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Burden of Blackness: Quest for "Equality" Among Black "Elites" in Late-Nineteenth-century Boston

Kazuteru Omori, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In 1904, a wealthy black lawyer described Boston as “the paradise of the Negro”. With the state legislature having enacted and reinforced civil rights laws several times after the Civil War, African Americans in Massachusetts (over a third of whom lived in Boston in 1900) could enjoy the same political, civil, and social rights as whites by the turn of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the economic conditions of most black Bay Staters did not change much. They were confined as ever to menial jobs, and, unlike European immigrants, had little possibility for upward mobility. As one black porter in Boston said, blacks “are given…the work that white folks don't want”. Owing to the civil rights acts, they could “go most anywhere with the white man…and spend [their] dollar”, but they could not “go anywhere with the white man and earn it”. This study attempts to elucidate how African-American leaders in post-bellum Boston defined racial “equality”. It examines class-consciousness of black “elites” and points out their tendency to distance themselves from the masses. Having sincere faith in the doctrine of equal opportunity and laissez-faire, “elite” black Bostonians believed that the “fittest”, regardless of color, should survive in the world of competition. And in the process of uplifting themselves and identifying with the white elite and its values, these college-educated, light-skinned “aristocrats of color” came to view the lower classes of their own race as different and inferior. Proud of acquiring their present status by themselves, they only advocated equality before the law and did almost nothing else but urge the masses to work hard enough to uplift themselves just like they had done, dismissing those who could not as either idle or without ambition. The dissertation concludes that although intended as a weapon against racism color-blind meritocracy advocated by the black “elites” turned into an ideology for the status-quo. By demanding equal opportunity alone in an overtly discriminatory society, “elite” leaders not only failed to ease but in fact unwittingly fostered the ever-increasing oppression against African Americans in Boston after the Civil War.

Subject Area

Black history|American history|African American Studies

Recommended Citation

Omori, Kazuteru, "Burden of Blackness: Quest for "Equality" Among Black "Elites" in Late-Nineteenth-century Boston" (2001). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3000327.