Fighting for Good Schools: The Public Education Committee of the NAACP Boston Branch
Ruth Batson’s interest in education started well before the night of June 11th 1963 when she stood before the Boston School Committee and read a list of demands. Being a mother, she was involved with her children’s education. She taken several classes on nursery school education in the late 1940s and joined The Parent’s Federation of Greater Boston, a parent group that supported the public schools. It was here she learned about The Strayer Report, which was a survey of the Boston Public Schools commissioned by the Boston Finance committee in 1944. This report highlighted the crumbling schools and over crowding especially in Roxbury and the South End. On December 28 1950, The Boston Traveler reported The Parent’s Federation of Greater Boston, under the leadership of Mrs. Ruth Batson, held a protest at Boston City Hall to discuss its recommendations with Boston’s mayor. They were especially concerned because nothing had been done since the report had been written. Mayor John Hynes told the protestors, “nothing could be done until the school committee resurveys the school population and arranges for maximum use of existing school buildings.”  Within a few short months, Ruth Batson threw her hat into the political arena when she decided to run for Boston School Committee member. Her campaign slogan was “Mother, Educator, Civil Worker.” Unfortunately she lost her bid, but that did not stop her from advocating for the children of Boston.
In 1953 Ruth read the NAACP was opening a Boston office, and she decided to pay them a visit to discuss her concerns regarding the physical condition of the Boston Public Schools, the lack of supplies, and poor curriculum in the black schools vs. the white schools. She was disappointed to learn the NAACP did not have a committee to deal with public schools, and they could therefore not help her. However, shortly after this visit Lionel Lindsay, the head of the NAACP Boston Branch, called Mrs. Batson and asked her if she would consider being the Chairman of the newly formed NAACP Public Education Sub-Committee. It was a role Batson quickly accepted. Little did she know that this new position would thrust her into the limelight in a few short years. Later in life, Batson reflected, “From that day on, my life changed profoundly. I learned how to sharpen my observation skills. I learned how to write reports. I learned how to stand before a legislative body and state the NAACP’s case. I lost all fear of ‘important’ people or organizations.” 
The first thing Batson did was to form her committee and together they outlined their objectives. One of their early goals was to meet with the principals in the predominately black schools. “And we did what we called a survey. Of course we didn’t even know we were doing a survey. We just thought we’d go around and ask these principals these questions about education and black students.” . The committee soon became a source for parents to voice their concerns regarding the conditions of the schools their children attended. Issues parents raised varied from the lack of fire escapes and bathroom plumbing problems, to no school libraries and few supplies for teachers and students. Committee members met with local politicians as well as city and school officials to discuss these problems. In an effort to improve Boston schools, the committee organized parent groups to help advocate for their children. More and more parents turned to the Public Education sub-committee to report concerns and to seek help in advocating for their children, the work of this standing sub-committee continually expanded, until the NAACP decided to make them a full committee.
One Week in June:
By June of 1963, The Public Education Committee of the NAACP Boston Branch was finished meeting with officials to discuss their concerns. They requested to meet on Tuesday, June 11, 1963, with the Boston School Committee so they could air a list of demands to improve Boston Schools. Ruth Batson, as chair, read a long statement her committee carefully composed specifically to call attention to their concerns. In this statement was a list of fourteen demands the group wanted addressed immediately. Minutes of this meeting show all parties involved were polite and restrained. The Boston School Committee promised to look into the NAACP’s concerns. The next day, Wednesday, the Boston School Committee held another meeting. They questioned principals and other officials regarding the concerns and demands of the NAACP. School officials reported, for the most part, the problems were due to bad parenting, difficult students, and lack of support from the families. It was apparent to the NAACP, from the tone of this meeting and from the prior ten years of meetings with city officials, the Boston School Committee did not plan to move quickly on their concerns. It was decided by several Boston African American leaders that a peaceful protest should be organized.
That Thursday, a school boycott and a march to the Public Gardens were held. The school boycott continued into the next day. On Saturday, a special meeting between the NAACP and the Boston School Committee took place at to discuss the boycott and the list of fourteen demands. The majority of the minutes from that meeting show a very long discussion regarding de facto segregation. The NAACP wanted the Boston School Committee to acknowledge that it was a real issue. The Boston School Committee did not want to acknowledge de facto segregation because they were concerned the segregation would appear to be a conscious effort by the city of Boston rather than a situation of happenstance. Eventually the school committee was willing to refer to this the situation as “residential groupings,” but little else was settled that day.
One Very Long Summer:
On July 15, 1963, the Public Education Committee of the NAACP Boston Branch requested yet another meeting with the Boston School Committee. They also met with the National NAACP officer to discuss the issues previously raised with the Boston School Committee. They planned out potential actions they may have to undertake in order to get the School Committee to address their concerns, including the possibility of suing the school committee. They also discussed their trepidations regarding the seven candidates to replace Frederick Gillis as superintendent. A week later, the School Committee stated that they would not meet with the NAACP. The following week, the Executive Committee of the NAACP unanimously voted to support public demonstrations. They also issued an ultimatum:
“If by Friday, August second, the school committee has not agreed to honor the request on July 15 for a continuation of negotiations between that body and the Education Committee for the NAACP, the Boston Branch NAACP with the support of every other Major civil rights organization will hold mass demonstrations at the school committee’s 15 Beacon Street offices. To begin on the next Monday, August 5th…..we are herein asking the school committee to reverse its decision of a week ago for the sake of the national image of the “All-American City;” for the sake of the neglected children of our community; and most important, for the sake of moral rectitude.” 
