Massachusetts Hall (Harvard University)

Harvard Yard, Cambridge`

A Living Wage banner frames tents in Harvard Yard, where supporters of students occupying Massachusetts Hall were camping out overnight, May 1, 2001. Staff photo by Jon Chase/Harvard News Office.

Twenty-five students exited Massachusetts Hall on May 8, 2001, to cheers and applause of two thousand people gathered outside. The students’ departure marked the end of a 21-day occupation of the university’s oldest extant building, within which is located the offices of Harvard’s president, The action was the culmination of a four-year campaign by Harvard’s Progressive Students Labor Movement (PSLM) to compel the university to pay its employees a living wage—one sufficient for workers to provide for their basic needs. At the time, a living wage in Cambridge was $10.25/hour, plus benefits; the federal minimum wage was $5.15. Harvard’s endowment was about $20 billion.

Although the sit-in divided students and faculty, large numbers of people within the Harvard community backed the PSLM and the workers. Within a week, hundreds began rallying outside Massachusetts Hall each day. A “tent city” was erected in front, with scores sleeping there nightly. Hundreds of Harvard faculty members signed a letter calling for a living wage and voicing support for the sit-in. And university janitors and custodians organized rallies. Meanwhile, high-profile figures visited the occupied building—including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and U.S Senator Ted Kennedy—and national media reported the story.

Eventually, working through intermediaries, the PSLM was able to gain important concessions, ones that allowed the university to save face. The resulting agreement led to the sit-in’s end. The accord promised the creation of a new committee, one headed by an economics professor, Lawrence Katz, and that included two union workers and two PSLM members, to study and make recommendations regarding the economic wellbeing of Harvard’s lowest-paid workers. The University also pledged to begin negotiations with the union of custodians for a new contract, and a moratorium on the outsourcing of Harvard positions (among other concessions).

The Katz Committee, as it came to be known, released its report in December 2001. While it did not back a living wage tied to inflation (and thus regular increases), it did recommend a one-time wage increase to $11.35 for the University’s lowest-paid workers and a parity policy to ensure that Harvard did not pay subcontracted workers less than what they paid those they directly employed. Writing in 2003, Greg Halpern estimated that the resulting changes in wages led to an annual redistribution of $3,738,000 from Harvard to more than one thousand employees.

Designed and built between 1718 and 1720, Massachusetts Hall has been the target of student activists over the last several decades. In 1972, for instance, Black students associated with the Pan-African Liberation Committee occupied offices in the building to protest the refusal of the Harvard Corporation (the University’s most powerful governing board) to sell its stock in Gulf Oil in light of the company’s involvement in Angola, at the time still a Portuguese colony. The students also demanded that Harvard issue “a public statement that it will not be involved in racist imperialist adventures in the future.” And during the Twenty-Teens students blockaded and occupied the building on various occasions to pressure the University to divest from fossil-fuel companies.

The second oldest, still-surviving academic building in the United States, Massachusetts Hall housed hundreds of George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War. Today, offices of Harvard’s top administrators occupy most of the first three floors; first-year students reside on the fourth.

Massachusetts Hall. Photo by Daderot, March 31, 2007. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Getting there:

Red Line to Harvard Station.

To learn more:

Victoria Baena, “A Decade Ago, Another Occupation,” The Harvard Crimson, December 1, 2011.

Robert Decherd, The CRIMSON Staff, and Daniel Swanson, “Black Students Seize Mass Hall,” The Harvard Crimson, April 20, 1972.

Shin Eu-jung, Verita$: Harvard’s Hidden History, Oakland: PM Press, 2015.

Greg Halpern, Harvard Works Because We Do, New York: The Quantuck Lane Press, 2003.

Benjamin McKean, “The Beginning of the End,” The Harvard Crimson, May 9, 2001.

Rachel Traughber, “A College, 98 Feet Long,” The Harvard Gazette, May 4, 2018.

Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory and Ohiri Field (Harvard University)

13 Frisbie Place, Cambridge, and 95 North Harvard Street, Allston

Beginning in 1941, research on incendiary weapons development took place in the Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge. The third-floor lab—”a glass-walled room-within-a-room” in the words of historian Robert Neer—was under the direction of Dr. Louis Fieser, a professor of organic chemistry. An official, top-secret project of the U.S. Department of War, Fieser’s work was listed as “Anonymous Research No. 4” in Harvard’s records.

Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory, 1929-1931. Credit: HUV 2329 (BP 51), Harvard University Archives.

