Interview with Tom Goodkind
Boston Public Schools
Segregation in education--Law and legislation--United States--History
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Laura: Okay, today is Monday April 6, and we are here at UMass Boston interviewing Tom Goodkind. Is that how you pronounce it?
Tom: Yeah, that's right.
Laura: I am Laura Kintz.
Vini: I'm Vini Maranan.
Laura: Okay, Tom, just to get started, can you just tell us your date of birth and where you were born?
Tom: March 17th, St. Patrick's Day, 1951, New York City.
Laura: And so we know you had some involvement with a neighborhood watch group in Dorchester in the 1970s. So we just want to get a little bit of your background in that neighborhood. When you came into Boston, that kind of thing.
Tom: Well, I had been in the Boston area since 1968, but I didn't move to that neighborhood until '74 with my girlfriend at the time, later became my wife. So I was a relative newcomer to Dorchester at that time. So when we lived on Centre St. in Dorchester, 167 Centre St.
Laura: And did you live in Boston before that, in a different neighborhood?
Tom: I lived in Somerville and Cambridge before that, and this was my first foray into Boston.
Laura: What about your educational background?
Tom: I had been to college from '68 to '72. So I had just recently graduated from college, and then moved into Dorchester in '74.
Laura: So why did you decide to join this neighborhood watch?
Tom: Well, we were well aware of what was going with busing, and I mean, the busing crisis had emerged in, I think it was in the fall of '74. So we had been in Dorchester, I don't remember exactly when in '74 we moved, but somewhere around that time. And the events in our neighborhood hadn't started until I think almost a year after that. So there had been a lot going on throughout Boston at that time. And you know. Everyone was well aware of it. So when these people who would move into the neighborhood just a couple houses away from us started to coming under attack, we were well aware of that as well. And there were leaflets circulated around the neighborhood kind of declaring an emergency, and asking people to come to a meeting to talk about what was going on. We went to that meeting, they were signing people up to help out with these folks who were getting attacked, and that's how we got into it.
Laura: So was your involvement kind of education activism, or was it more the neighborhood?
Tom: It was the neighborhood activism, and it was being concerned about what we had been kind of witnessing in throughout Boston for the last previous year. The attacks on school kids like you were describing with your friend (points to Vini). The attacks on the buses. We were, you know, paying a lot of attention to that. It wasn't educational activism, but it was a lot of concern about how much, to put in nakedly, racism was been rearing its head in Boston that time. I mean, it was a very violent year in Boston. It was very ugly. Both my wife and pretty much felt at the time that if there was anything for white people to do at that time who didn't support the kinds of attacks that were going on, we needed to do it. She was working at a factory in South Boston at that time, and a number of her coworkers who were black, were having difficulty just getting to work, so they would have to get off the subway, get off the Red Line at Andrew Square. She was working at a place called "Cole Hersee," which is actually still there on Dorchester Ave. They were getting threats as they would walk from Andrew Station to Cole Hersee. So she was involved in escorting them to work. I was work way out in Malden at the time. I wasn't having that kind of experience, but it had become clearer over that year that the whole battle around busing wasn't really about education, it had expanded way beyond the attacks on the kids. It was pretty clear that it was becoming a battle over whether black people had the right to live where they wanted to live in the city, and whether they had the right to work where they wanted to work that's what she's finding when she worked. And as it turned out in our neighborhood, it just happened to be that this black family had crossed the line that they didn't even know existed. It was concern about that, that larger issue that kind of drove us to get involved. I had been involved in high school, I was out in high school in Chicago, and I had been involved with a lot of civil rights struggles there out in Chicago. So I was very familiar with this kind of stuff. And in Chicago, things also in the 60's got very intense, so you know, I was familiar with that. So when it started in Boston, I kinda felt like, "Okay, here we go again."
Laura: Did you go to college in Boston?
Tom: Yeah, I went to Harvard.
Laura: Were you involved in any activism there?
Tom: Yeah, sort of anti-war activism, SDS-type stuff.
Laura: So can you tell any specific things things you remember happening, any incidents particularly etched in your memory?
