Roxbury: glimmers of hope amid racial suspicion

The William Monroe Trotter public school in Boston's Roxbury section illustrates the potential for progress in a community once torn by riot.

Opened in 1969 - two years after Roxbury's riots - the school quickly gained a reputation for good-quality education that now attracts students from all over Boston. White parents from all sections of the city - including South Boston and Charlestown, where violence against blacks remains a problem - enroll their children in the interracial school in the heart of a black community.

''We have only one opening for every 5 applicants,'' says Barbara Jackson, the principal. Trotter School offers programs ranging from black history month to science fairs, from campus Olympics to a choir featured on television.

''We are family at Trotter, not white, not black,'' she says.

A number of community leaders would like to see such attitudes more widespread in Boston, which is facing a number of serious racial problems.

When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People last met here in 1967, the city was emerging from a racial riot that erupted in Roxbury. This outburst followed riots in Detroit, Watts (Los Angeles), and other urban areas.

Today, Roxbury - home for more than 40 percent of the Boston's 126,000 blacks - remains a forbidding place to the majority of Boston's whites. Some 55 percent of whites say they refuse to walk in Roxbury in daylight, according to a survey published in March by the Boston Committee, a citywide organization formed by business and religious interests to promote better race relations. Only 13 percent of blacks are leary of Roxbury, the same survey found, but most are unhappy with high crime rates in the area. They abhor the decay, arson of abandoned buildings, especially on commercial streets; uncollected garbage on sidewalks; and widespread unemployment.

Still, the community and its residents have chalked up what NAACP general counsel Thomas I. Atkins calls ''tangible gains.'' Mr. Atkins, whose family still lives in Roxbury although he now works in New York, describes these gains for blacks:

* More political power - two school board members, one city councilor, a state senator, and five state representatives in 1982, compared with only three state representativess in 1967. Mr. Atkins ran and was elected to the Boston City Council after the convention. He served two terms, and lost in a bid for mayor.

* Affirmative action - fire department, 2 percent black in 1967 and 20 percent in 1982; police department, 3 percent in 1967 and 19 percent today; school department, 5 percent teachers and administrators in 1967 and 19 percent today.

William Celester, who once headed the Massachusetts Association of Afro-American Police, is deputy superintendent of the Roxbury district police station. These gains are being challenged in the current job squeeze on police, firemen, teachers, and other public servants in the city. Unions are asking that seniority take precedence over affirmative action in layoffs.

* Economic power - Grimes Oil Company of Roxbury is the 10th in the Black Enterprise magazine of Top 100 businesses; Unity National Bank is the only minority bank in New England, and a second bank is in the organizational stage. Blacks also have 17 percent of the city's newest television ownership, WNEV-TV.

But long-term challenges remain for the area, known locally as ''the Berry.''

''I see no riots in the streets as in 1967, no long hot summer this year,'' says Paul Parks, former director of the Boston Model City program. ''Instead, I see crime, burglary, people who see others who have what they don't have. So they take. Today I see frustration.''

The civil rights movement spawned an emerging black middle class, ''including previous fighters like myself spoiled by the aura of doing well,'' he says.

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