The research was the offspring of what was a marriage of sorts between academia, the U.S. military, and weapons manufacturers brought about by the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). Established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940, the NDRC sought to enhance research on, and development of, military weaponry by building linkages between civilian researchers, the Pentagon, and industry. It was the brainchild of Vannever Bush, one of the founders of Raytheon (today Raytheon Technologies headquartered in Waltham*) and an electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bush designated James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard, as the head of “Division B,” which was responsible for bombs, fuels, gases, and chemical problems.

Soon after the NDRC’s founding, Harvard assigned Fieser two rooms in the basement of the Converse Chemistry Laboratory (at 12 Oxford Street) to conduct research on explosives. As the research of Fieser and his team progressed, it shifted from poison gas to incendiary gels, requiring a move to the nearby Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory.

On July 4, 1942, Fieser and his fellow researchers brought the fruits of their labor to the Harvard soccer field, near the university tennis courts and the Harvard Business School, across the Charles River in the Boston neighborhood of Allston. University workers had prepared the field, digging a circle 60 feet in diameter, which firefighters from the City of Cambridge proceeded to fill with water. Fieser and others then carefully placed a 70-pound bomb containing white phosphorous and 45 pounds of jellied gasoline on a metal stand in the middle of the shallow pond. After Fieser flipped a switch, “a spectacular, billowing, 2,100-degree-Fahrenheit cloud arose over the field,” writes Neer. “Napalm bombs had arrived in the world.”  

July 4, 1942, Harvard soccer field. The first outdoor test of napalm. Source: Harvard Magazine.

The success of the test reflected how Fieser and his team had invented not only napalm, but a way to scatter the gruesome substance over a wide area, while igniting it. Liquid and gel incendiary weapons have a long, even ancient, history. What makes napalm an especially effective (and terrifying) weapon is that it is sticky and it burns at an extremely high temperature.

Louis Fieser, April 1965, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Source: Public Domain.

The U.S. military used napalm to horrific effect in Japan during World War II and in the U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam. The Pentagon also used the weapon during its invasion of Iraq in 2003. For such reasons, napalm is symbolic for many of the horrors of war and of U.S. military power in particular.

The Wolcott Gibbs Laboratory was constructed in 1911-1912. A couple of weeks before it opened, The Harvard Crimson described the building as “the most perfectly planned and equipped physical-chemical laboratory in the world.” Harvard demolished the facility in 1999 to allow for the construction of the Bauer Life Sciences Building, which now stands on the site.

As for the Harvard soccer field, it was renovated and named Ohiri Field in 1983. (It is unclear if Ohiri Field sits on the exact same site as the old soccer field, but, most likely, at the very least, it overlaps with it.) Until 2010, Ohiri Field served as the primary home field for the Harvard men’s and women’s soccer teams. Since the opening of a new stadium called Jordan Field, Ohiri Field has served as the secondary home for the two teams.

Ohiri Field (undated) with Harvard Stadium, which sits on the other side of North Harvard Street, in the background. Source: Harvard Athletics.

Getting there:

Red Line to Harvard station. Enter Frisbie Place (a walkway that is diagonally across from where Quincy Street intersects Kirkland ) at Kirkland Street. The part of Frisbie Place where Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory once stood is a now a combination of a courtyard and, at its northern end, the Bauer Life Sciences Building (0.4 miles, about an 8-minute walk.) From there, Ohiri Field is a one-mile (approximately 20-minute) walk. MBTA buses from Harvard Square also pass in front of Ohiri Field.

To learn more:

Anonymous, “Gibbs Laboratory Ready,” The Harvard Crimson, December 20, 1912.

Louis F. Fieser, The Scientific Method: A Personal Account of Unusual Projects in War and in Peace, New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1964.

Robert M. Neer, Napalm: An American Biography, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

*Regarding Raytheon, see the site entry in A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.


Thanks to the Harvard University Archives and to Baker Library Special Collections (Harvard Business School) for their assistance.

Joshua Bowen Smith Catering Business

City Hall Plaza (formerly 16 Brattle Street), Downtown

Photo of Joshua Bowen Smith cropped from a larger photo showing ten Massachusetts state representatives in 1874. Public domain.

In 1861, as Massachusetts rallied for the Civil War, abolitionist Joshua Bowen Smith, one of just five Black restaurateurs in the state, fed the state’s 12th Regiment for a period of three months, incurring a sizable outlay, $40,378. On presentation of the bill to the governor, John Andrew, himself an abolitionist, the state refused to pay. However, it did reimburse white restaurateurs. Such discrimination was the norm. According to a historian of the period, Black business people operated in “constant fear” that white clientele would not pay. Eight years later, following a lawsuit, Smith received partial compensation, insufficient however to save his business and rendering him indebted until his death in 1879.