Tom: One of the most memorable things was this community meeting that happened in the winter, February. The fight. This would've been in '76, and there had been, I don't know how many months of attacks, going on since then. A bunch of people, including us, had been doing night shifts at the house, looking out for people, and so on. And there was this meeting at the St. Mark's Parish. St. Mark's Church was right behind a house that was under attack. The people who lived there were named the Debnams: Alva and Otis Debnam. And there had been lots of attempts to get the church to intervene because the, I'll say kids, but they weren't just kids who were attacking the house. The attacks were often using the church yard, which is right behind the Debnams house, as a place from which to through rocks and so on at the house. And there had been many attempts to get the church to stop them, and the response from the church was something I'd never hear was that the church was a sanctuary for outlaws. You can't stop people from doing this. In general, there was a feeling among many of us, and certainly among the Debnams, the church was basically acting as a defender of the kids who were attacking the house. And there was a similar feeling about the police because the people doing the watches, the Debnams themselves, were regularly reporting to the police. District 11, which it's the name of Fields Corner, Dorchester Police Station. That these attacks were happening, and there was one excuse after another for why nothing could be done about it. They would come 20, 30 minutes after the attack and say "So where are they?" And people would say, "Well, they're gone. "Can you identify them?" "No, couldn't identify." And they would do very little. But the general concern was to try to get people from around the community, particularly some of the white folks in the community who we didn't think were involved. And didn't have any interest in this sort of stuff going on in their neighborhood. To come to the community meeting at the church, hope the church would sort of place a role, to encourage folks in the community to stand up in support of this black family, which had moved in to their midst. And was, you know, just trying to live their lives. That was the idea of having this community meeting. The community meeting was quite large, I don't remember how many people were there, but it filled the parish hall. And these folding chairs were all full. And a bunch of, I don't know, 20 year olds, maybe late teenagers, about halfway through the meeting, came into the meeting, beer cans in hand, and started breaking up the meeting. I don't know how many there were of them, but I mean, I can picture them against the backwall, maybe there was a dozen of them there. There was discussion going on about, there about a couple of priests, I don't remember the name of the guy who was from the St. Mark's Parish. There was another guy from another parish as well. They were trying to run the meeting and have a discussion about what was happening to the Debnams. Folks in the community were asking questions, they were expressing, you know, there were white people in that meeting. They were expressing concern about their property values going down, and that sort of thing. "Why did they have to move here?" But it was a discussion, you know. It wasn't a battle yet. Until these kids came in, in the back, and they started talking a lot of trash, very nasty trash. Interrupting the priest, who was running the meeting as well as some of the other people trying to run the meeting. Interrupting the Debnams when they were speaking. At a certain point, they just came through the center of the meeting and started throwing punches and picking up chairs, and throwing chairs. Taking the front table were people were sitting, including Otis Debnam, and turned it over. The meeting just turned into a free-for-all, with a lot of people running out screaming, fist fights going on. No cops, I mean, the idea that there were no cops there to begin with, always seemed, to me, to be, highly questionable. And perhaps intentional. The cops came a few minutes after the fight had gone on, and broke it up. As far as I know, no arrests were made of those kids, they just scattered and disappeared. They had been able to effectively break up the entire meeting. It was a pretty scary thing, and I think it, you know, it scared a lot of us who were involved in the watches. But I also think it really scared a lot of the people in the community, who I think after that felt like, "We don't want this going on in our neighborhood." You know? We're terrified of this. I think it, I suspect that some of them blame the Debnams for bringing this on the community. If they hadn't come, there'd be none of this violence in the community. When in fact, all they did just buy a house in the wrong place, and they had no idea what was coming. What was responsible for the whole thing was the atmosphere that had been creating around busing by, as far as I'm concerned, some of the organizations in the white community in Southie in particular, Charlestown too. Who were determined that black people were not gonna go to schools in their neighborhood. That they were not gonna live in their neighborhood. They were not gonna work in their neighborhood. And that they were going to do whatever needed to be done to prevent that. And I think that sort of determination had a way of spreading throughout Boston, and that determination was picked up by a lot of these white working-class kids, who began to feel that black people were their enemies here. So that's, you know, that meeting was really, you know, one of my most visceral memories. It kind of set the tone for everything that happened after that. Other than that, it was, you know, my other memories of just real exhaustion. I mean, all these people round the clock, you know, we were all trying to protect the Debnams as best as we could. Identify who was throwing bricks, and rocks, and bottles through the windows. Trying to get license, you know. Some people had cameras. I don't remember having a camera that time. People were trying to take pictures, constant meetings to figure out what to do, could we get the police to do anything about this? Could we get more neighbors to participate in the watches? It was just kind of round the clock exhausting. And things would calm down for periods, you know, there'd be weeks where nothing would go on, and then they would start up again, and there'd be calls again for people to join the watches, and that's what it was like.
