ATLANTA — Kyle Wells, 49, grew up in Boston’s Mattapan near the intersection of Morton Street and Blue Hill Avenue. By the end of his senior year at Boston Latin School, he was itching to leave town.
“My kind of high school goal was to move out of Boston,” said Wells, who headed southward to attend Florida A&M University in Tallahassee and then seized a training opportunity in Atlanta. “After that, I never looked back,” he said. “This is my out. I’m gone.”
Wells has fond memories of Boston and “the old neighborhood,” but also remembers the city’s rigid racial boundaries. “When you live there, it’s always a part of where you are. You don’t go to certain spots, like Charlestown and Southie,” said Wells — conceding Boston has evolved since then.
A senior creative writer and producer for Turner Sports in Atlanta, Wells leads a life with his wife and two daughters on the city’s southwest side that he said he could not have imagined in Boston. He surveys his expansive front yard. A huge Magnolia tree shades their home from the hot Georgia sun.
In the decades following violent resistance to school desegregation in Boston starting in 1974, thousands of Black residents like Wells have moved to the South, as part of what some observers have termed “a reverse great migration.” Census data from 2011 show that more than a million Black residents in the metropolitan Atlanta area were born in the Northeast.
Boston’s unwelcoming racial climate figured to some extent in the decision of five former residents who repaired to Atlanta, based on their interviews with GBH News in October. With Boston about to elect its first mayor of color, the Black former Bostonians were asked if that historic development has changed their minds about the city they left behind. Not much or at all, they replied.
Their searing experiences with racism in Boston have left a lasting mark.
Representation in Elected Officials
Like Chantrise Sims Holliman, 49, they are college educated and arrived in Georgia searching for professional opportunities that they didn’t expect to find in New England.
Sims Holliman has lived in Atlanta longer than she lived in the Boston area, which she left in the mid-’90s. She grew up in a middle-class household in West Newton, but says it was in that self-consciously liberal neighborhood that she was first called the n-word. She had the same experience in Boston, where she learned to stay out of certain neighborhoods because of the color of her skin.
An author, motivational speaker and educator with a doctorate degree, she said Atlanta offered her more freedom — and more professional and personal opportunities.
“There is no comparison. My mother very much wanted me to move back home, and I told my mother, that’s important to me that my daughter grow up in a city where people look like her and are successful,” she explained. “My parents are still the only Black family within three or four miles of where they live. Here in Atlanta, there is Black excellence on just about every corner.”
Sims Holliman points out that Atlanta has had successive Black mayors — and is on the eve of electing yet another, with two Black candidates facing off in the city’s November election. Though only a third of metropolitan Atlanta’s 5.7 million population is Black, the city is 54% Black.
Sims Holliman is not convinced that Boston will ever elect a Black mayor, though it has been majority-minority since 2000. She also does not see the current Boston mayor’s race as a watershed event capable of altering Boston’s reputation for bigotry, deserved or not.
Kyle Wells is equally unimpressed. He watched the results of Boston’s mayoral primary in September from a distance. He said he was disappointed when neither of his preferred candidates — Kim Janey or Andrea Campbell, both Black — advanced.
“I’m not surprised. For Blacks, there is still a perception that we are minorities, but we aren’t the ideal minority,” he said. The two finalists in the Nov. 2 election are frontrunner Michelle Wu, who is Asian American, and Annissa Essaibi George, who is Arab and Polish.
But Logan Gaskill, 42, an Executive Leadership Coach and Strategy Consultant, is somewhat encouraged by Boston’s unprecedented mayoral race. “That’s progress,” he said.
Boston’s Unshakable Reputation
Gaskill’s father taught at Hyde Park High School during the height of desegregation, and Gaskill says he has watched television footage of racial violence that erupted at the school in 1974. Yet he is still put off by people who seem to view Boston only through the prism of that time period.
Like a lot of Black professionals in Atlanta, he came to attend one of the city’s premier centers of higher education: Morehouse College. Spelman, a prestigious historically Black college for women, also draws a large number of Black students.
Gaskill recalled a conversation he had with a friend from the Deep South: “And he said, ‘Where are you from?’ I said I grew up in Boston. He said, ‘Oh my God, it’s racist there.’ And I just remember thinking, like, ‘Dude, you’re from Alabama and Mississippi. Like, it doesn’t get more racist than that.’”
But Gaskill says that perception is reality for many Black people around the country — and whoever becomes mayor of Boston will be tasked with changing that image.
Historically, racial hostility extended beyond Boston’s public schools, public beaches and public housing and seeped into the city’s nightlife. Lawsuits over discriminatory entry policies at downtown Boston venues were common in the 1980s, 1990s and even more recently.
“[Atlanta is] our town. Even though I was there for 20 years, I never felt like Boston was my town at all.”
Atlanta native and Morehouse graduate BMaynard Scarborough worked for Mayor Ray Flynn and later the Boston Globe. But at night he spent time and energy carving out a space for Black and Latino people in the city’s clubs and restaurants by working with club owners and restaurateurs, including Patrick Lyons and Seth Greenberg.
