color photograph of two young girls crossing the road to get to their bus. They are dressed casually and each have a backpack on as well as a face mask to protect them from the pandemic and the COVID-19 virus. The stop sign and flashing lights can be seen out on the side of the bus to keep cars stopped.
(via iStock)

Kim Janey credits the first school she ever attended with putting her on a path that would eventually lead to her becoming Boston’s mayor in 2021—the first Black woman to hold that office.

For kindergarten, Janey attended a community school established by Black community leaders, activists, and parents, including her own. Similar schools were commonplace throughout the city, Janey said, especially during the 1970s when parents were looking for alternatives to the underfunded and crumbling Boston Public Schools children of color were regularly assigned to. 

“This community school was laser focused on educating Black children,” Janey said. The school “didn’t just pour into me the importance of reading, writing, and arithmetic. They made sure I understood who I was as a little Black girl. That [was] a different foundation for me as I went into Boston Public Schools.” 

For Janey, this introduction to school and early education was instrumental in the work she pursued in her adult life. That’s why, according to Janey, she can’t help but notice that for Boston’s students and parents of color, not much has fundamentally changed in the last 50 years.

“So many parents of color choose charter schools because they think that’s where those opportunities are, or they’re choosing something different if they can afford it, like Catholic schools and private schools.”

The decision

The decision to look for alternatives to Boston Public Schools is one that Janey understands firsthand. In 1974, U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr. ruled in Morgan v. Hennigan to desegregate Boston schools through a court-ordered busing plan that would shuttle students away from their neighborhoods to desegregate schools all over Boston, bringing Black students to previously all-white schools and white students to previously all-Black schools. After attending her local public school through fifth grade, Janey became part of the second wave of the busing program when she started middle school. 

Janey’s parents, like many at that time, did not embrace the idea: When it was time for her to be bused to middle school, her parents refused and kept her from school for two weeks before eventually sending her.

“I was 11 years old, and my parents did not want to send me to Charlestown, so they kept me out of school,” Janey said. “It’s important to highlight that these white schools were not all good schools; white working-class families were not experiencing some sort of educational panacea.”

The school, Janey remembers, was nothing like the Black-led community school from her early childhood, which had opened in reaction to the Boston School Committee’s refusal to comply with the Racial Imbalance Act of 1965, which aimed to end racial segregation in public schools in the state. The state required the Boston School Committee to submit plans to integrate 45 segregated schools or risk losing funding for the schools. Four years later, a racial census of Boston schools showed that the racial imbalance had increased. And prior to the Garrity decision, majority-Black Boston schools suffered from a notable lack of resources.

The “deep North” 

In 1971, when Peggy Kemp moved from the U.S. South to Massachusetts to attend Harvard Law School and began teaching in Boston public schools to earn extra money, she was shocked to find herself at a segregated middle school. 

“There were no white students at this school. The bathrooms had no doors on the stalls; there was no toilet tissue or paper towels for students to dry their hands,” Kemp said. “I didn’t have textbooks and was expected to use these mimeograph papers for worksheets.”

While northern states like Massachusetts didn’t legally mandate racial segregation, experts point to redlining and blockbusting tactics used in Black neighborhoods like Roxbury and Dorchester to account for school segregation in Boston during the 1970s. Like today, Black residents faced an increasing racial wealth gap and differences in employment opportunities compared to white residents.

As a result, the situation at Kemp’s Boston teaching job felt unexpectedly familiar: The first school she ever attended was a two-room schoolhouse in segregated Kentucky. The all-Black school, Kemp recalls, did not have running water, a heating system, or indoor plumbing.

“It was very sparse,” Kemp said, “but there was still an expectation of excellence.”

Kemp remembers the high standards her teachers held for her and her classmates. She also remembers her unrelenting efforts to meet them. But by the time she was in the fifth grade, Kemp’s school integrated with a neighboring all-white school as part of the nation’s desegregation efforts after the landmark ruling in the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. And while her new school looked brand new and well resourced compared to her first, Kemp said she didn’t feel intimidated by the school or her white classmates.

“I was not behind; I didn’t need any extra support. I was just as well prepared as any of my classmates,” Kemp said.

Kemp remembers starting middle school with her Black classmates, but she was the only Black student in her graduating class by the time she finished high school. Three years after Kemp started teaching, she was once again caught up in a court-ordered desegregation plan, only this time, in the Northeast.

Garrity’s ruling had an immediate impact. Kemp remembers the middle school where she taught partnered with Hyde Park, a middle-class white neighborhood. The city remodeled the deteriorating school over the summer and hired three Black teachers, and the school received funding for new books.

“These Black children had been attending this school that had not been maintained for years, and all of a sudden, everything changed—now teachers could get the materials they needed, period,” Kemp said.

The reaction, mostly from white parents who opposed the ruling, said Lewis Finfer, was also immediate. Violent protests erupted throughout Boston in the summer of 1974 and made national news for the next several years. 

“This part of the country was described as the ‘deep North’ after the reaction to the Garrity ruling because it was as bad as what people had seen coming out of the South,” said Finfer, a community organizer and former director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.

Janey recalls dealing white Boston residents’ violent protests against the desegregation plan firsthand. 

“We experienced rocks, bottles, sticks, cans thrown at us two full years after the first buses rolled down those hills in South Boston in 1974,” Janey said. 

“Black flight happened as well”

Finfer says the legacy of the ruling is still visible today, nearly 50 years later. 

“Some schools were nearly 60% white in 1974. Today, they’re 15% white in the Boston Public Schools,” Finfer said. “So, yeah, the issues are still going on today.”