This message was sent to the Mayor of Boston and the Governor of Massachusetts. A similar message was sent to President Kennedy. Each of these politicians sent responses supporting the NAACP’s position and urging the school committee to continue discussions with concerned citizens. The school committee bowed to pressure and agreed to a meeting, but Louise Day Hicks, the school committee’s chairman, had conditions for this meeting: it could last no longer then an hour and the term “de facto segregation” could not be discussed. The meeting was held August 15, 1963, but it only lasted a few minutes. Batson read a statement and uttered the words “de facto segregation.” Louise Day Hicks banged the gavel ending the meeting. As a result, demonstrations were held throughout the month of August by organizations that supported desegregation. In September the NAACP held a sit-in at the Beacon Street offices of the Boston School Committee in hopes they would admit the problem of de facto segregation. In a statement released to the press, and published in the Boston Herald, the NAACP had five key issues they wanted the committee to address:
- Open enrollment for school children
- Full consideration in locating new schools for maximum integration
- The rezoning of school districts to achieve maximum integration.
- Consultation with educational experts regarding the desegregation of the de facto schools
- A meeting with the NAACP Public School Committee to discuss further ways and means to achieve desegregation.
By September, the School Committee was once again holding meetings with the Public Education Committee of the NAACP. These meetings would continue for another ten years, as the Boston School Committee refused to acknowledge de facto segregation or that there was any unfair or unequal treatment regarding the students in Boston Public Schools. In February of 1964, Batson stepped down from her duties as the Chairman of the Public Education Committee of the NAACP because she had accepted a position at the Massachusetts Coalition Against Discrimination, but she remained on its board.
Why Outrage Boiled Over:
Over the Course of twenty years, various Departments from the City of Boston hired outside assessments of their school system. Each assessment came up with the same outcome and recommendations. None were implemented.
1944: "The Survey of Boston Schools," by George Strayer, (aka “The Strayer Report”), commissioned by the Boston Finance Committee, looked at all aspects of the Boston Schools: curriculum, buildings, administration, committees, etc. The report recommended closing the smaller schools, and it stated the “school houses” in Roxbury and the South End were the oldest and the most unsafe; it found the school committee was a political stepping stone and therefore the members should be appointed; and it recommended all schools should have lunchrooms, libraries and gymnasiums.
1962: Sargent Report, commissioned by Mr. Gillis, the Superintendent of the Boston Schools. It addressed the physical conditions of the school buildings in Boston, and offered recommendations to modernize or replace school buildings. The report found the schools in Roxbury and South Dorchester needed to be replaced.
1962: The Harvard Study on the Schools in Boston, was commissioned by Boston Redevelopment Authority. It recommended abandoning the worst schools, many being located in Roxbury and North Dorchester.
1963/1964: The Education Committee from the League of Women Voters of Boston published a progress report to see if the schools in Boston could fulfill the needs of all Boston children within the New Boston. Many of its recommendations echo the demands of the NAACP: better recruitment of teachers, remedial reading program, expanding school adjustment counselors. They also supported all the recommendations of the Harvard Report. View the full report here.
- “Hynes to Run for Mayor Again: City Head Tips Hand in Seeking to Calm Group Irate Over Schools,” The Boston Herald Traveler (December 28, 1950):32.
- Ruth M. Batson, The Black Educational Movement in Boston: A Sequence of Historical Events; A Chronology (Boston, MA: Northeastern University, School of Education, 2001), 9.
- Jackie Shearer, “Eyes on the Prize II Interviews: Interview with Ruth Batson,” Washington University Digital Gateway Texts, conducted by Blackside, Inc., for Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection, Seattle, WA. November 8, 1988.
- Ruth M. Batson, The Black Educational Movement in Boston: A Sequence of Historical Events; A Chronology (Boston, MA: Northeastern University, School of Education, 2001), 101.
- “Mrs. Hicks ‘Tragic’ Event: NAACP Leader Blasts Committee,” The Boston Herald (September 6, 1963): 18.
Batson, Ruth M. The METCO Story, 7. An unpublished paper written for The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, October 11, 1985. Ruth Batson Papers, 1919-2003; MC 590, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
The Harvard Report on the Schools in Boston, for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, 1962.
Minutes of the Boston School Committee, June 11, 12, 15, 1963. Boston School Committee Records, Boston City Archives.
A Progress Report, by The League of Women Voters of Boston, Education Committee, 1963.
Sargent, Cyrus. The Sargent Report, for the Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, May 1962.
Strayer, George D. A Survey of the Boston Public Schools, for The Boston Finance Committee 1944.