Proving the power of community, in the early 1970s, former United South End Settlements (USES) Executive Director Ken Brown brought 23 agencies and 600 residents together, to ensure everyone’s voice was heard for the development of the Harriet Tubman House. Under the current USES leadership, allegedly “100 stakeholders” where handpicked and had the privilege of being heard, while the black, brown and poor community was left out. Why were their voices more important than the larger community’s voice? The community who pleaded to sell her for a higher community purpose, she belongs to the community. Why were the “100 stakeholders” allowed to play such an important role in the decision that would give way to the sale of this protected community asset named after a Black Female Freedom Fighter, and we were not?
Privilege has its advantages.
Throughout this struggle to preserve the Harriet Tubman House, the recurring question was “what is the big deal, isn’t it just a building?” This question encapsulates the conflict. To those who feel so free to sell The Harriet Tubman, as she is known to the community she serves, she is just that. A Building, property, real estate, something to buy and sell for profit. This is a definition of property, common to European settlers, which they imported into the fledgling colonies that would become the United States.
“It is mine and I can do what I want with it.”
This belief undergirded the centuries-long “Crime Against Humanity” known as “chattel” slavery, the act of degrading a human being to the status of personal property – human beings owned by others, not by oneself.
Of course, this is something that Harriet Tubman was very familiar with herself, as are many people of African descent throughout the diaspora.
The Harriet Tubman House was built in response to Boston’s war on the black and the poor called Urban Renewal. It was a gesture admitting the error of this horrific policy; also called “Negro Removal” by many of its victims, and a small attempt at making amends…the Urban Renewal restrictions put on her to protect, are no longer protecting her or the community she represents. It is no coincidence that she is steeped in Black history and closer to the church she was affiliated with, the AME Zion movement. A history that should never be co-opted through a trendy café, and calling the luxury development project Tubman Place as if this is celebrating Harriet Tubman’s legacy. The current Harriet Tubman House at 566 Columbus Ave., the successor to the original Harriet Tubman founded in 1906 by six Black women in the South End, now being sold to five white men in 2020.
Displacement and ugly memories of Urban Renewal from five decades ago were recently repeated, when the Suffolk County Sheriff’s office sent a black man to the Harriet Tubman House with eviction notices for two black South End based nonprofits. One of the nonprofits is the historic Tenants’ Development Corporation, (TDC), founded at United South End Settlements in 1968. TDC provides hundreds of affordable housing units in the South End, fought for, and changed housing policies by spearheading a landmark tenant’s rights case nationally. The other, Resilient Sisterhood Project whose mission is to inform and empower women of African descent about their reproductive health and rights through a cultural and social justice lens.
“Riots are the language of the unheard,” said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The community, who fought so passionately to preserve her, exercised their democratic duty; tirelessly reaching out to local elected officials, only to be ignored or provided a false response: this is a “private” issue despite the city of Boston controlling the land use regulations. The community tried to compel the City Council to hold a public hearing and were denied. Two thousand sheets of paper with 57,000 signatures were dropped off at City Hall, from Bostonians and people across the country, opposed to the sale of this celebrated She-ro, Harriet Tubman.
The Harriet Tubman House was a beacon for the community, a bellwether of change, education and hope. The Harriet Tubman became the symbol in Boston that, if black and poor people stood up for themselves in a Democracy, they would be heard and respected. Sadly, the black and poor were not heard or respected at the city led “community” meetings, including a significant police presence at every “community” review meeting. The community asked for equal time at these meetings held at the Tubman House, and were ignored repeatedly. Black and poor youth were labeled with words that have been used as weapons against them all their lives: wild, loud, thugs, unruly, threatening, and others too ugly to print. Words carry power, especially for young Black men up against gentrification and racist policies, who feel everything is being taken away from them. As a youth coordinator stated: “when you see these new buildings going up, we know they are not for us.”
The gavel, Boston Planning and Development Agency’s (BPDA) tool of choice, where young people hoping someone would finally listen, as they have been pleading – do not remove the restrictions. You see if they can demolish a protected community asset for more luxury condos, it sends a message that there is no hope or room for us in this City of Boston. Our youth were once again, silenced and censored by the harsh banging of the gavel. The gavel, so draconian, dating back to medieval times, is a symbol of oppression and control. Our youth were told this is not a public meeting, while elected officials and city employees who ignored the community were allowed to speak in support of the sale as the restrictions were removed in a unanimous irreversible vote by the BPDA board, with the looming heavy police presence looming close by.
Pastor, David Wright (Executive Director of the Black Ministerial Alliance)
Pat Oliver, former United South End Settlements employee
Jared Katsiane, South End Resident, Educator, and Youth Advocate