Vini: How many people were in the neighborhood watch? And, what was the racial composition, out of curiosity?
Tom: The people doing the watches were, as I remember, the combination of two kinds of people. There were white neighbors like us, who for one reason or another, were feeling like something needed to be done in the community about the racism which had exploded throughout Boston. And they were people who lived around there, some of them were long time Dorchester residents. Pretty young. Some of them were newbies to Dorchester, like we were. But they generally had a commitment to having a community where black could people alongside white people. And felt that, you know, we needed to intervene to protect them in a case like this. Those people were white. Then there were a bunch of people who were related in one way or another to Debnams, either friends or family. They lived, you know, maybe in Roxbury or Mattapan, or Codman Square. And were coming to help out, because they knew these people. So the watches were combined, I think, of those two groupings generally. How many? I don't know. I'd say, you know, 25 to 50. People were on the list, probably. But I don't know. We didn't manage the list. There was an organization called Racial Unity Now, which was made up of community people from that area. And they were the ones who were kind of organizing the thing. So we signed up for, you know, their list. Went to some of their meetings, and did the watches when we could.
Laura: The watch group that you were in, was just put informally, organized. It wasn't, it didn't have a name or anything?
Tom: No, it didn't have a name. It was, you know, we didn't have e-mail back then. If it was done now, everybody would have an e-mail distribution list. What there was was, phone calls. The folks from Racial Unity Now would call community meetings, and ask for phone numbers and sign up people who were willing to do this, and we were more than willing to do it. We were, I mean, our house was on the corner of Centre and Samoset. And the Debnams, they were 165, we were 185. I think there was only one house, between one more house between. It was very clear to us what was going on. We would see the cars, you know, coming by, going by their house. We would hear, the shouts of, you know, "Get out niggers!" or "My lawn." This sort of stuff was going on. So it did mean a lot to get us wanting to get over there to help out.
Laura: Other than yelling things, did they, you said they attacked the house, did they throw things?
Tom: Oh yeah. They were breaking windows in the house from I think, within a day or two after they moved in. They moved in, I think they moved in. It was about what they were actually doing. I think they moved in probably in the fall of '75. And my understanding is that they began to get attacked within days after they moved in. I don't think we knew about that, that fast. But I believe, I know they had, I remember them talking about how much money they spent on windows. They had dozens, and dozens, and dozens of windows broken. Constantly. And rocks, bottles, gun shots fired. Not as far as I know at the windows, but gunshots fired.
Laura: Did they have children?
Tom: They had three children. Their children were, I don't remember how they were, I think they might've been young teenagers at the time. And then there was also a white guy living on the first floor, who was their tennant with a really bad heart condition. I remember that too. And so this went on from the time they moved really through the entire winter, the spring, and then, a lot of it climaxed in July of, that would've been '76. When there was a huge July 4th battle, and we weren't there at that time, we were still living there, but we weren't around that July 4th. I can't remember if we were out of town or what. But we heard about what happened that July 4th. And that was, I don't know if it was the end of it all, but it was a tremendous battle between, I mean, gangs of kids who had gathered at Wainwright Park, which was a nearby park, where there was kind of a Wainwright Park gang. And people who had been at a party at the Debnams, and this, you know, 50 or 100 people fighting. There was one of the people who was one of the Debnams relatives or friends was attacked when he was in his car. And he drove his car into a group of the white kids, and several of the white kids got seriously injured. He was eventually arrested, I'm not sure exactly what happened to him. But that was kind of the climax of it, and I think after that, the attacks kind of petered out. But this, you know, six or eight months of attacks on their house. And sporadic neighborhood watches, it was very difficult to keep it going because we had jobs and lives, and I suspect the racist kids probably found it difficult to keep going to. I mean, they would go hang out at the bar in Dorchester Avenue, get drunk, and then come and do their thing, it was periodic. So that's what it was like.
