ROXBURY PORTRAIT OF A NEIGHBORHOOD
CHARLES YANCY, Boston City Councillor, proposes that the city of Boston change the name of Warren Street, a major thoroughfare in Roxbury, to Malcolm X Boulevard. "It's about time the city of Boston recognizes the tremendous contributions he made. He pulled himself up and turned himself into someone who cared for others. He inspired millions of people all over the country ... to not feel defeated by the system but to use intelligence to change the status quo. Young people today who feel a sense of hopel essness and helplessness would do well to look at Malcolm X and see how he changed his life."
Viola Wiltshire Thacker has spent most of her life in Roxbury. She retired two years ago as personnel director at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital.
On Malcolm X: "Malcolm was a regular kid, we had a lot of good times - like dances at the Roseland, house parties, tobogganing. He was very shy at first, then just like all the rest of us."
On the movie: "Denzel Washington ... it scared you at first because so many times I thought it was Malcolm standing in front of me. They made him look like Malcolm, and at times it was like Malcolm talking.
"I enjoyed the movie and realized what he did accomplish by going to Mecca and how it would change his whole outlook on things."
On the community: "I have lived in Roxbury since I was nine years old. It has changed a tremendous amount. Nowadays you don't know people. In those days everybody knew everybody and took care of everybody's children. Now you don't know anyone. It makes it hard but you have to stay within your family and pray for the generation coming up. They're missing so much. Their whole outlook is different. In our days when somebody told you to move, you moved. You didn't talk back to people or look at them like the y're crazy. Anybody could take care of you.... It was very tight. My mother and dad worked, so consequently everybody took care of us. It was more of a family atmosphere. Families knew each other. I have friends that I went to Sunday School with and we're still friends. We lost all that togetherness. You could walk from here to hell and back and not worry; now you're afraid to go out your front door. Strangers have moved in.
"I got on the bus the other day and looked around and I didn't know anybody. I was scared. All of a sudden you don't know people. That's change. I think a lot of it is because of the way children are rebelling today. You just lost that whole family structure. I don't know what caused it, the times or what. We didn't have half the things they have today, but we were a lot better [off]. "
Harold Vaughn is a retired attorney who also grew up in Roxbury.
On the movie: "My wife and I both knew Malcolm. We went to see the movie when it opened in Palm Beach. I was disappointed as to the Boston segment of it. They took a lot of liberties. I enjoyed the other parts, but not the Boston part. I was of that era and time. Those were some exaggerated clothes - the zoot suits. They never wore flamboyant colors like that. [Malcolm] did wear high yellow shoes. They looked like they were six yards long.
"In the book ["The Autobiography of Malcolm X"], he refers to a Duke Vaughn when he worked for the railroad. That's me. We worked for the old New York-New Haven until he said he had to get out of this `slave job' as he called it and went on to bigger and more notorious activities.
"As a teenager he was always smiling, always had a joke - never vicious. I never saw him get in a fist fight with anybody around the streets. In all respects, he was just another normal teenager whom, if you would have said this fellow is going to be one of the most charismatic characters to pop forth [from] this area in 10 years, you would say, nonsense.
"When he ran afoul of the law and became a guest of the government, he left the scene. The next time I saw him, he came in the real estate office I had on Humboldt Avenue. He had these very clean-cut fellows with him and said, `It's good to see you.' He advised me then that he had become Minister Malcolm X. At the time, I was writing a column for a local black weekly, and Malcolm was good copy. He explained the Muslim movement, and I almost sat there in awe because you've got to appreciate, this is a fel low [who] went from legitimate employment to illegitimate employment to jail. Now a few years later, this fellow walks in looking elegant, reserved, articulate.
"I accompanied him on several of his speaking engagements, and I was just amazed at the way he could almost mesmerize his audience. In the late '40s he addressed an audience at the BU [Boston University] School of Theology. They were all professors there and theology students. He captured them. They sat there in awe even during the question-and-answer period, when they attempted to challenge him on the Bible.
