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Studying Struggle and Sacrifice

Gerald GillWith his city- and University-wide research, History Professor Gerald Gill sheds light on Boston's complicated racial history, explores the role Tufts students played in the civil rights movement, and uncovers previously unknown information about race relations at the University during the 20th century.


Professor Gerald Gill is not a native Bostonian. He is, as he says with an exaggeratedly thick accent, "a native Noo Yawkuh." But Gill, who has taught American History at Tufts since 1980, has immersed himself in both the University's and the city's racial history - partly, he says, to "make peace with the city in which I found myself."

"I became interested in looking at race relations and African-American protests in Boston largely because many of my friends from graduate school asked me questions about why I was staying in Boston," says Gill. "Boston doesn't have the best reputation in terms of being a city that's hospitable towards African-Americans. There are people who would argue that Boston is the most racist city in the United States."

Through his research, Gill hopes to illuminate both the positive and negative elements of Boston's racial history.

"I don't think you can apply the racist label to any city: each city has its own racial problems; and each city has its own racial and racialized history. I think it's an error to say that one city is 'the most racist city in the US,'" says Gill, who is working on a book entitled Struggling Yet in Freedom's Birthplace, about race relations in Boston during the middle third of the 20th century.

"I tell people, 'Rodney King did not get beaten in Boston, Abner Louima was not reamed by Boston police officers, and Amadou Diallo was not killed by Boston police officers,'" says the Lafayette College graduate, who also earned master's and doctoral degrees from Howard University before he began teaching at Tufts. "Each city has its own racialized history."

As does each University - and thanks to Gill's research, that of Tufts has been brought to light. Through multiple exhibits in the University's Aidekman Arts Center, Gill has presented his findings on African-American students' academic, social and athletic experiences at Tufts over the years. Through a grant from the Faculty Diversity Initiative, Gill is currently working with the University Archives to put these exhibits online.

"That way, [they] will be available to anyone, wherever she or he may be, to go online and look at the exhibits," Gill says.

Gill's exploration of the history of African-Americans at Tufts began in the late 1980s, when Karen Massey, a student in his African-American History course who graduated in 1990, asked him about black students who may have attended Tufts before World War II.

"I was intrigued by her question," says Gill, who says he had his first exposure to African-American history when the church he attended as a child celebrated "what was then referred to as Negro History Week." "That's when I decided to go through University publications and get a sense of the history of African-American students at Tufts."

But when Gill began trying to do so, he hit a wall.

"In Russell Miller's volumes of A Light on the Hill," says Gill, referring to the most well-known chronicle of Tufts' history, "there's very little that deals with African-American students. So I decided to fill in the gaps."

And that's just what he's done, piecing together a complex narrative of the history of African-American students at Tufts - a history that goes back farther than many people expect.

"People have been very surprised, because sometimes there's an assumption that African- American students may not have attended Tufts until the mid-to-late 1960s. But the first African-American student that I've been able to identify as having graduated from Tufts was in 1909," Gill says. "His name was Forrester B. Washington and he was from Salem, MA."

"I'm still doing research to try to find out when the first African-American male and female student actually enrolled at Tufts, because, to its credit, Tufts didn't codify students on the basis of race in the 19th century, nor was there any designation [of race] in university records," he continues.

"On the one hand, Tufts was taking a rather progressive step 100 years ago. But it's frustrating for me as a scholar," he adds, laughing, "because there's no notation! But it says something about the University's commitment, and it's one of the reasons I believe Tufts may have had African-American students before 1900 - probably because the school was founded by men who were anti-slavery and who may have had a commitment to egalitarianism that many of their contemporaries did not."

Gill discovered that during the immediate post-WWII period, a small number of Tufts students "began to call attention to the fact that there was discrimination and segregation and exclusion in sororities and fraternities on the basis of religion and race." In fact, in what Gill calls "a matter of principled courage," two Tufts sororities were expelled from their national organizations in 1956 because they extended bids to black female students.

The issue of racial and religious discrimination by fraternities and sororities was finally resolved in 1963, by which time other racial issues had begun to suffuse the campus.

"There was no real commentary on campus in the latter part of the 1950s in terms of the national civil rights movement," Gill says. But in 1960, black college students in the South began to "sit in" at lunch counters in department stores to protest segregation at those counters, and some Tufts students expressed their support of sit-ins.

"A small number of black and white students at Tufts were part of a Boston-area organization called EPIC that would pass out flyers in Medford Square, Davis Square, Harvard Square, urging shoppers not to patronize Woolworth's or any other department stores whose southern affiliates did not serve black customers at lunch counters," Gill says.

"They would also engage in fundraising efforts," he continues, adding that because the organization "was set up largely to support sit-ins, it dissipated shortly after the sit-in movement began to decline by late 1960, early 1961. So there was a relative dearth of civil rights activities on the Tufts campus in 1961 and 1962."

Gerald Gill

"There was a raising of the civil rights consciousness on campus at the same time that the civil rights movement, typically between 1963 and 1965, is starting to reach its peak in terms of national news coverage, and also in terms of the winning of civil rights victories and stirring the conscience of individuals of all races across the country."

In 1962, however, a college-level organization called the Northern Student Movement (NSM) was formed to support the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the South, and also to address inequities - particularly educational ones - in northern urban centers. NSM chapters cropped up at northern universities including Yale, the University of Pennsylvania - and Tufts.

