The Caribbean community's often overlooked but significant presence in Boston was the subject of last week's sixth Blacks in Boston Conference, titled "The Caribbean Connection."
About 800 people attended various events during the conference, held Feb. 22-24. Robsham Theater was the location for the conference's first two days, which featured panel discussions offering historical, cultural, political and social perspectives on the Caribbean.
"We had a number of undergraduates attending the events, and they were very energized by the conference," said Black Studies Program Assistant Sandra Sandiford, who organized the conference with College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean Carol Hurd Green and Black Studies Program Director Frank Taylor. "The people from the Caribbean community were also very enthused by it and they talked of ways to carry on the discussions that took place here."
Violet Johnson of Agnes State College, former state representative Mel King and Roy Bryce Laporte of Colgate University were among the participants in the Blacks in Boston Conference. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
On the conference's first day, University President J. Donald Monan, SJ, presented the Griot Award posthumously to Amanda Houston, the former Black Studies director who died last summer. The memory of Houston - who fashioned a new identity for the Black Studies Program, served as mentor to numerous students and played a leading role in organizing the Blacks in Boston Conference series - was recognized by the award, which, in the spirit of its West African name, honors someone who has preserved community history.
Prior to the award, Taylor gave the official welcome while Honorary Consul of Jamaica Kenneth Guscott served as master of ceremonies.
In his keynote speech, John Henrik Clarke, professor emeritus at Hunter College in New York City, addressed Caribbean political movements - such as the back-to-Africa movement led by Marcus Garvey earlier in the century - and the impact they had on Caribbean natives and the overall Africa-American community. He used the experiences of Caribbean peoples to highlight the conditions, issues and concerns of all people of African origin, from the first slaves to present-day Americans of Caribbean descent, such as Louis Farrakhan.
One discussion during Friday's session, chaired by Asst. Prof. Ralph Edwards (SOE), focused on the political role of the Caribbean community in Greater Boston, with panelists singling out the contributions of Guscott, Ruth Batson, Elma Lewis and former state representative and Boston mayoral candidate Mel King, who gave the last presentation of the morning.
King, the son of West Indian parents who is now on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty, said the Caribbean community initially had a difficult time making inroads because it lacked involvement in a democratic political structure.
"There was a simple reason for that: Folks did not become American citizens," said King, explaining that many preferred to retain a "transnational" status. "I ran for office and my mother couldn't vote for me. There were organizations which could have been counterparts to political organizations, but these were somewhat insular."
Two important factors aided Caribbean participation in Boston politics, King said. One was a change in the electoral process, which afforded more opportunities for at-large candidates. The other was the rise of community organizations that provided a basis for political orientation.
"Ultimately, whether it was through the Urban League, the Roxbury Multi-Service Center or the United South End Settlements," King said, "that work, in the streets or with youths, played a major role for the persons who ran for political office."
Taylor, an associate professor of history, chaired a panel discussion titled "The Changing Face of Boston," which provided an historical overview of migration trends in the Caribbean and some of the outcomes these produced, especially in New England. Taylor said in his introduction that it was critical to understand that Caribbean society is "one of imported people," since so many natives were killed or left the islands and were replaced by voluntary migrants and slaves.
"Migration is built into the society of Caribbean people," he said. "It is also important to see in the Caribbean the manifestation of racism, against native Americans and Africans. The Caribbean virtually invented modern racism."
Another panel, chaired by Assoc. Prof. Michael Malec (Sociology), examined the social, legal and health questions affecting Caribbean migrants and included Assoc. Prof. Evelyn Barbee (SON) and Adj. Asst. Prof. Daniel Kanstroom (Law). The final discussion focused on more specific aspects of the impact of Caribbean migration on Boston.
Saturday's session, held at Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries Inc. in Roxbury, featured an oral history panel led by Prof. Andrew Buni (History). That was followed by a discussion on Caribbean culture in education chaired by Asst. Prof. Otherine Neisler (SOE), which included a presentation by the University's Caribbean Culture Club.
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