Laura: How long did the Debnams?
Laura: Could you spell their name?
Tom: D-E-B-N-A-M. There was Alva and Otis Debnam.
Laura: How long did they stay in that house?
Tom: I don't know exactly when they moved out, but they did move out. I mean one could look at it as they were finally driven out, I mean, I remember hearing that their marriage also fell apart. I mean, I don't know if it's fair to say they were driven out because, could also be connected to their marriage falling apart. I'd have to re-read actually what Common Ground says about it, because I think he did, you know. He camped up, and analyzed what happened to them. The stress on them was unbelievable. I mean, it was just unbelievable. They were unable to sleep through the night while this was going on. It was, I remember that Alva at a certain point had to leave her job to stay home and take care of the home, and try to protect it. Otis was working two jobs for quite a while. It was just really brutal on them. So I don't know how long after that July explosion they stayed in the house. I'd have to check that. But I'm sure that was for a while, maybe another six months or so. But they did eventually leave the neighborhood.
Vini: It couldn't have been more than a year?
Tom: I don't think they lasted another year after that. I don't think so. However, the way I look at this, you know, they had crossed this invisible line without knowing it. And by the way, one thing I remember reading was, the people who sold them the house, the white people who sold them the house, they had moved to Quincy, were attacked in Quincy for having sold them the house. So, there was a lot of, the folks who were trying to drive them out, were quite conscious about what they were trying to do. They were trying to prevent black people from moving any closer to Dorchester Ave. And they lost that battle. All you have to do is now is, you know, go see where black people have been able to buy houses. And it wasn't too long after that, that even though the Debnams eventually sold their house, I think lost the battle for that house. Black people did not lose the battle to be able to live wherever they want, in that part of Dorchester. So that, I always felt like that was a little bit of a victory. I mean, the Debnams were pioneers without knowing it. They were unwilling pioneers, but once they found out what was at stake, they were really worked hard to stay in that house. They went through absolute hell to stay in that house. And I feel like their effort to do that kind of paved the way for other people to be able to do that soon after. Which is not that different from the kids who were on the school buses. I mean, who despite having stones thrown at them, they kept going to school. They kept going to class, they kept getting on the bus. And eventually, they were able to stay in those schools. They were able to stay in those neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are very different today from how they were then. I feel like the Debnams, and you know, to a very tiny extent, the people who did what they could to help them stay there. Were part of a much larger battle to ensure that, not so much, you know, busing happened. But that, black people had the right to go to school wherever they wanted, and live wherever they wanted in Boston. That's what the battle was about, ultimately. It became very clear to those of us were involved in this. That's what this was all about. Could they go to Carson Beach? That was one of the places where there was, you know, there was a big battle about whether black people could go to Carson Beach in Southie. Could they move across Dorchester Avenue? I remember the same time this was going on, we had some friends who lived on Templeton Street, which is on the other side of Dot Ave. And there was a black woman and her kids, who were driven out of her house on Dot Ave on Templeton St, at the same time. Nowadays, if you go up Templeton St, you'll see there's plenty of black families living there. So, I feel like that battle was won. It was painful, but I think it was a battle worth fighting.
Laura: Let's see, we talked a little bit about law enforcement, or lack thereof. And if you wanted to explain that, you could. I also was wondering about what you thought about media portrayals of things were going on at that time. If newspapers, articles, or what they showed on TV about these different things happening. Or if there was any coverage of what your watch, or what was happening to Debnams.
