Not So
Black & White: 
Busing in Boston

WGBH News' reporting by Phillip Martin

Michael Patrick MacDonald












White Schools
Got More

Black Schools
Got Less

“They were poor, we were poor, but they didn’t know they were poor. The amount of money that they [the Boston School Committee] allocated to … the black schools was around $250 per pupil. The white schools got double that amount--up at Hyde Park and Roslindale, they got $450 per student. But the South Boston kids got less than Roxbury! We tried to let the white people know in South Boston that they’re pitting us two poor people, fighting each other!”

--Kenneth Guscott, Boston's NAACP branch from 1963–1968, speaking about South Boston whites during the period when civil rights activists were fighting the Boston School Committee. Listen at 19:05 minutes in, on WBUR’s Radio Boston show of June 20, 2014.



A Dual School System

The Boston schools were consciously a dual system, that the black high schools started in ninth grade, and the white high schools started in tenth grade. So that it was very hard to desegregate schools in high school, because you were in a different kind of grade sequence.... And so Judge Garrity said everybody, all high schools, need to start in the ninth grade. And that meant that the white high schools, which were throughout the city of Boston, had to add a ninth grade.

--Marya Levenson, Brandeis University education professor, who was teaching in Boston during busing.

Boston Herald American, April 6, 1976

The front page of the Boston Herald American on April 6, 1976 captured a scene of racial violence in Boston in the years following forced busing and desegregation of Boston Public Schools. The now iconic image, "The Soiling of Old Glory," was taken by Herald photographer Stanely Forman in 1976 outside Boston City Hall. For more photos and Forman's accounting of that day, visit his website.    

Busing & Desegregation Forty Years Later

Social History & Context



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BOSTON'S 1974 BUSING RIOTS SHOCKED the nation. On national television, Americans watched white adults throwing stones at buses full of terrified black children as they were bused into previously all-white schools under federal court order. For many, the message was clear: "Liberal" Boston was a hotbed of racial hatred no less virulent than what had been seen in the South.

Usually, school segregation in the North is distinguished from that in the South by talking about law versus happenstance, de jure versus de facto. In this view, in the South, Jim Crow laws explicitly kept the races apart, while in the North, schools were segregated because people of different races sorted themselves into different neighborhoods.

But that’s too simplistic. In Boston, segregation was enforced by the policies and practices of real estate brokers, individual sellers, banks, and even the Federal Housing Administration. The city placed needy white and black families in separate public housing projects. Neighborhood boundaries were patrolled by violence.

More to the point, the Boston School Committee (BSC) gerrymandered school districts* to make sure that children on majority-black streets went to predominantly black schools, and created complex school feeder patterns to keep the races apart, with black middle and high schools starting and ending in different years than comparable white schools. Then the BSC allocated money differently based on neighborhoods. On average, Boston’s predominantly black schools were funded at rates about half of its predominantly white schools.

That stark discrimination in school funding—and the resulting difference in school qualityis what pushed the local NAACP and parents of black children to file Morgan v. Hennigan, a federal lawsuit charging intentional discrimination by the BSC.  

Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s 1974 opinion in Morgan held that “the entire school system of Boston is unconstitutionally segregated,” a conclusion that rested on the fact that “the defendants took many actions in their official capacities with the purpose and intent to segregate the Boston public schools and that such actions caused current conditions of segregation in the Boston public schools.”

  • See Louise Day Hicks's copy of Garrity's decision in Morgan here>

*See Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s detailed decision in Tallulah Morgan et al. v. James W. Hennigan, et al, June 21, 1974, or see excerpts at the Boston Busing /Desegregation Project.


Demographics, then and now

According to demographic data for Boston’s schools, hosted at the American Communities Project at Brown University (compared with U.S. census data), the system’s demographic composition has changed dramatically since busing.

Boston Demographics, city vs. public schools
Whites boycott black schools, Boston 1974

White students boycotted some schools as seen in this empty classroom. "Pam Bullard reviews the events of school desegregation in 1974," WGBH Media Library & Archives.

Funding Inequality

“When we would go to white schools we'd see these lovely classrooms, small sizes, a small number of children in each class. The teachers were permanent. Um, we'd see wonderful materials. When we'd go to our schools we would see overcrowded classrooms, children sitting out in the corridors, and so forth. And so then we decided that where there were a large number of white students, that's where the care went. That's where the books went. That's where the money went. In fact, we knew that there was more money being spent in certain schools, White schools--not all of them, but in certain White schools--than there, than there was being spent in Black schools. So therefore, our theory was move our kids into those schools where they're putting all of the resources so that they can get a better education.”

--Ruth Batson, former chairperson, Boston NAACP public school committee, in an interview with Jackie Shearer, 1988