“Strange Bedfellows: Nativism, Know-Nothings, African-Americans and School Desegregation in Antebellum Massachusetts”
Published in the Saber and Scroll Journal
[Volume 6, Issue 2 Spring-Summer 2017 (September 2017)]
In the mid-1850s, the anti-Irish, nativist Know-Nothing Party swept to power in Massachusetts, capturing nearly every seat in the state legislature and even electing a Know-Nothing governor. At the same time, a decade-long struggle for school integration in Boston ramped-up, led by African-American abolitionist William Cooper Nell. Ironically, it was that legislature—dominated by Know-Nothings—that passed a bevy of progressive legislation including a law that made Massachusetts the first state in the nation to outlaw segregation in public education! How that came about is the topic of this article, which showcases one example of how populist movements can contain both reactionary and progressive forces—something that resonates strongly in our own era.
In Massachusetts in the 1850s, rapidly changing economic conditions fueled a bewildering set of dislocations. Among other forces, falling labor values for the working class, exponential increases in foreign born populations, poverty and crime, and changing social and political institutions translated into a rage directed at the elite and their failed institutions. This spawned a populist revolt that manifested itself in racism, hatred, xenophobia, exclusion and a determination to overthrow the old order and start afresh.
At the same time, African-Americans—chafing at life at the margins in a state that nevertheless offered the best overall quality of life in the nation—sought equality of education for their children in fully integrated schools. Utilizing boycotts, nonviolent tactics and an alliance with elite whites who objected to inferior “separate but equal” schools, a movement formed driven by a charismatic yet unassuming leader that demanded desegregation.
At the nexus of these unlikely arcs, the nativist American Party, known popularly as the “Know-Nothings,” capitalizing on rampant anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment, swept the state, capturing the legislature and the governor’s office. Paradoxically, it was this legislature dominated by Know-Nothings—who rose to power plying the politics of exclusion—that outlawed segregation in schools across the state. The improbable cooperation between nativists and champions of African-American equality, and its highly significant result, is the topic of this paper.
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