Tom: Yeah, I don't remember media coverage of what was happening to Debnams, although I know there was some. I just don't remember. There must've been stuff on TV and radio, and in the paper. But I don't remember what it was like, and I haven't gone back to look at it. The stuff with the police, was just, it was predictable and infuriating. The police were overwhelmingly white, and they were kind of, they seem like, you know Dorchester good ol' boys. They were, I feel like, they knew all the kids that were doing this. I'm sure they knew by name. They knew exactly what was going on, and yet, they would never make an arrest. The burden was on the Debnams or whoever was doing the watch to identify the kids. If they couldn't identify, in which they never could, the police would basically to say, "Well, what do you want us to do?" There were certain periods where the police would pull a car up outside the Debnams house, and while that happened, there would be no attacks. And then when the cops would leave, kids would come and throw bottles. It was just, it was very clear that the police had little interest in defending the Debnams right to live there. That they would've been just as happy if Dorchester stayed the way it had always been, and if the blacks stayed back in Codman Square. Washington Street was the acceptable line at that time. It was okay if blacks lived west of Washington St. If they crossed, then they were really stepping, and they should not do that. And you just got the message from the police that through their inaction, that they weren't going to do anything about this. It was not exactly a secret that generally the police department in Boston at that time, and obviously it's changed considerably since then, was tightly linked to the more conservative, Irish Catholic sections of Boston, particularly in Southie and Dorchester. And that's where these kids, for all we knew these kids were children of a lot of the cops. Were their best friends. I think this was not a shock to many of us. I think the Debnams were a little bit surprised that they would get so little reaction from the police. So little help from the police. I think that was going on all over Boston. I mean, I think these sorts of attacks were going on all over Boston. Many of them were not reported, you hear about things, and hear about somebody. A black guy walking into the North End, hit from behind with a baseball bat. You'd hear about. You know, stuff going on all of the time. What my wife experienced with people worked with her, most of the stuff didn't make into the press. It would make into the press when there was something like that Ted Landsmark attack. I don't know if you know about that, the guy who was attacked with the American flag right in City Hall. When that happened, it was like, whoa, how could this happen in Boston? The attacks on the school bus got a lot of press across the whole country because here you had these kids. Who could more innocent than these little kids? Fourth graders, like your friend. Having stones thrown at them. Those two things made it a lot on the press. But the extent to which regular folks going about their business in Boston, getting to work, living in their houses, walking down the street, were being attacked by gangs. Pretty scary gangs of racist youth, and sometimes not just youth. The extent to which that was happening throughout the city, I think was under reported, and very much under investigated by the police. I don't think Kevin White's administration wanted, among other things, Boston to appear to be what it was at that time. Which was honestly, like Mississippi. It felt like what we had all seen on the news in Mississippi or Alabama ten years before. That's what it felt like. I think the police were worse and useless during this time. The press, I don't know what to say, like I said, I don't remember. I'm sure there must've been coverage with what was going on with the Debnams, I don't remember it. Mostly what I remember was coverage of the school buses, Ted Landsmark, and us sort of thinking, Did people have any idea how much of this stuff is happening in all these pockets here? It was amazing.
Laura: So you mention Kevin White, who was the mayor at the time. Did you have any perceptions of him or of other politicians at the time? I don't know if your group contacted a city councilor or a congressman, like that to say, can you help us with what we're trying to do?
Tom: I don't know. We didn't, I wasn't involved in any of that kind of contact. My impression, generally, was there were, Kevin White and his people, some of whom are at UMass now. Kevin White and his people who were supporting the court order, Garrity's court order to desegregate the schools, but had no idea how to deal with the reaction that this had created in the white working class communities. And some of the white non-working class communities too. And had no idea how much protection the black community was demanding and required to go through with this. So I feel like they were, I don't know, maybe they weren't naive. But I feel like they were hoping that somehow that this thing could be finessed, and that we can enforce the court order and hope that everyone would just obey the law and keep things calm, and think things could be address through mediation and so on. I remember having that kind of impression of the White Administration, and feeling like they had no clue how much of the battle this was going to be, and how much it was going to be necessary in that battle to really defend black people in this situation. And then you had the politicians who ran the school committee at that time, and the city council, which is why weren't likely to go to the city council, I don't think. Who were basically representatives of the folks in South Boston and Charlestown and East Boston and parts of Dorchester, who were saying, "Don't let those niggers come into our community." And their political representatives were basically saying that kind of stuff. There were people like John Kerrigan in the school committee, Dapper O'Neil, former Mayor Ray Flynn was one of them at the time.
