible than the islands in Boston Harbor.

Representation Matters

Given Boston’s almost 400 year history and its geographic expansion over the centuries, clearly it has stories to tell. After the arrival of the first Black people in 1638, for example, Boston’s Black community has contributed to its cultural fabric and historic record for as long as it’s existed. Crispus Attucks, Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, William Monroe Trotter, Melnea Cass, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Donna Summer are some of the more prominent Black residents to have left their marks. But they were supported and sustained by a community that included musicians, artists, business owners, porters, soldiers, barbers, educators, and religious figures.

This everyday slice of Black Boston is rarely, if ever, featured in popular entertainment or historic presentations. Instead, Black Boston is either the stuff of legend (Are there really Black people in Boston?) or stuck in a cynically stereotypical view of urban America (as deadly, drug addled, and dysfunctional). However, with many corners of modern American life and industry recently being scrutinized through the lenses of diversity, equity, and inclusion, we’re at a point where Boston can and should reflect on how to write all of its sons and daughters into the family story. The city’s history is rich with immigration and influences from around the world. Boston can even include mention of visits by prominent, and perhaps controversial, figures like Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela. Did you even know they also came to Boston?

The most American thing we can do together is make money

If your answer to the question above was “No,” you’re not alone. We could spend time examining why, or we could use our time and energy asking “How?” How do we exhume forgotten stories? How do we include sidelined history? How do we meaningfully expand the narrative of Boston? We know the world comes here to learn at our institutions and has established communities that continue to grow. But for Boston to live up to the reputation of being the world-class city that its elected officials proclaim, then it should also embrace the world of stories and communities that endow it.

Beyond making learning about Boston more interesting and enriching, a more diverse and inclusive narrative – one embraced by City leadership – is also the right thing for Boston’s residents. The narratives of immigrants, women, and people of color would more fully inform the history of an American city that was founded more than a century before the states became united. Plus, residents like me wouldn’t reach adulthood before learning about the centuries of important people who made invaluable contributions.

Additionally, neighborhoods outside of the downtown core should have an intentional connection and pipeline to the multi-billion dollar tourism industry, beyond support and service-level jobs. Managed properly, even a fraction of the economic impact would have a positive effect on job and wealth creation, stability of the Main Streets districts, small businesses activity, and the perceptions of neighborhoods only a short distance from the well-worn tourist trails. Plus, the tourism sector might actually grow by attracting a new generation of women and people of color arriving as tourists and scholars interested in learning about elements of Boston that inform their own experiences and studies. Many people visit Boston specifically to experience American history in person. Given its role in the development of the United States, Boston is well-positioned to represent many aspects of the nation’s complexity and diversity.

With the right political will and social framework, I don’t believe this form of community engagement would be particularly difficult. If there’s one thing that Bostonians enjoy, it’s sharing stories of their communities and having them included as part of a narrative of perseverance, success, and growth. I’d even be willing to start with my neighborhood, Roxbury.

Let me tell you a love story…