"The purpose of [Tufts' branch of] this organization was to involve itself in fundraising efforts in behalf of SNCC, but also to support tutoring efforts in Roxbury," Gill says. "The students who were in NSM were male and female; white as well as black. In fact, one of the current Tufts trustees, Ed Swan, was a member of NSM."

"Many of the students who were involved in tutoring campaigns got a sense of the nature of de facto segregation in the Boston public schools," continues Gill, adding that during the boycott campaigns in Boston in 1963 and 1964, "Tufts students would be tutors in some of the 'freedom schools' [schools that opposed segregation]."

At the same time, the national civil rights movement was gaining steam, thanks in part to one of its most famous events: the March on Washington.

"Because the March on Washington took place in the summer of 1963, when school wasn't in session, I haven't been able to ascertain a Tufts presence at the March on Washington," Gill continues. "People might have gone as individuals, but there wasn't a delegation from Tufts."

Following the march, though, Tufts students and alumni - particularly those who were graduates of the divinity school - became increasingly active in civil rights activities.

"Alumni from the Divinity School - ordained ministers - would go to the South and involve themselves either in freedom summer activities or voter registration activities," Gill says. "Some of these individuals would then come back to speak about their experiences."

Those experiences included jail time.

"One individual by the name of J.D. Smith - he was a graduate of Tufts, but not a divinity student - was a white male who was arrested twice in Mississippi, and then there were two recent graduates of the divinity school who had been arrested in Selma, Alabama in 1965," Gill adds.

"So this is a raising of the civil rights consciousness on campus at the same time that the civil rights movement, typically between 1963 and 1965, is starting to reach its peak in terms of national news coverage, and also in terms of the winning of civil rights victories and stirring the conscience of individuals of all races across the country," Gill continues.

Though Gill says Tufts students "were largely involved in campaigns that dealt with the poor quality of education in Boston public schools," he also notes that "there were other civil rights issues in Boston that Tufts students themselves were not involved in."

It is these issues - which include urban renewal, employment discrimination, housing discrimination and police brutality - on which Gill focuses in Struggling Yet in Freedom's Birthplace.

"I don't necessarily focus on school desegregation because it's been covered so extensively in some of the existing monographs," he says. "I focus more on housing and employment issues."

Gill's research on those subjects has been extensive: in addition to combing records held by the NAACP and CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality), he's searched black newspapers that were published in Boston, census data and research collections housed in the city and other archives throughout the Northeast.

Though Gill does not employ a research assistant, several of his former students have conducted research on Tufts' and Boston's racial histories that has supplemented his own. "My work on Tufts has benefited from that undertaken by Ellen Hessmer, David Finkelman and Amy Rutenburg," Gill says.

He is currently in the process of completing oral interviews with Boston racial activists - a personal but difficult brand of research.

"Many Boston activists feel that academics have generally looked at their communities - particularly Roxbury and North Dorchester - as being communities of pathologies, so therefore they don't wish to talk to people who aren't familiar with the strengths of these communities and the vibrancy of social change organizations," he explains.

Gill, however, doesn't fall into that category.

"I live in Cambridge, but I work with a considerable number of groups and organizations in Boston, so that gives me a sense of legitimacy, as being a professional who works on the other side of the river," he says.

Gill has earned a high degree of legitimacy in the Tufts community as well. A longstanding favorite among undergraduates, he was the first professor to be named Professor of the Year by the Tufts Community Union Senate, he was a recipient of the Leibner Award, the first recipient of the Lerman-Neubauer Prize and he has twice won the Carnegie Foundation's Massachusetts Professor of the Year award.

The affection between the Tufts community and Gill is mutual.

"I had a cousin, Roy, who graduated from Tufts in 1980," Gill says. "The story in our family is that Roy so liked Tufts that he decided a member of our family should always be there. Roy graduated in June 1980. I started in September 1980."

And he's been observing the climate of activism on the Tufts campus ever since.

"Certainly there was a great deal of black student activism throughout the decade of the 1970s, which is why my cousin had a rather positive view of Tufts while he was here," Gill says.

Though he says student activism is consistently present at Tufts, Gill notes that the issues vary over time.

"Now you're starting to see forms of student activism [resulting in] course offerings in Latino-Latina studies, and also Asian-American studies," Gill says. "Many of these coalitions on behalf of Latino-Latina and Asian-American studies are multiracial."

Another example of current student activism is Project REPEAL, which "deals with issues related to teenage detention and also curfews in the city of Somerville."

Other Tufts students have more directly carried on the torch of their 1960s predecessors, working to encourage African-American youths to involve themselves in educational pursuits.

"For five years, Tufts students were involved in the Nia [a Swahili word meaning purpose] project," Gill continues. "Nia is an effort by black students at Tufts to work with students of African descent in Medford and Somerville; to encourage them to consider going to college, and also to be involved in mentoring and after-school activities.

"There are other examples that I haven't mentioned," Gill says. "But these are all ongoing efforts that have been and are still being undertaken by Tufts students on behalf of educational change and concerns of racial and economic justice."


Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006 Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at this July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.

Cover Photo:
A photograph of a Tufts student printed in the 1970 Tufts Yearbook.

Header and Inside Image:
Student rally against racism, February 19, 1987 Courtesy Tufts Digital Collections and Archives.

This story originally ran on Jan. 31, 2005