Tom: Oh yeah. He had a bit of a conversion later, if he hadn't have a conversion, he never would've been mayor. But he was one of the leaders in the anti-busing movement. He was outrageous. So you know, I mean. My impression of those people, you know, they had staked out their turf, as they were going to defend the white community against this what they saw as this attack on them. And they were giving, basically as far as I was concerned, they were giving encouragement to the types of folks who were attacking the Debnams' house. That's how we looked at it. These kids feel when they are throwing bottles, and standing out in front of the Debnams house, yelling "Niggers get out of my neighborhood!" They felt behind them the entire anti-busing movement. Encouraging them, and saying, "Yay, you go! You go!" You know? "We can't do this, but you can do it!" That's how they felt, and sometimes I felt, they felt the police behind them too. Knowing they were not going to get taken to task for this. And that's kinda how I felt, you know, those kinds of politicians acted. I mean the people that were, I don't know if you know about, there was a huge organization called "ROAR," Restore Our Alienated Rights. Louise Day Hicks. Later given a job in the White Administration. I mean that's what they were doing. That's what their organization did. They effect of their organization was to encourage these groups of enforcers, who were gonna go around and enforce their demand that black kids not go to our schools, and not live in our neighborhoods. And all the talk about their alienated rights, and the right to go to a school in their own neighborhood was nothing as far I was concerned. Because we could see it in our neighborhood. It was nothing but cover for the fact that they were not going to have black people in their neighborhoods. That's what it was about. It was no different from Alabama or Mississippi. It was just Northern segregation. And we felt in our neighborhood that we were getting a very practical down home demonstration of what this was all about. This confrontation with these kids, with the church defending them, with the police essentially giving them a pass driving this family, it's taking a step two blocks too far out of the neighborhood. It's summed it all up for us.
Vini: So when I talked to my family friend, he was mentioning he didn't think how the politicians handled busing, they didn't handle it that well. He felt, and I thought about this too, as if the children were "pawns" in their political game. I just wondering what your thoughts or busing, or even that statement.
Tom: I feel like a lot of people say that, and they said it during busing too. And they've said it since. And now that we've had the anniversary, there was a lot of that kind of talk. I understand it. I think it's a little dismissive of some important things. And I also think it's a little, I guess shouldn't say disrespectful because it was coming from one of the guys who was one of the kids himself. But, a lot of these kids, I do think there were larger interests that were manipulating busing for their own interest, from all sides. From Kevin Whites' side, from those politicians: Ray Flynn, Louise Day Hicks, Kerrigan. Not so much from the black communities, in my opinion. I did think that it existed, but I don't like calling the kids "pawns" because they were unbelievably courageous. I think, and I know, you know, I have a friend who used to work here who no longer does, who was, you know, she knew a lot of people. She was young at that time, and had been through those schools, and knew a lot of children. She was just out of high school, and so on, and she knew a lot of those kids in the schools. And they knew what was going on, once they found that people didn't want them to go to school in Southie, they said, "I'm going. It's not necessarily that that school in Southie is better than the school I'm in." Although in a lot of cases, it did, you know, they had books when their schools in Roxbury had no books. They had chairs and desks, when their schools in Roxbury had no chairs and desks. There were differences in the schools. It wasn't so much they wanted to go to school in Southie, and take a bus there. It was when somebody said, "We don't want you, and we're not gonna let you." That they said, "Oh, we're gonna do it." And that took a lot of guts. And I don't like thinking of them as pawns because they were independent actors of this. They, every morning, you know, got up and got on that bus despite what was a form of terrorism being directed at them. And went to school. So I don't like calling them pawns, I do, you know, clearly there were a lot of interests at stake in busing. And I don't think everyone had the interest of those kids foremost in their minds. I do think that by and large, the black community, at that time, the NAACP was a big actor in this, and other black organizations. I think basically they were focused on the right things. Which was, "We want equal access to education. We don't want to be told where to go to school, and where we can't." And then as these other issues, "We don't wanna be told where we live and where we can't. We don't wanna be told where we work and where we can't. And we don't wanna be told where we can walk and where we can't." That was basically the black community's position through