Not So
Black & White: 
Busing in Boston

WGBH News' reporting by Phillip Martin

Michael Patrick MacDonald


Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary School, Sixth Grade Class, 1974

Where did these student essays come from? In June 2014, Brandeis sociology professor David Cunningham, a researcher and nationally recognized expert on civil rights issues, discovered a hand-typed “book” of essays written by sixth graders at Dorchester’s Oliver Wendell Holmes School, which had previously been overwhelmingly black.

One teacher had assigned and collected these essays, in which students reflected on the 1974-1975 school year. 

When they were completed, typed, and bound, the school mailed them to Boston’s then-mayor Kevin White.

Cunningham found this collection as the Boston city archives were processing White’s papers for the city archives. As far as we know, this website  is the first time these reflections have been seen publicly.

The essays themselves demonstrate clearly and compellingly that "busing" was not a monolithic thing, but rather something that looked different in different places, and also that meant different things to students even within a single school or classroom. For instance, we see in the essays that some students lived in the neighborhood, while others had been in schools elsewhere in the city the year before; some were with their friends while others knew no one at the start of the year; some used Charlestown and South Boston as reference points while others found those charged situations to be far from their own experience; some were scared and others comfortable, etc.

A number of the essays incorporate students' reflections on how their experiences at the Holmes contrast with the better-known flashpoint schools (such as South Boston and Charlestown) that, inevitably, provide fodder for retrospective news stories. As a predominantly black school that bused in white students to an area of the city (Dorchester) that looks quite different from the footage we repeatedly see from Southie, etc., Holmes seems an ideal site for considering varied experiences associated with busing and the ways that those experiences might have shaped these kids' lives in the forty years since..

--Brandeis Sociology Professor
David Cunningham


Oliver Wendell Holmes School, Boston, Boston Public Archives


Busing & Desegregation Forty Years Later

Sixth Graders' Essays 
 on Integration


TO JUDGE BY THE NATIONAL NEWS, all Boston rioted over busing. But that didn’t happen when the mostly black Oliver Wendell Holmes Middle School in Dorchester was integrated by having white children bused in. One class of sixth graders found the experience to be far less frightening than the adults had led them to believe.

These children’s year-end essays offer a fascinating glimpse into the minds of those students. Anxiety may have preceded integration, but by spring, the students seem just as absorbed by far more ordinary experiences: weekly trips to the zoo, finding friends, taking the exam and hoping to get into the public but exclusive Boston Latin School, hoping to be a stewardess or a zoologist.

OW Holmes School 6th grade essays, Boston, Boston & Busing

                Essays 1-17Essays 18-31

Essay Highlights 

Reading these essays, it is difficult to tell, at first, whether the writer is white or black. What stands out is how many kids echo the impressions of one white student, a girl, who wrote: “I was a little scared when I first heard about integration…. after awhile, I really didn’t think of it as integration. I thought that all the people were alike, and I noticed that we were all kind of nervous.” Similarly, one black student, a girl, wrote: “I think integration turned out better than everyone expected. Now people are wondering why did I keep my child out of school half the year.”

All the essays follow the same outline, making it easy to conclude that the teacher offered a set of prompts, asking what they thought about integration before the year started, what their experience was, what was fun about the year, what else stood out, and what their hopes were for the year to come. Even so, the overall impression is that the students were no more absorbed by integration than with other memorable parts of their school year, like going to the zoo and having a really great school Christmas party. They also write about notable events such as Gerald Ford’s visit to Boston for the bicentennial, getting to go to the Hale Reservation, taking the exam to get into the Boston Latin School, wanting to be stewardesses (mentioned twice!), whether the teachers are mean or nice, and who their best friends are.

Except where we have received permission to use names, students are identified as male or female.

Essay #1, boy:

...I had Mr. Mulkern for a homeroom teacher; it was a good class and I made new friends. A few days after that we saw movies, then we went home and were stoned. Three months after that we had a Christmas party and movies; later we also went roller skating. Everyone had a fun time. Mr. Mulkern said he didn’t have too much fun…. This month we are going roller skating again and nobody knows if Mr. Mulkern will have fun this time or not.

Essay #9, Julie Hannigan:

In some ways busing is good and in some ways bad. It is nice to know that some of the two races can get along. I’m sorry for those who can’t. I think that when they brought up integration, they picked the wrong place. Perhaps South Boston ruined the whole idea. But here at the Holmes, both races get along fine. I’ve hardly seen a fight between a white and a black, and for that matter, hardly a fight at all. Where my little brother goes to school, there is one fight after another. Integration is a good idea except for those who can’t face up to it….