“We did those things because we had to,” Scarborough recalled. “We didn’t have anything to do. So we were a natural group that needed just a little organizing.”
Scarborough’s networking enterprise with friend and businessman Alvin Crawford was called The Loop. It provided access to the city’s often closed-off institutions of culture and nightlife, much like the contemporary multiracial networking group, Get Konnected, organized by public relations maven Colette Phillips. Still, Scarborough chose to move back to Atlanta in 2005 for reasons that he said are fundamental to the notion of basic freedom.
“Atlanta is almost like — we feel like we don’t have to ask to do. You feel empowered. It’s our town,” he said. “Even though I was there for 20 years, I never felt like Boston was my town at all. And I love Boston.”
Scarborough said he applauds Boston’s progress, exemplified by the women of color running for mayor, but feels the city could do more to make itself welcoming to Black people there and to those who moved away.
Morehouse graduate George “Chip” Greenidge, who grew up in Boston’s Mission Hill and in Cambridge, has straddled the Mason-Dixon Line with the help of Delta Airlines for more than three decades. He said he also loves Boston, but his heart is closer to Atlanta.
“It’s very interesting being in both of those spaces and places,” Greenidge said. “In Atlanta, there are more opportunities for people to actually become an entrepreneur. There are more ways for creatives to be creative because they’re more spaces to do so. And also, there’s a cheaper-rent district, an arts district. Here [in Boston], it’s very impossible for a young person that’s not in school to actually make it.”
Greenidge created and runs a nonprofit called Greatest Minds, which is tasked with building the next generation of Black leaders in Boston. Like others interviewed by GBH News, Greenidge left Boston in the 1990s to attend Morehouse, but he’s split his time between both Boston and Atlanta since then. He is now pursuing a Ph.D. at Georgia State University and serving as a visiting fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s Kennedy School — and recently hosted a live mayoral debate in Dorchester between Wu and Essaibi George.
“These two candidates are younger,” Greenidge said. “But I think there’s some older structures that have to be addressed. Both have to make sure that there are resources on the table for people looking at the quality of life issues, why they should stay here [Boston] and be around here.”
In light of the changing political leadership, GBH News asked the Black former residents of Boston in Atlanta if they would consider returning to Boston, permanently.
“No. I don’t even have to think about that,” said Sims Holliman, citing successive Black leadership in Atlanta and the seemingly interminable racial battles over Boston exam school admissions as two examples. Her daughter, now 24, received an excellent public school education she deserved but may have been difficult to obtain in Boston, said Sims Holliman.
“I’m used to my mayor being Black. I’ve gotten used to my daughter graduating from a math science magnet school here,” she explained. “There’s just a difference. Here there are certain battles you don’t have to fight.”
Greenidge said Atlanta’s nightlife provides a freedom a Black person could only hope for in Boston.
“Oh, it’s amazing, totally amazing!” he said. “Atlanta, every night, there’s somewhere to go hundreds of places where African Americans are in charge of the nightlife. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Atlanta is open.”
Scarborough, who does internal communications for the City of Atlanta, said Atlanta is home and he is there to stay. “I’m not moving again,” he declared.
Nor is Wells, who described going back to Boston as “a step backwards,” no matter who becomes the next mayor. “Not many opportunities for me there,” he added.
Gaskill is also not planning to return to live in Boston anytime soon, despite what he sees as political progress with this year’s mayoral race. He’s concerned about those who have fallen through what he said are the cracks in Boston society.
“I would like to believe it’s gotten better, but I mean, I think about the story that the Boston Globe did about why do people think Boston is racist and they did more stats to kind of show like wealth gaps and jobs, and I don’t know that Boston has done anything to dispel that,” Gaskill said.
“I’m used to my mayor being Black. … There’s just a difference. Here there are certain battles you don’t have to fight.”
By example, he cites Boston’s newest but also one of its most racially imbalanced neighborhoods: the gleaming Seaport District. Even though the neighborhood was built after the violent battles over desegregation of the 1970s and ’80s, its development followed a pattern of excluding Black residents, which developers attributed to class barriers, not racial ones.
The Black former Bostonians interviewed agree that Atlanta is far from a paradise for Black people. The city has one of the lowest rates of Black home ownership in the country. Although home to Black millionaires and a burgeoning Black film and entertainment industry, it is also beset by high poverty and crime rates, sharp class divides and blue political orientation in an ocean of deep red conservatism. The interviewees also acknowledged that racism exists in Atlanta, as it does throughout the United States.
“I don’t want it to feel that Atlanta is this idyllic metropolis full of Blackness,” Wells said. “Although it has the outward appearance of being Black, it’s still controlled by central pocketbooks of the biggest tax base. It’s a chocolate city on the outside, but it’s very much got a vanilla center.”
Still, in Atlanta, Wells and other former Bostonians said they feel more cushioned from racism’s impact and take comfort in the thought that they can travel comfortably anywhere they please in the city.
They believe the same cannot be said about Boston, despite the fading of rigid neighborhood boundaries and the city’s changing political leadership.
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