this whole thing. So I have no complaints about how they dealt with it. I felt like, with the white community, you had sort of the wealthy communities in Boston, who, you know, I think felt were kind of horrified what they saw happening in the working-class, white communities. And had no understanding of what the conditions the white folks lived under in Southie, and parts of Dorchester, and what tough lives they had in terms of unemployment, what sort of jobs they could get. What sort of education they were getting themselves in the schools they were trying to protect. I think, you know, the wealthy white folks had no clue about that stuff. I think there were plenty of interests involved in displacing sections of those white communities in displacing all sorts of folks in the South End, in South Boston, in Charlestown, I mean what you see, the type of gentrification you see today, a lot of that has its roots in what happened in those busing struggles. When you got huge white flight from the community, and all these areas opened up for gentrification. I think that's unfortunate, and I think there were probably some far-sighted developers and so on, among the upper-classes in Boston who thought "Hmm. Maybe this will be good for us in the long run." I think that there may have been that kind of manipulation. But I don't think busing was basically using students as pawns. I think it was basically bringing the civil rights movement up North where it had to come eventually. And the schools had to be desegregated, and their had to be a battle, and battle lines had to be drawn. And that's what happened. And then it just happened that they got drawn all over the place, in the neighborhoods as well as in the schools.
Laura: So how long did you stay involved in the community for?
Tom: Well, I was commuting to a job in a factory up north in Malden the whole time, and I was actually involved in union there. And I've been involved in union work a lot here. Community work, I mean for me, was just this neighborhood watch, and what was going around that. And I was involved in that. I think up until through the winter, and the spring, and I don't remember any more of it going after this July 4th on explosion. I'm not sure if that's correct, but I don't remember being involved after that. I think that things fell apart. The July 4th thing was a huge battle, there were arrests, there were injuries. And I have a feeling, though I'm not sure about this, that both sides kind of pulled back after that. And I suspect that, it was after that July 4th, that the Debnams began to consider moving out, though again, I don't remember when they did. So for me, it was probably about January or February through June. And not constant because we couldn't keep up constant. And when there was call for watches, we would do it. But like everyone else, including the poor Debnams, people had to get on with their lives. It was impossible to keep up that kind of, you know, relentless watch. Fortunately, the people who were mounting the attacks got tired too.
Laura: How long did you stay in that neighborhood?
Tom: We moved from Centre St about a year street. We moved over to Meeting House Hill in Dorchester, and then after that, we actually bought a house back in the same neighborhood over on Moultree St, which is right behind Shawmut Station. Centre St is sort of opposite Shawmut Station, and we bought this house right behind there in '82. So we kind of bounced around Dorchester, and we were in that house until '99. So we were in Dorchester from '75 or 6, I can't remember if we just moved into Centre St when this started. '75 or '76 to '99 we were in that neighborhood basically. The fact is, by '82, it had already changed a lot. I take a little comfort in that, within a few years, it had changed a lot. And then the lines that had existed just a few years before had been broken down. But it took a while, and it took a lot of courage in the part of the people like the Debnams to do that.
Laura: I just think I have one more question, and that would be, did you ever feel, or were you ever threatened yourself? Did you ever feel afraid that it's everything going?
Tom: I mean we were always afraid when there were the watches. Not that we were personally threatened, but, you're in a house, the lights are out. You know something's gonna come. Cars are coming by, you don't know, what, you know. There are always concerns that someone might fire a gun, or that there might be a fire bomb because there were so many threats to burn down the house. But I never witnessed anything like that. I was fearful doing that, but the meeting I talked about earlier, I was definitely afraid that meeting. That was a scary thing. There were a bunch of these very violent teenagers and 20 years, clearly ready to fight, and yeah, that was scary. And I don't remember what I did. My wife, well, my girlfriend at the time, we were both there, and I actually asked her if we remembered what we did in the meeting. Neither of us could remember. It was such a shocking thing. And we kind of stood there, watch this melee in the middle of the room. I don't remember pulling anyone off, I don't remember doing anythings you would like to thing you did. Chairs flying around, it reminded me of the concert I went to in Chicago of The Doors, which ended up with everyone throwing chairs.
