From roughly November 1894 to January 1897, 108 Charles Street was home to The Women’s Era, the first newspaper in the United States produced and funded by Black women. The newspaper played a key role in the holding of the first National Conference of Colored Women (which took place in Boston in 1895) and in the establishment of the National Association of Colored Women.
The newspaper grew out of the Women’s Era Club, an advocacy group for Boston-area Black women founded by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and her daughter Florida Ridley Ruffin, members of a small, but significant Black, upper-class community on the north side of Beacon Hill. The club, which allowed white women to join, had a wide array of interests, but primary were issues affecting the well-being of the Black community and racial equality.
The publication’s first issue came out on March 24, 1894. Soon the newspaper went national and became the leading publication for Black clubwomen across the country.
Like the Women’s Era Club, the newspaper championed women’s suffrage, while also focusing on a broader set of issues. They ranged from the activities of local clubs and matters of health and literature to poverty and education. The publication was, according to historian Teresa Blue Holden, one that “broadcast the perspectives of black women nationally and linked their interests with those of white American women who were also contributors to the paper.” Animated by a spirit that rejected divisions of class, race, and religion, the paper advocated for the well-being of all women.
The first few issues of the newspaper listed St. Augustine’s Trade School, an Episcopalian church-related institution at 185 Charles Street, as the home of The Women’s Era. By November 1894, however, presumably because it now had its own office, the building at 108 Charles Street was listed as the publication’s address. This address endured until the paper’s last issue, which was published in January 1897. A combination of declining financial resources and differences with the national club movement (many within perceived the newspaper as too radical) led to the publication’s demise.
The four-story building (106-108 Charles Street) in which The Women’s Era’s offices were located today houses commercial space on the ground floor and private residences above.
Red Lines to Charles/MGH Station. 0.1-mile (3-minute) walk.
The home of Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and the meeting place of the Women’s Era Club (founded in 1893, it existed until some point in the first decade of the 1900s), 103 Charles Street; it is diagonally across the street from the former offices of The Women’s Era.
To learn more:
Teresa Blue Holden, “Earnest women can do anything”: The public career of Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, 1842–1904, Ph.D. dissertation, Saint Louis University, 2005.
The former site of the Allston Golf Club, Braves Field, the home of the National League’s Boston Braves was the largest baseball stadium in the country when it opened in August 1915. Prior to then, the Braves had played, since the team’s founding in 1871, at the South End Grounds
While the neighboring American League Boston Red Sox—the last team in baseball to field a Black player—were long marked by racism, the Braves, by comparison, were a progressive team. One year after the Brooklyn Dodgers became the first major league team to field a Black player (Jackie Robinson), the Braves became the fifth one to do so when they debuted Sam “Jet” Jethroe in 1950. By 1952, the Braves’ last year in the city (they moved to Milwaukee), Boston’s National League team had three Black players on its roster. (Today, the team is located in Atlanta, where it maintains its racially offensive name, one first adopted in 1912.)
Boston University (BU) purchased Braves Field for $430,000 in 1953. Today it is the site of a university stadium called Nickerson Field, where BU’s men’s and women’s lacrosse and soccer teams play. The offices of the BU police department are in the original building that housed the Braves’ administrative offices. In the entry area (close to Braves Field Way), in back of the stadium, a small monument marks the site of what was Braves Field.
Green Line, B Branch to the Babcock Street stop. 0.4 mile (four-minute) walk.
To learn more:
Howard Bryant, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.
Ivory Bean was a mason. In 1855, he purchased a piece of land at what is today 47-49 Monmouth Street in Brookline’s Longwood neighborhood for the price of $11,400. The person from whom Bean bought the property was Amos A. Lawrence, a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist. It is thought that Bean might have worked for the Lawrence family.
Noteworthy is the restrictive language contained in the property deed. In addition to banning various forms of economic activity—including that of a soap boiler brewer, tanner, distiller, sugar baker, or brick maker—it also forbade the property’s “occupation by any negro or negroes” and “by any native or natives of Ireland.”
That Amos Lawrence had antipathy toward people of Irish descent is not especially remarkable as such sentiment was common among non-Catholic Greater Bostonians during the time. His hostility toward Black people, however, is somewhat striking as Lawrence was a prominent abolitionist. This seeming contradiction manifests, in addition to his own idiosyncrasies, the complexities of the society in which the textile merchant lived and his position with it.
As historian Catherine Devlin explains, Lawrence criticized “slavery without recognizing his own dependence on it.” He also “[opposed] its spread on political grounds rather than championing the end to an unethical practice.” As such, Lawrence “was both culpable for profiting from slavery and admirable for trying to prevent its spread, a man who was both racist and a self-proclaimed abolitionist.”
