Brookline Apologizes for Slave-Owning Past
Town Meeting votes for an article expressing regret for its slave-owning past. Not everyone, however, think this article does the job.
During Thursday night's session of Town Meeting, the first article discussed was Hidden Brookline's Article 27, a resolution to express regret for its part in the slave trade. The article was ultimately passed, but there was discussion about Brookline's racial past and present, and the future of education.
"To everything there is a season. We can do something tonight that others were not able to do," said Dr. Barbara Brown, the chairman of Hidden Brookline, "We can face the painful past, and a painful part of that past."
Slavery existed in Brookline for the first 25 years of its settlement, she said. This article is the Committee's most recent contribution to bringing recognition to the town's participation in what Brown says many believe is "a peculiar institution of the South.”
As an example, Brown mentioned that Town Hall was at one point cleaned by a slave owned by Henry Sewall. Coincidentally, Sewall's grandfather was judge Samuel Sewall, author of one of the first abolitionist tracts, "The Selling of Joseph."
Added Brown, "We believe that such recognition can lead toward reconciliation."
For opponents of the warrant article, the question is not of content, but of context.
Precinct 12 Town Meeting Member Harry Friedman explained, "I'm not opposed because of what is in it, I am opposed because of what is left out."
Friedman's concern with Hidden Brookline's version of the article was that it lacked that context. While Brookline participated in slavery, it was hardly alone--the practice was not deemed unconstitutional until 1783 in Massachusetts. He also pointed out that the article referred to "town meeting records" in 1665, despite the Town Seal indicating that the town was incoroporated in 1705.
Hiiden Brookline's Dr. Brown explained that the hamlet of Muddy River met as part of the town of Boston as far back as 1665, and that about a century ago, those records were separated out from those of the town of Boston--those are the records to which the article refers.
"I, as a black man, who suffers almost daily the remnants of America’s first sin, should fall in line in support," said Arthur Conquest, a precinct 6 town meeting member. "At worst, article 27 is subterfuge."
Among Conquest's concerns, the recent allegation of discrimination in the High School Headmaster search, and a report on diversity in the town staff which noted that the bulk of the town's officials and administrators are white.
"Brookline, supposedly the most highly-educated community in commonwealth, is about two-and-a-half centuries backwards," Conquest concluded.
No one directly responded to Conquest's comments.
"Despite the election of our first black president, some racial tensions are still evident," Precinct 11 Town Meeting Member Bobbie Knable added. "It still seems as though blacks and whites inhabit different universes--and in many ways, we do."
Knable shared some of her experiences growing up during segragation with Town Meeting, such as a hotel in Detroit refusing to honor a reservation she and her husband had made, because of their inter-racial marriage. In Brookline, she said, she did not see her house until after the papers were signed, because Boston-area realtors showed the couple fewer homes when they were together.
"Surely I know how much things have changed," she added.
Despite that, she supported the passage of the article.
"Acknowledgement of the differences in how people experienced this country is essential. That the practice of slavery thrived is as important to know as the fact that it was not a short-lived aberration or the folly of a few," Knable said, "The extent that we acknowledge and accept the past makes it possible to have conversations about race in the present. Looking back makes it possible to move forward."
One questionable element of article 27, for some members of the Advisory Committee, was the inclusion of a call for the School Committee to include mentions of Brookline's participation in slavery in the curriculum "where appropriate."
"Do we want to set a precedent, not intentionally," Town Meeting Member Roger Blood asked, "in which we bring the School Committee into our venue to discuss and debate what should be in the curriculum? We need to consider whether or not this provision would be encouraging that kind of change of venue on future articles."
Blood's amendment, which would remove the offending paragraph, was voted down. The entire article was approved, making Brookline's expression of regret for its slave-owning past official.
Annual Town Meeting continues Tuesday Night at 7 p.m., again at the Brookline High School Auditorium. Articles 12 and 28 will be the first articles discussed, to accomodate the high school petitioners' schedules.