What About the Kids?: A Look into the Student Perspective on Boston Desegregation

An exhibit announcement for MOSAIC. Image courtesy of Healey Library, University Archives & Special Collections, UMass Boston. Copyright restrictions may apply. Visit here for more information.

In 1961, the NAACP met with the Boston School Committee in an attempt to get the committee to acknowledge the segregation of Boston's schools. The school committee refused to acknowledge the presence of segregation for over a decade. In the 1971-1972 school year, enrollment in the public schools were 61 percent white, 32 percent black, and other minorities making up the remaining 7 percent. However, 84 percent of the white students attended schools that were more than 80 percent white, and 62 percent of the black pupils attended schools that were more than 70 percent black. During this time, at least 80 percent of Boston’s schools were segregated.[i]

Eventually, the NAACP filed a suit in Federal district court in 1972, known as Morgan vs. Hennigan. The case came before Judge Wendell Arthur Garrity Jr., who made his decision on June 21, 1974. He found that "racial segregation permeates schools in all areas of the city, all grade levels, and all types of schools."[ii] The court ordered that the school committee immediately implement a desegregation plan for September 1974. Phase I was a limited plan, dealing only with correcting student racial imbalance in schools.

Garrity’s decision met with a myriad of responses from hostility and protest to submission and acceptance. Parents, teachers, and politicians all had an opinion on the decision and voiced it in various ways including picket lines, angry letters, and violence. But what about the students? It is evident that although students were never asked, they too held opinions about forced busing. Were they scared of violence erupting? How did the concerns of elementary students differ from those in high school? This exhibits seeks to explore the thoughts and experiences of students in Boston and across on the country. 

This exhibit is broken down into four sections: Elementary, Middle School, High School, and National. Within each section you will find letters, essays, pictures, and illustrations by children of ages corresponding to the section. The first section, Elementary, demonstrates the innocence of young children more afraid of making new friends than of racism and violence. They are also the children who sent more letters of prayer than opposition. According to many of the essays written by middle school students, they were initially afraid of violence and being bused far from home. By the end of the first year, they admitted to “having the best year ever.” These students attest that very little violence ensued at the middle school level.

High school students demonstrated the greatest opposition to busing than any other group of students. Their reasons varied from being afraid of violence to starting a new school for senior year. Many high school students opposed starting over because they already had a position on a sports team, bought class rings, or worked close to home. Forced busing during high school proved difficult. It is also this age group where the most violence erupted including fistfights, stabbings, and riots. More notable than the violence is the cooperation and peace that came after. High schools in Boston began to set an example for racial tolerance and cooperation among students.     

The last section of the exhibit includes student letters from across the country. Many of them send support and offer advice based on their experiences.  Each item includes a brief history of the process of desegregation in correlation to the students’ geographical location. It is interesting to see the ways in which the Boston experience was both vastly different and similar to other American cities. 


i. School Desegregation in Boston: A Staff Report Prepared for the Hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Boston, Massachusetts, June 1975. Washington: Commission, 1975, 20.
ii. Ibid., 71.



Content for this exhibit was created by Krystle Beaubrun (2015) and Lauren Prescott (Public History and Archives, 2016), who earned Master of Arts degree in History at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. This exhibit was made possible courtesy of Boston City Archives and UMass Boston Archives & Special Collections.