This year is the best year I’ve ever had. Busing is the big issue this year. Mostly in South Boston. South Boston is where the action is. With kids getting stabbed, and large crowds around the school yelling and screaming, police cars being turned over, people being attacked by mobs, buses being rocked by students, then people saying they’re not prejudiced! That’s crazy! But during January, things quieted down.

Essay #10, girl: 

When I discovered I was going to be bused, I felt anxiety…. Busing is a new ‘weird’ word….

I never gave integration much thought. Some of the kids are nice and some are not. Some of the black kids are good and some are bad. The same is true with the white kids…. There are mostly black kids there but I would rather have been in an evenly balanced school. I think busing is dumb. People should go to any school they wish. It seems like kids are being pushed from one place to another….

Now that it’s the end of the school year I realize I’ve made a lot of friends.

Essay #12, Sonia Ifill:

To begin with, I didn’t want to be bused anywhere. I was afraid I would be all alone. Because sometimes it is hard to make friends with strangers. But I found a few friends. I was a little bit happier. Sometimes I’m happy, but most of the time I’m scared I might get into trouble. … I don’t know exactly why, but I did not want to go to this school. I wanted to stay in the fifth grade….

I’m hoping for a happy, peaceful year [next year, and I think I’ll have one in the seventh grade but in high schools like Roxbury, English, Hyde Park, and South Boston, they won’t.

Essay #13, Mark Jaworski:

When I heard that I might be bused to another school with a lot of blacks in it, I didn’t want to go. I never spent a whole year with blacks before.... I knew that some blacks were mean and I didn’t want to get hit or anything like that. I thought that there wouldn’t be anyone that I knew there.

My first friendship came when I was sitting in the back row of the class. I think I was working when he started talking to me. Horace was my first friend, until I started talking to another boy named Alfred. Surprisingly enough, both of them were blacks, but as it turned out they were both good friends. I don’t like being bused, but since I made a couple of friends, and I would have to come here anyway, I don’t complain...

I don’t want to go to the Holmes school again because I don’t really like it at all. I don’t like it because it looks cruddy and I think that the Latin School has a better inside than the Holmes.

Essay #16, girl:

I was a little scared when I first heard about integration. I was never integrated before. Then, after awhile, I really didn’t think of it as integration. I thought that all the people were alike, and I noticed that we were all kind of nervous. I think that everything is going good now. Things have cooled off a lot. I’m glad they have

Essay #17, girl:

Before I started school at the Holmes I thought this year was going to be good. I thought I would meet a lot of new friends, both black and white. But most of all I would be eating hot lunches in school. I also thought that there might be lots of fights. I thought I would have mean teachers at the Holmes. At first I thought I would be bused out of Dorchester. But I wasn’t and I’m glad because none of the black or white children bother me. My first impression of my classmates were friendly. I would talk to all of the people.
[white. ]

Essay #19, Cynthia Martin:

Integration is a good thing and a bad thing. It is good because the blacks and the whites can get to know each other and their ways. It is bad because they think they can’t get along.

This year was the best year of my life. I met lots of new friends both black and white….

I do want to be in an integrated school again. I had the best time of my life this year.

Essay #20, Elerose Nelson:

When I heard I was going to an integrated school I felt better because I thought it would be nice to have some white friends because some of the black people thought they were the best in the land….

But this year has been a very rewarding year. We are going on trips, having parties, and as long as we do our work, Mr. Mulkern will take us places. But if we give him a hard time, he will make us work until we learn what we have to learn. I can’t say I blame him….

My mother said once that we’re going to move. She said she was tired of living in that apartment house. She said she was going to buy a house. But then the people put the price higher, and it wasn’t worth it, so we didn’t move again.

Essay #23, girl:

p>This school isn’t so bad after all. I think the parents should be blamed for all the fights. After all, if they didn’t make such a fuss about it the kids would not have fought in the first place.

Essay #25, girl:

When I heard that there was going to be busing, I was afraid of being bused to some place entirely new. I never could really understand why everyone couldn’t just go to a school in their own neighborhood. I thought it would be the way it was in the old days when the blacks had to sit in the back of the bus. I didn’t have too many thoughts about integration, because I went to an integrated school last year. But I thought there would be a lot of trouble. I think integration turned out better than everyone expected. Now people are wondering why did I keep my child out of school half the year.

I got into a little trouble here and there, but it really didn’t affect my learning. I learned a lot this year, but the most important thing was that you don’t judge people by their outer covering.