Also noteworthy about the racially restrictive covenant associated with the Ivory Bean property is its date. Historians typically trace the origins of racial covenants in the United States to the late 1800s. The 1920s marked a period of intense growth in their use—an outgrowth of a combination of factors: the Great Migration of Blacks from the U.S. South; a U.S. Supreme Court decision (in 1917) that outlawed the use of racial zoning by municipalities; and anti-Black race riots in many cities in the years 1917-1921. On the national level, racial covenants usually targeted Blacks, but, depending on the part of the country, also people of Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, and Mexican backgrounds. In Massachusetts, covenants barred people identified as Black, Irish, Italian, Polish, and the non-white broadly.
One cannot say with certainty when the first racially restrictive covenant came to be in the United States. (Many have mistakenly attributed the first racial covenant to a Brookline subdivision—“The Lindens”—created by Thomas Aspinwall Davis in 1843.*) But it is safe to say that the one Amos Lawrence imposed on the property of Ivory Bean is the earliest known instance of a racist property deed in Greater Boston and in the United States as a whole.
In approximately 1857, Ivory Bean built the house that now stands on the property. Today it is a private, multi-unit dwelling.
Green Line (D Branch) to Longwood station (0.3 miles, about a 6-minute walk), or Green Line (B Branch) to St. Mary’s Street (0.2 miles, about a 4-minute walk).
Anne Wardwell, “’Longwood’ and ‘Cottage Farm’ in Brookline,” in Pauline Chase Harrell and Margaret Supplee Smith (editors), Victorian Boston Today: Ten Walking Tours, Boston: New England Chapter, Victorian Society in America, 1975: 58-69.
Nearby site of interest:
Longwood Mall, Kent and Beech Streets. The mall is a two-and-a-half-acre linear park linear park with historic beech trees. It is thought to contain the oldest grove of European Beech trees in the United States.
Anne Wardwell (see above) is the first author known to have written about the restrictive covenant associated with the Ivory Bean house. A history Ph.D. dissertation completed at Boston University in 1981 was the first scholarly source to do so. The author, Ronald Dale Karr, wrote:
“Before zoning, the primary protection against attempts to lower the class status of a development was the restrictive covenant. Restrictive covenants were written into deeds at the time of the original sale, enforceable in court by other landowners. Nearly every Brookline subdivision aimed at the upper-middle-class market employed these controls. For example, the deeds received by buyers at Linden Place in 1843 required that all buildings be erected at least thirty feet away from the street and ‘that the only buildings to be erected or placed upon said parcels shall be dwelling houses and their appurtenances exclusive of all yards, shops, or other conveniences for manufacturing or mechanical purposes.’ In Longwood, deeds from the Sears and Lawrence families commonly forbade commercial uses of the land for twenty years from the time of sale, and some varied detailed restrictions on the type of buildings that could be constructed. One even prohibited buildings to be occupied ‘by any negro or native of Ireland.'”
In the footnote associated with this text, Karr said that “This is the only example I uncovered of a restrictive covenant aimed at a racial, ethnic, or religious group.”
Historian Kenneth Jackson drew on Karr’s dissertation in his award-winning book Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). Here’s the relevant excerpt:
“Meanwhile, the use of uniform setback lines and the preference for centering a house to equalize both side yards created a homogeneous statement that enabled residents to eradicate many vestiges of the heterogeneity that characterized the cities they had fled. For example, in 1843, deeds for the lots in the Linden Place subdivision in Brookline, Massachusetts, included the provision that houses be erected at least 30 feet from the street and ‘that the only buildings to be erected and placed upon said parcels shall be dwelling houses.’ As the century progressed, deeds forbade sales to ‘any negro or native of Ireland.’”
Note that the excerpt implies that the racially restrictive covenant was associated with the Linden Place subdivision and also suggests that such covenants were multiple in number (i.e. “deeds forbade sales”). Jackson’s work thus distorts what Karr wrote in his dissertation. (Karr turned the dissertation into a book in 2018–see above.)
Subsequent authors have drawn on Jackson’s influential book regarding the origins of the racial covenant and have thus reproduced the original misrepresentation.
Finally, it is important to note that racial covenants stand out because of their formal nature. There were (and are), of course, all sorts of other, less formal means, by which homeowners, neighborhoods, and real estate interests have excluded negatively racialized individuals to maintain relative homogeneity in particular locales. (See, for example, here and James Loewen’s Sundown Towns.)
Thanks to Jesus MacLean and Camille Arbogast, curators at the Brookline Historical Society, and to Ken Liss, President of the Brookline Historical Society, for their assistance. Thanks as well to Stephanie Call, the Associate Director of Archives and Education, Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
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.
Red Line to Harvard Square Station. About a 0.6 mile (12-minute) walk via Mt. Auburn Street.