My first neighborhood was in south Braintree, a once a sleepy town at the foot of the Blue Hills. Braintree’s evolution had brought few Blacks or other minorities there by the 1970s; you could probably count them on one hand. In my morally sleepy child mind, I had supposed it to be mere migratory patterns, simply absorbing the fact that Blacks were in the city. Black migration to the northeast began in earnest with the Civil War and the historic Underground Railroad, but over one hundred years later the modern subway still had not brought them to my end of the Red Line, a mere twelve miles south of Boston.
We suburban white children had heard about segregation, at least in regard to the South, but did not feel part of it or affected by it. My first personal connection was tenuous—my uncle, a Boston police officer, fairly conservative like many who wore the blue. He worked much overtime during the infamous school desegregation process ordered by Judge Arthur Garrity of the U.S. Federal District Court. Judge Garrity’s forced busing, implemented “with all deliberate speed,” had led to race riots. Many newspaper and magazine front pages across the country carried a photo of a white man, amidst an angry crowd, jousting a Black man in the stomach with an American flagpole. From my sheltered perspective, an abstract southern issue had simply become an abstract city issue. Little did I know, one day Judge Garrity would express to me a reservation about the efficacy of this method of enforcement.
Boston had various immigrant generations, my paternal grandparents among them. Everyone had an ethnic identity, a source of pride among families, but it was a weak divider of suburban children by my generation. Even when we called our Italian friends “Wops” (with out passports?) or guineas (the smallest unit of Italian currency?), or our French friends “frogs” or “French fries,” they were not really derogatory epithets. I was a “Mick” (Mc—traditional Irish last name preface meaning “of”) or a “Paddy.” Even I called the small police truck a “Paddy Wagon,” purportedly so named from picking up Irish drunks. This was one more inheritance of the “facts.”
Of course, there were minor differences in our looks and cultural prior set, but major assimilation diminished even those. As a divider of children, they were about as powerful as picking sides on a neighborhood game of Rilivio, an alliance that was fleeting, not immutable and permanent. Even the Jews we had encountered were more mysterious than apparently different in their culture, race, and religion.
I had heard about the “Irish Need Not Apply” signs in Boston employers’ windows of many decades ago, but that, too, was abstract. I never knew until much older the extent of the discrimination against the Irish generally. In Ireland, it had been worse for the Irish Catholics under British rule. For example, during the eighteenth century the British Penal Laws:
- denied Irish Catholics the right to vote, live in incorporated towns, practice law, hold a post in military or civil service, teach in school or as tutors, attend university, or educate their sons abroad.
- Irish Catholics could not participate in the manufacture or sale of newspapers, books, or arms, or even possess arms.
- They could not own a horse worth more than five pounds or take on more than two Catholic apprentices.
- They could not buy, inherit, or receive gifts of land from Protestants, nor keep their own lands consolidated at death.
- By converting to Protestantism, a Catholic son could dispossess his father and disinherit his brothers.
- By marrying a Catholic, a Protestant landowner lost his civil rights or her inheritance.
- All Catholic Bishops were ordered to leave the country on penalty of death; no priests could enter, and those present were permitted only one priest per parish who could not set foot out of parish property except with special permission. Contrarily, Catholics’ taxes were used to support the Protestant Church of Ireland.
The Penal Laws were an historic due process nightmare that I had also been ignorant of as a child and young adult. However, I think I had sensed the reach of those laws unconsciously, as the prejudice was carried over to this country, which, along with my father’s influence in particular, gave me a strong sense of justice by sensing the injustices. Prejudice against Irish/Catholics substantially subsided by the time John F. Kennedy became the first Irish Catholic American President in 1961. Controversial theories about inheriting the effects of past discrimination were developed later and applied to Celts and, including the legacy of slavery, to Blacks. The key dispute was its validity and magnitude as a contemporary burden on those and other peoples.
As a pre-teen, I was so trusting and idealistic that I had earned my first nickname, Sky, by someone older who had been unsuccessful in convincing me that one’s idealism necessarily fades with age. Then the T.V. movie series “Roots” based on Alex Haley’s books came out. My first true lesson not to be too trusting in the “powers that be,” even while clenching to my idealistic nature. I had cried watching the dramatic re-enactment of Africans being enslaved and transported to America, and then abused for life. The characters humanized abstract stories and statistics that had never been explored in my school’s curriculum. My heart and mind raced with those characters seeking basic freedom. Anger welled from within. Justice was imprinted on my soul more deeply than the seal of the United States, despite my pledging allegiance to the American flag. Justice meant united people, not always United States. Segregation? That was something my mom did to the laundry—separate the dark clothes from the white to avoid mixed colors running together in the water; years later mixed race grandchildren would be running together and splashing in her pool.