A New York Times article from December 1975 reported that Boston Public Schools lost nearly 18,000 students in the 18 months following the court-ordered busing plan. Finfer said “white flight” accelerated in Boston’s schools in the late 1970s, as white families relocated to the suburbs or enrolled their children in parochial schools. In the last 50 years, not much has changed.

A 2020 report by the Boston Foundation found that while the city of Boston’s population has increased in the past decade, public schools followed the opposite trend. During the same period, predominately white schools severely decreased while schools made up of 90-100% students of color had increased from 25 in 1967 to 84 in 2019.

While “white flight” created segregated schools that were overwhelmingly Black and Latinx, Black student enrollment also steadily declined as parents sought alternatives to the public school system. Janey argues that the Garrity ruling caused many Black residents to move out of Boston. 

“That’s one of the outcomes of forced busing,” Janey said. “We saw the white flight happen immediately, but the Black flight happened as well. And people don’t talk about Black flight.”

Finfer, who worked as tenant rights advocate during that time, said he noticed immediate disinvestment in Boston neighborhoods during the city’s busing crisis.

“In some areas, there were large numbers of abandoned buildings in Boston; when someone moved out, it became an abandoned building, which led to the deterioration of neighborhoods,” he said. Finfer added that these conditions pushed Black residents out of their Boston communities.

After the 1974-75 school year, nearly 30,000 students left Boston Public Schools altogether. The shift still holds true nearly half a century later. Today, as Black residents continue to move out of Boston, the resegregation of city schools also coincides with the steady decline of Black enrollment over the last 20 years. The Boston Globe recently found that nearly 15,000 Black students have left Boston Public Schools since 2002.

Today, multiple factors have contributed to the continuing decline in enrollment in Boston Public Schools. Student enrollment declined during the past eight years and has been recently accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, even before the pandemic, Boston has consistently lost its Black residents.

Seeking alternatives

While Black student enrollment has decreased in public schools, it has surged in Boston charter schools. Nearly half of the city’s charter school students are Black, while Black students make up just under a third of overall Boston Public School enrollment. Charter schools, much like the community schools from Janey’s childhood, are independent schools that operate with government funds. 

For Janey, the widespread shift away from public schools can be traced back to the same concerns her own parents had in the 1970s.

“The decline of Black students was clear years ago, and the trajectory is that it will keep getting worse,” Janey said, adding that the decline is a result of parents, particularly of color, seeking better educational opportunities for their children. 

Some of the enrollment decreases have been partially offset as Latinx and multiracial populations rise in Boston, but Black families have consistently continued to leave the city’s public schools. For the Black families that have decided to leave throughout the last decade, they have consistently opted for charter schools.

There’s historical precedent for Black parents in Boston looking outside the public school system to ensure their children’s education needs are met. Before the Garrity decision, in 1966, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program launched a voluntary busing program after recruiting 220 students of color to attend suburban students outside of Boston. Like many Black and Latinx parents today, the parents who founded METCO were looking for alternatives to public schools. In the late 1970s, Janey became part of the program and enrolled in Reading Memorial High School outside of Boston.

Janey enrolled in the predominately white suburban school with about 20 Black classmates. But similar to Kemp’s experience in the 1950s, by the time Janey graduated high school, she was the only Black student to complete the program.

“I was the only one who got through because I had a strong foundation early on,” Janey said. “Yes, this was a voluntary program; supposedly, this suburban community wanted us there. But racism doesn’t disappear because you go an extra 5 or 10 miles on a school bus.”

Boston’s METCO program is still a much sought-after alternative to Boston Public Schools. It currently enrolls over 3,100 students of color but still presents a challenge to the expanding racial gap in Boston’s public schools.

“These students are going to schools with better resources, but the downside is that the parents who are not in the Boston Public Schools are not trying to better those schools because their kids have better school opportunities,” Finfer said.

50 years later

Court-ordered forced busing ended in 1988, and history might remember Boston’s forced busing program as a failure in closing the racial divide within the city’s public schools. But Janey argues looking solely at the outcome neglects the sacrifices that Black parents, and especially Black women, made to ensure marginalized children got an adequate education.

“I struggled a lot as a kid who was bused trying to reconcile that hero status that we were given,” Janey said. “So to say, ‘this whole thing was a big failure, our schools are not desegregated, and quality is still what they saw 40 years later, 50 years later,’ dismisses what Black parents, aunties, and grandmothers were fighting for.”

Looking back, Finfer can’t help but think that some things could have been done differently when the Garrity ruling was implemented that might have led to more positive outcomes 50 years later.

“If there had been more localized remedies that made physical repairs to the deteriorated school buildings in the Black community, equalized school budgets, or hired more teachers, that could have done more than primarily busing the kids,” he said.

Considering whether busing was a failure is a difficult question for Kemp. She said some good came out of the ruling, including a provision to hire more Black teachers. Boston has never met the threshold, but it did create a pathway for younger Black educators. But Kemp also added that the impact of busing left a psychological toll. 

“I was born poor, I was at a huge disadvantage being born Black, and I was female,” Kemp said, “but I had both teachers and a community that believed in me. So I did succeed, but I don’t feel that that’s the case in Boston.”

Boston Public Schools remain highly segregated, but parents of color remain at the center of the push to equalize education. In February 2022, parents denounced the school system’s admissions process to the city’s elite exam schools that would have given a boost to applicants from high-poverty schools regardless of whether students came from middle- or upper-class families.

Kemp acknowledges that Boston schools still face some of the challenges from the 1970s, including deeply embedded misconceptions that Black students need white students to succeed. She doesn’t believe Garrity’s order succeeded in ending segregation in Boston schools or providing equal educational opportunities for its students. 

“But that wasn’t the order’s fault—that’s our society,” she said.

Kio Herrera is a reporter based in New York City. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Toni Stabile Investigative Journalism Fellow. Her previous...