Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Coretta Scott King. Madam C.J. Walker. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler. George Floyd. These are just a handful of names that come to mind when Black leaders in Boston reflect on figures who have left an indelible mark on history.
In a series of interviews, eight Black community leaders -- comprised of activists, artists and professionals -- reflected on what Black History Month means to them. They highlighted the vital role Black Americans play in shaping the city and nation, both historically and presently, and stressed that the fight for racial equity continues year-round.
“I think we fail to recognize that so many giants either came from Boston, passed through Boston, are still in Boston,” said Dr. Ellana Stinson, president of the New England Medical Association. “MLK passed through here, Malcolm X, Mel King; Dr. Rebecca Crumpler -- who was the first Black female physician (in the country) -- she was from Boston.”
Stinson pointed to Crumpler, who treated patients on Beacon Hill when it was a predominantly Black neighborhood in the late 1800s, as an example of a historical figure who should be recognized for her contributions.
Boston’s rich Black history can be traced back to the city’s founding in the 1630s.
“People need to really look into the history and look at the contributions that Boston has made rather than thinking we don't exist,” said Dart Adams, a Boston-based journalist and historian. “Without the contributions of Black Americans, there's no America.”
There are many Black leaders throughout history – aside from the household names -- who deserve more recognition, according to Monica Cannon-Grant, founder of the non-profit organization Violence in Boston, Inc. She pointed to Madam C.J. Walker, who was recorded as the first Black, female self-made millionaire in America in the Guinness Book of World Records after starting her own line of hair products in the early 1900s.
“Everybody wants to talk about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman,” Cannon-Grant said. “There's just so many other Black leaders that you could talk about, except for the ones that everybody knows mainstream.”
Visual artist and community organizer Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs, too, recalled hearing about the same figures during Black History Month as a child. “There’s got to be more than the same people that we need to learn about,” he remembered thinking.
Black History Month shouldn’t be limited to honoring ancestors of the past, according to Joseph N. Cooper, the J. Keith Motley Endowed Chair for Sport Leadership and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The celebration should include contributions up to the present day.
Cooper, who works in the university’s anti-racism program, likened George Floyd to a martyr, calling his death and the ensuing unrest a symbolic representation of Black oppression in America.
“The notion of ‘I can't breathe’ is very emblematic of the continued economic deprivation, the academic neglect, the racial discrimination that Black people feel and the lack of reparations,” Cooper said.
“For centuries, we have been exploited economically, psychologically, spiritually, physically. There's never been a full, honest, concerted effort to repair that harm. And yet and still... still we rise. Still we have historically Black colleges and universities. Still we continue to be inventors. Still we continue to be politicians, parents, community members -- all of these things -- in spite of the lack of repair to the harm that's been done to us.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for a larger discussion about systemic racism within society, according to Imari Paris Jeffries, executive director of the non-profit organization King Boston.
“There's an America for Black folks and people of color and an America for everyone else,” Paris Jeffries said.
King Boston is leading an effort to erect a 22-foot memorial in Boston Common honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, who met in Boston. Titled “The Embrace,” the sculpture is slated to be unveiled in 2022.
“What does it mean to build a memorial in America's oldest public park to honor Dr. and Mrs. King and other Boston civil rights leaders who are also Black? That's huge for our city,” Paris Jeffries said. “But it also is symbolic that in Boston we are building these institutions. We are doing the placemaking.”
As an emergency physician at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, Stinson emphasized the need for people of color to have a trusted source to turn to, particularly in the healthcare industry. Distrust of coronavirus vaccines run high among Black Americans and there is growing concern in Massachusetts over equal access. But by being seen, Stinson believes Black leaders in the medical field can rebuild that trust and address health disparities.
“I would like for us to be more visible in the Black community,” Stinson said, referring to minority physicians. “We do a really good job here in Boston in providing services to underserved communities. I just would like to see, in the height of this pandemic, a more equitable distribution of resources.”
Information – and access to it – plays a key role in creating opportunity for people and communities of color, according to attorney Linda Champion of the state’s Division of Industrial Accidents. Representing the Worker’s Compensation Trust Fund, Champion examines cases where workers were hired illegally, injured on the job and not covered.
“What I'm finding is within the Black community, when you give them that opportunity, that chance to come through the door, they do remarkable things and they shine,” she said.
Champion highlighted the importance of representation in the business world.
“You can't be what you can't see,” Champion said. “So when the community starts to see us as business leaders and being able to see us as the head… it just changes the world. It makes it better.”
As the co-founder of Artists For Humanity, a non-profit that hires young people and teaches them creative skills, artist Gibbs has set out to establish a network of future Black leaders in the community to work collaboratively.
“I wanted to be able to contribute to that legacy of individuals who connect with people -- somebody that's as important as a barber or your council at a neighborhood house,” Gibbs said. “The impact that we’ve made in the city, I felt like through art… we were able to give young people a safe place to reside and grow.”
To Justin Springer, president of Outside the Box Agency and a self-described social broker for Boston, Black History Month celebrations should even look to the future - highlighting the achievements of who he calls, “tomorrow’s legends.”
“Pretty soon we're going to be interviewing the change-makers, change-pacers (who) are actually building blocks now,” Springer said. “We all have an opportunity to make history, you know what I mean? Every day there's an opportunity to make an impact, to do something bigger than yourself.”
Irvin Rodriguez contributed to this story.