Prior to those events, Smith grew a lucrative catering and then restaurant business serving both Harvard University and the abolitionist movement. His staff included formerly enslaved people, many living as fugitives from the South. Their employment was thus in defiance of federal law. Such a stance was consistent with Smith’s commitments. He was a leader of the Boston Vigilance Committee and founder of the New England Freedom Association, a fugitive slave assistance group founded by African Americans.

After the Civil War, Smith enjoyed enough public support to be win election to the state legislature in 1873. His many legislative activities included persuading the state to erect the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial across from the Massachusetts State House and advising his close friend Senator Charles Sumner on the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875.

Smith’s home at 79 Norfolk Street, Cambridge, is today part of that city’s African American Heritage Trail. Smith harbored people fleeing enslavement in his home, which served as stop on the Underground Railroad in the years preceding the Civil War.

Map of Scollay Square, circa 1851. Red area is center of the square. Source: And This Is Good Old Boston.

As for the former site of his catering business, the City of Boston eradicated Brattle Street as part of the larger razing of Scollay Square in 1962. The business would have stood on what is today the southern end of City Hall Plaza. In Smith’s time, the area was home to key institutions associated with the abolitionist movement. Located one block away, on Cornhill Street, for example, were the offices of the famed abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, and John P. Jewett and Company, publisher of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Getting there:

Blue Line or Green Line to Government Center station.

To learn more:

Kelly Erby, Restaurant Republic: The Rise of Public Dining in Boston. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.*

Related site:

Smith is buried at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

*The book mistakenly reports that Joshua Bowen Smith’s catering business was located on Brattle Street in Cambridge, instead of Boston.

Red Sun Press

94 Green Street, Jamaica Plain

Printed by Red Sun Press, circa 1976. The Boston Committee for Medical Aid to El Salvador poster (undated) was also printed by Red Sun Press, probably during the 1980s.

Founded in 1973 by individuals active in the anti-war, civil rights, environmental, and women’s rights movements, Red Sun Press is a worker-owned and -run printing cooperative. It began with $350 and a small printing press in a basement in Cambridge. In the mid-1980s, it moved to Jamaica Plain.

Red Sun is a socially- and environmentally-responsible business. It uses ecologically sustainable paper, recycles all its wastepaper and utilizes vegetable-based inks. The print shop’s profits are distributed fairly among its workers, all of whom are union members (United Auto Workers, Local 1596).

A progressive “movement” press, Run Sun has designed and printed countless activist posters, calendars, and pamphlets over its more than 40 years of existence.

Red Sun Press, March 2017.

Getting there:

Orange Line to Green Street Station.  Upon exiting the station, go left on Green Street. Red Sun Press is on the right side of street, on the corner of Lamartine Street. (0.1 mile, about a two-minute walk.)

To learn more:

Red Sun Pres website:

Talia Whyte, “Social conscience is key for J.P. printer,” The Bay State Banner, September 30, 2009.

W. E. B. Du Bois Residence

20 Flagg Street, Cambridge

W. E. B. DuBois, circa 1907. Public domain, Credit:

One of the great civil and human rights advocates of the 20th century and a major public intellectual, W. E. B. Du Bois rented a room at this house from 1890 to 1893 while a graduate student at Harvard University. In 1895, he became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard.

Du Bois, a strong opponent of accommodationist approaches to race relations and an unwavering advocate of full civil rights for African Americans, was politically allied with Boston’s William Monroe Trotter.* Together, they helped to found, in 1905, the Niagara Movement, a forerunner to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1910, Du Bois became the editor of the NAACP’s monthly magazine, The Crisis.

One of the founders of modern sociology, Du Bois was the author of Black Reconstruction in America (1935). His most famous work, among his many books, is The Souls of Black Folk. First published in 1903, it is a collection of essays on race, labor, and culture. In it, he famously decried “the problem of the color line” as “the problem of the Twentieth Century.”

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868, Du Bois was active in the Pan-Africanist movement. In 1961, he joined the U.S. Communist Party, and then moved to Accra, Ghana, where he died in 1963.

The house at 20 Flagg Street, part of the Cambridge African American Heritage Trail, has a historical marker about Du Bois in front of it. In the 1980s, Harvard sold the building. It is now a private home.

20 Flagg Street, 2017. Photo by Eleni Macrakis.

Getting there:

Red Line to Harvard Square Station. About a 0.6 mile (12-minute) walk via Mt. Auburn Street.

*Regarding William Monroe Trotter, see the site entry associated with his home in Dorchester in A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.