2021 年 55 巻 p. 55-73
Boston at the turn of the twentieth century was regarded as the very embodiment of the American ideal of freedom and equality, with racial discrimination in public places outlawed by the state of Massachusetts soon after the Civil War and overt harassment and violence against African Americans virtually non-existent in this “cradle of liberty.” Blacks in Boston were, however, disproportionately poor due mainly to unfair hiring practices under the pretext of insufficient abilities or qualifications, and their plight and struggles were often neglected. This paper tries to clarify how Americans of African descent in a (supposedly) color-blind city dealt with their impoverishment. It also tries to elucidate the reasons why, in comparison with other ethnic groups, Blacks adopted specific sets of coping strategies and not others.
Most Blacks in Boston were trapped in poverty with no way out. Those black Bostonians who were lucky enough to secure education and employment nonetheless urged their fellow African Americans to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. So did social workers, who paid far more attention to all the other peoples from abroad than to black migrants from the South. Slighted by the “elite” of their own race and by white professionals who were supposed to help them, needy Blacks had fewer places to turn to than immigrants and were left to their own resources. Still, they did not ask for public assistance, which, given the almost negligible black political influence, did not reach them even during the Great Depression.
By contrast, the Irish, who came to dominate city politics by the first decades of the twentieth century, made the most of government aid as well as Catholic charities. Likewise, the Jews expanded their philanthropies in addition to receiving greater public support. The Chinese helped each other, so much so that none of them were on the welfare rolls at the worst point of the economic crisis.
Poor African Americans in Boston had to help themselves because no help was coming either from the “upper class” of their own people or from outside. Moreover, personal recollections and other sources tell us that they seemed to believe in the principle of individual self-help and chose to improve their situation on their own. They were so “American” and independent that they could not rely on the patronage of political bosses, as the Irish tended to do, or band together on religious or cultural grounds to forge a separate community for mutual help, as the Jews or the Chinese tended to do, even though American democracy, culture, and Christianity did not do justice to African Americans.
These proud Americans of African ancestry in “freedom’s birthplace,” who had internalized the ethics of individual responsibility, had a long way to go before claiming public aid as a right and fighting against the stigma of poverty and welfare.