Vini: Including Jim [Morrison] himself?
Tom: Jim Morrison, yeah. It was like that, only scarier. I think that was the most scared I'd had been. We felt like we had experienced the stuff at the house, we heard about all the stuff with the buses, and there's all the stuff in the news. When you're right in the middle of it, faced with these people who would like to beat you to death, if they can only get the time and the right tool in their hand. It's pretty scary.
Laura: Is there anything else you want to mention, thought of? Actually there's one other thing I'm curious about. Whether you initially, when the busing decision first came down in '74, whether you thought about it at that time. Whether you were paying attention to that decision was made. If you had an opinion on it, or later on as you saw what was happening because of it.
Tom: I don't remember what I thought when the decision came down, I think it came down several months before the school year. Like I mentioned, I had been involved in civil rights stuff when I was in high school in Chicago. So I was definitely a big supporter of school desegregation, and I would've been when that decision came down. I would've been supportive of it. But I do remember when school opened because everyone was paying attention. It was all over the media when school opened. And I was not living in Boston when school opened, I was in Somerville at that time. When it opened, and they were throwing stones at the buses, it was like, "Holy shit! Here we are, this is Alabama, Mississippi." I mean that stuff happened in Chicago too. So it wasn't like I was surprised to see in the North. When that began to happen, I felt strongly, as I think did a lot of people, that we need to make sure that this decision is not overturned, and that the buses keep rolling. I mean, it was very basic. I wasn't thinking about education or anything like that. It was, they're attacking these kids and these buses because they don't want them in their schools and neighborhoods. That is a basic, that's no different from white and colored benches and water fountains in the South, which I had seen as a kid. It's no different. That's how I took it in at that time. And that continued throughout that entire school year. I mean, all through the school year, those attacks were going on, and my personal position on the issue never changed, which was, I don't care what Garrity's reasons are, I don't care what Kevin White's reasons are. This is a basic question of civil rights, that's what happening here. Anybody who obfuscates with talk about, "We should find other ways to find equality and education" or "Black people can get just as good of an education their schools here." That that was bullshit. What's happening here is a fundamental question of civil rights. Right thinking white people need to do what they can to help defend the rights of black people, just like white folks did when they were down South.
Vini: The Freedom Rides?
Tom: Yeah, the Freedom Rides. That there was a responsibility that white people had a responsibility in a situation like this. Which was simply to defend the rights of black people to equality. That what it was ultimately about. I feel like in all the talk of busing, recently, there hasn't been enough focus on that. There's been too much focus on, "Was it good for the city?" "The schools are all segregated" My kids went to the Boston Public Schools, yes. They're segregated, you know. There was all the white flight. Looking back at it now, was it right thing to do? I get kind of annoyed by that reflection because it doesn't come to grips with what was really going on in this city. And the real question is, if busing had not happened, if Garrity not issued that decision, if people had not been so courageous as to insist on carrying on being the foot soldiers of that decision, and carrying it out, by going to the schools, and willing to move into white neighborhoods, and so on. If they hadn't done it, we could still be a segregated city today, in ways that people today don't even imagine, I think. I think black people are still horribly oppressed in so many ways in terms of jobs, housing, police violence, and so on. But, they at least have the right to walk in any part of the city. They were able to establish that right, and the right to go to any school in this city. I feel like that's the main thing that came out of that, and I think it was a huge battle worth fighting to secure those rights. I feel that gets too little attention in all the policy discussions about the effect on the schools, housing, neighborhoods, and stuff like that. Basic issue of equality.
Laura: I think that's it. Thank you very much for taking the time to do this.
Tom: My pleasure, I wish I could remember more detail. I can always look back and read Common Ground.