Revisiting School Desegregation in Charlestown

By Phillip Martin

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Feb. 23, 2012


CHARLESTOWN, Mass. — From the fifth-floor window of Henry Mahegan’s 10th-grade classroom at Charlestown High, you can see the American flag flapping in the wind.

“This is called 'at half-mast,'” he explains to his students. “My question to you is: What does it mean when a flag is raised only halfway up the flagpole and what does it take to be honored in such a way?"
 
Mahegan, in his first full year of teaching history and civics, waits for an answer. The students use terms like “honor” and “respect.”
 
“That’s exactly it,” Mahegan says. Then he asks if anyone has heard of Kevin White.
 
“I heard about him in the newspaper,” says one girl, who is eager to speak.
 
White, whose presence dominated Boston politics for nearly three decades, registers in the minds of most of these 15- and 16-year-olds, but barely. So Mahegan presses on, projecting photos on a screen of buses lined up near Charlestown High School — the old building; the current structure was built in 1978, after three years of Boston's court-ordered school desegregation. The students say they've heard about what happened then.




Outside of the high school and several miles away, Ed Skeffington is recalling his experience 40 years ago. He was one of the white students waiting for black students to arrive by bus from Roxbury and Mattapan in September 1975. He used to roam the halls of the old Charlestown High, his neighborhood school. He lived two blocks away.
 
“I was never a violent protester. I was accused of that. I mean, lived right on the corner of Green and Bunker Hill Street when we were under martial law and I'd be right on my stairs," he says now. Police would tell him to move, and he would say he lived there.

Henry Mahegan
Charlestown teacher Henry Mahegan. (Phillip Martin/WGBH)
 

"A lot of blacks didn't want to get on the bus and come over to Charlestown. And I know for a fact a lot of whites didn't want to go over there, and not because they were black and white, just because it was a different neighborhood."

In 1975, Skeffington had just completed the 10th grade. “I didn’t know I was going to get bused until late August," he says. "So I left school, dropped out. Lost an education because of — probably Judge Garrity, is the main thing I would say.”
 
Skeffington was supposed to have been bused to Roxbury. And he holds federal judge Arthur Garrity responsible. Garrity passed away in 1999. As for the role of White, Skeffington says: "He was a puppet. It all come down to what Judge Garrity said. It was happening because Judge Garrity wanted it to happen. Mayor White, he had no control over it.”
 
Today, Skeffington in mid-life drives a truck for a meatpacking and poultry company. He’s a hard worker by all accounts but he often imagines what life would be like had he not dropped out of school in that first year of court-ordered desegregation.
 
“I probably would have finished high school, I’m pretty sure. I could've been, who knows, I could've been to college, I could've been an athlete in college. I could hit the ball better than anyone in the school probably,” he says.
 
Instead, he joined the Marines and got his GED.

Cathy Hennessey is Skeffington’s little sister. She was in elementary school at the time and school busing for her was altogether different: “I never had to get on the bus because I was allowed to go to my neighborhood school,” she says.
 
Hennessey was one of eight siblings growing up in various apartments and housing projects in Charlestown, which in 1975 became a symbol of white working-class resistance to desegregation.
 
“For one year, I went to school with other kids that came in from other parts of the city, and we became a group and the best of friends throughout years," she says. "And I’ve kept in contact with a lot of these people in my older years. But coming outside — it was two different worlds, inside the school and outside the school.”
 
And on this particular day inside Charlestown High School, dozens of students of various hues and tones pour into the hallways at the sound of the bell. Most come from across town. Only 10 percent of the high school’s nearly 800 students live in Charlestown.

charlestown high hallway

In the hallway of Charlestown H.S., once known for the neighborhood's opposition to integration, now hangs a poster of Obama. (Phillip Martin/WGBH)

 
Back in Mahegan’s class he picks up where he left off in teaching about the lessons of White, Garrity and the impact of court-ordered desegregation in Boston. Mahegan describes various incidents that accompanied busing in Charlestown in 1975 and beyond: the shooting of a black football player on the field, which left him paralyzed; attacks on black tourists at the Bunker Hill Monument; the dramatic dropout rate among white students like Skeffington.
 
One student asks: “Why did this happen?”
 
Forty years later, students — African Americans and Haitians, Chinese and Vietnamese, Irish Americans and Italian, Dominicans and Central Americans — find the details of the violence in and outside of Charlestown High almost unbelievable.
 
Mahegan has listened intently to the questions and the readings from his multiracial classroom. If anything, he finds that they are both curious about and bewildered by the era of court-ordered busing in this small, now-gentrified neighborhood. In the videos he showed the class, you could see buses coming right up the street outside the school. "And you can see the people out there throwing rocks at the buses. This didn’t happen in California. This didn’t happen in France. This happened right here on this street, on that football field. But for some kids, Charlestown is just where you go to school,” he says.   
 
That, for many students, is the lesson.

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