By Ryan O’Connell
Arts & Features Editor
The History Department and the Center for Inclusive Excellence (CIE) facilitated a Historians of Color series event featuring a guest speaker Mary McNeil, March 2.
McNeil, an instructor in the department of studies in race, colonialism, and diaspora at Tufts University shared some of her research on Black and Indigenous civil rights struggles in the 20th century, and how her family history is tied to it.
She began by asking attendees to acknowledge they are on native land which belonged to the Nipmuc tribe, and both is and has been a home for many Indigenous groups.
She added the Nipmuc land has historically been a place of Indigenous convergence among many “north-eastern woodland nations, and this is a fact that no amount of dispossession or settler colonial violence can ever undo.”
McNeil said attendees should trouble their assumptions about the “carefully manicured campus grounds that can seem so divorced from Indigenous space,” and that Indigenous nations still exist on the land commonly referred to as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
She said Indigenous nations and their members are “still here, thriving,” in the ongoing midst of settler colonial invasion.
McNeil then told two anecdotes from Massachusetts’ history about marginalized groups protesting a racist system.
She first spoke about June 2, 1967, when a group of Black mothers locked themselves inside of a welfare building in Boston, protesting undignified treatment and the lack of agency in their own lives by welfare agents.
She added the mothers, led by Doris Bland, originally formed in 1964 to challenge housing discrimination and inadequate schooling for Black children.
McNeil said a week prior to their occupation of the welfare office, the mothers met the welfare commissioner with their demands for better treatment and schooling, who was quoted in a Black newspaper as saying he didn’t “‘believe their charges’ of mistreatment.”
She added the commissioner then escalated the situation instead of communicating with the mothers, calling in more police who began to exercise excessive force allegedy because of a misconception the mothers were holding social workers hostage.
McNeil said this led to many Black Bostonians believing uprising was the only logical action, and a standoff between them and the police. She said the three-day rebellion involved around 500 residents of Roxbury, 45 of whom were injured.
McNeil then spoke about the National Day of Mourning, a 1970 protest by Native Americans in Massachusetts which involved occupation of the Mayflower II and a combined effort to bury the Plymouth Rock in handfuls of sand.
She said the occupation was the culmination of Indigenous counter protests to the 350th anniversary of the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, and were organized by Wampanoag tribe member Frank James, who had a speech censored earlier in the year for not conforming to the “national narratives of friendly, mutualistic settler-indigenous relations.”
James organized the events of the National Day of Mourning and had his unedited speech published in local and national papers, McNeil said. She added prior to the rebellion, James demanded the return of Indigenous land in Fall River and Indigenous-centered curriculum in public schools, which went unmet.
McNeil said the two events revealed the struggles of Black and Indigenous people in America for self governance and advocacy.
“They really reveal the richness of Black and Indigenous cause for self determination and sovereignty, and the Black Power Red Power era in Massachusetts,” she said. “Through their occupations of physical spaces, Black and Indigenous community members staged a critical spatial intervention.”
McNeil said there was a careful selection in both of the locations chosen - the welfare office and the Mayflower II - since they were landmarks important and recognizable to local government, the average settler citizen, and Black and Indigenous Massachusetts.
“When reclaiming these physical spaces, even if only for a brief moment, the Grove Hall welfare office and the Mayflower II occupiers named and refused these terms of order, asserting their responsibility to remain in the places that they call home on their own terms,” she said.
McNeil added these interventions, tied to space and place, are the heart of her project “Responsibility to Remain: Black Power and Red Power Geographies of Massachusetts.”
She said the project relates to Black, Indigenous, and Afro-Indigenous relationships with the land now referred to as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and is primarily focused on activism between 1967 and 1983, although it also recognizes the long history of Black and Indigenous displacement and dispossession.
McNeil said the “Responsibility to Remain” meant focusing on how and what particular strategies were used to ensure group survival, and how key elements of these strategies are rooted in certain locations.
She said her attention to Black and Indigenous Massachusetts contributes to a growing body of scholarship which refutes the problematic assumption that Massachusetts and New England is a predominantly white space.
“Oftentimes growing up, I’d hear ‘The city of Boston is such a white city,’ or ‘New England is such a white place,’” she said.
McNeil added comments about Boston and New England being white places is contributing to the erasure of Indigenous Massachusetts.
She said she also chose to study Black Power and Red Power in Massachusetts because it reveals the diversity and complicates existing narratives of the movements. She added she studied Massachusetts because it plays a big role in the entirety of the Black and Red Power movements.
McNeil said the Black and Red Power movements are different in Massachusetts because there isn’t a lot written about it, and speculates this is because Massachusetts was not a popular state during the Great Migration, nor a popular state for displaced Indigenous persons and families coming from reservations.
She said the large number of white Bostonians who left the city between 1950 and 1970 led to a reconstruction of Boston in an attempt to appeal more to white citizens. She added this meant more infrastructure, such as highways, which led to the silent displacement of thousands of citizens.
“There’s this idea of creating it into a new city, a modern city, but this necessitates the destruction of particular communities,” she said.
McNeil added the tourism growth in Massachusetts led to similar displacement in Mashpee, a town where the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe were the majority group.
She said a resort community, which was planned to be built nearby, led to the Mashpee Wampanoag being voted out of local government, which they previously controlled.
She added this later led to the privatization of land in Mashpee, something inconsistent with the way the Mashpee Wampanoag had lived before, and showed a catalog which included a photo of a resort built following a sale of 12,000 acres.
“Mashpee was transformed from ‘an idyllic Indigenous paradise by tribal standards into a seaside suburb seemingly overnight,’” she said, quoting Wampanoag historian and journalist Paula Peters.
McNeil concluded the talk by discussing why she chose the wording “responsibility” over “right,” and said it was mainly because the word “right” has several different preconceived notions in different people’s heads.