"I don't know how he did it, but it was almost as if he had total recall.... What he quoted was exactly what was there. I say it was a 99 percent Caucasian audience, and this young black man who I went to school with - I know he didn't graduate with us - I found totally, totally amazing. I do not believe there would be anyone who had the life Malcolm had who would have been capable of making that kind of transition and transformation.
Gilbert Garber's parents immigrated from Lithuania. He established several businesses in Roxbury, and is now retired and lives in Lexington, Mass.
On Malcolm X: "I knew Malcolm X because he worked in the drug store to which I delivered potato chips. I didn't think of him as black; just a clerk who worked in that drugstore. He received the potato chips, signed for them, paid for them, and that was it. It's pretty far out from the way he sounded in the book, but I didn't know that."
On the community: "At the time the neighborhood was heavily Jewish, but it was a mixed area, very rich in culture....
"I worked at a gas station at the corner of Columbus and Massachusetts Avenues. We weren't worried about being held up.... That didn't happen.
"We had come out of a Depression and my reaction was that everybody had been in the Depression. I didn't know any rich people. Everybody worked and did what they had to do.
[In the '40s] I went off to the service. My wife worked as an engineering aide at the Navy yard. Her boss was a black man. She never gave any thought to it - felt very warm and friendly towards him.
"I do know that when they had a dance, she asked him to dance, and he wouldn't dance with her and that left a marked impression on her. He said it would tarnish her reputation, and she's never gotten over that."
"It would be interesting to know how many of the people living in Roxbury today are from families who lived there previously. I was second-generation Roxbury; I wonder how many today are third or fourth generation. My impression is those who were there before [and] went to school with me, they have been upwardly mobile ... but I don't think they live there now ... they live in the suburbs."
Winton Yates Wade and her twin sister, Irene Yates Borgesson, grew up in the Back Bay area of Boston. Ms. Wade married, moved to Roxbury, and worked in state government for many years.
On Malcolm X: "When I met him, I lived across the street from his half-sister. I didn't know him well."
On the movie: "Did you notice how his eyes were very staring? Do you know that was the first thing I noticed about that man when I met him. I don't know how that actor looked exactly like he looked. It was amazing; his expression.
"The intellect or the thinking person, that was beautifully done. It showed how he changed over the years."
On the community: "I worked at Washington Park [now Malcolm X Park] in the summer. You only hear the bad things about Roxbury. Many parts of it are beautiful. There are unusually good people here. You have no idea what beautiful homes are up here."
Irene Yates Borgesson, worked for an international agency in New York City for 30 years, and recently returned to Boston after retirement.
On the movie: "In the picture where they show the Roseland ballroom in Boston, that's right where Boston Chicken [restaurant] is now. We didn't frequent the clubs too much because my father was the first black policeman in Boston, then a detective, and he wouldn't have thought much of that."
On the community: "You never had to lock your doors.
"When I came back after my retirement, this is when all this prejudice was going on. I'm of a mixed marriage - my mother white and my father black. There was prejudice there, but we had no problems whatsoever growing up. I had white friends and black friends. My mother did too.
"When I came back to Boston it was worse because it's a new generation now. I think prejudice is worse in Boston now."
Robert Foggie a Roxbury barber, who cut and straightened Malcolm X's hair when he lived here.
On Malcolm X and the movie: "Reporters and professors have been in here bothering me every day now.
"I don't believe I'll see the movie. They have moved everything from Massachusetts Avenue to Dudley Street. That wasn't the way it was. I processed Malcolm X's hair for seven years at the other place I worked; not at this shop. He was a very nice man both when he was a thief and when he got religious."
Elma Lewis has lived in Roxbury her entire life. She founded the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts and the National Center for Afro-American Artists there.
On Malcolm X: "I knew him here and in New York. I just loved him. He was a work-in-progress.
"He died young, but look at what he left. You know Jesus was only 33 years old and look at the legacy he left."