Feb 14, 2024 - News

In Boston, Black historians push to preserve the city's history

A plaque at a park near 396 Northampton St. commemorates the since-demolished building where the Kings lived as newlyweds. It says, "newlywed home of Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King Jr" and goes on to describe their early days in Boston.

A plaque near 396 Northampton St. commemorates the since-demolished Lincoln Apartments, where the Kings lived as newlyweds. Photo: Steph Solis/Axios

Boston has preserved buildings, statues and boats that enshrine its legacy as the "birthplace of the American Revolution," yet some of the city's connections to Black historic figures have nearly fallen into obscurity.

Why it matters: At a time when state governments are restricting classroom instruction and banning books about Black history and racism, creating and preserving markers commemorating Black Americans' stories is more important than ever.

Driving the news: Individual projects led by historians, such as Clennon L. King and Dart Adams, have sparked efforts to honor previously ignored historic sites in Boston.

  • Adams, who for years has researched, delivered tours on and spoken about Black history in Boston, is working with the nonprofit Embrace to identify and preserve some of those sites in Massachusetts.
  • Clennon L. King, whose father was an attorney for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists in Albany, Georgia, has constructed a trail of sites related to the Kings' early lives in Boston, resulting in two plaques so far.

What they're saying: "There's one constant in life, and that's change. I don't have a problem with these buildings sometimes being knocked down, but what is important is that we mark them," Clennon L. King tells Axios.

The Lincoln Apartments shortly before it was demolished. Years earlier, newlyweds Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King moved into Apartment 5.
The Lincoln Apartments shortly before it was demolished. Years earlier, newlyweds Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King moved into Apartment 5. Photo: Courtesy of City of Boston Archives via Clennon King

Zoom in: Clennon L. King's work to memorialize MLK's time in Boston led to a plaque commemorating the Lincoln Apartments, where the iconic civil rights leader and Coretta Scott King lived as newlyweds.

  • The South End apartment building was demolished decades ago, a casualty of the government's urban renewal efforts.
  • State officials erected a plaque nearby last June, nearly three years after Clennon L. King approached the Department of Conservation and Recreation with the idea.

Reality check: Many sites in the South End and Lower Roxbury have changed hands, been gutted or demolished altogether, but several buildings stand without any indication of their history.

  • Getting historic markers on those sites, however, often depends on the current owner's interest, says Adams, a journalist and historian who grew up in the South End.
The building at 510 Columbus Ave. in Boston is where the restaurant Mother's Lunch and nightclub the Tangerine Room were, where Duke Ellington,  Count Basie's band and others rehearsed and performed.
The building at 510 Columbus Ave., which was once home to Mother's Lunch and the Tangerine Room. Photo: Steph Solis/Axios

One spot Adams wants to see get more recognition is the former site of Mother's Lunch and the Tangerine Room, a nightclub above the restaurant.

  • Mother's Lunch offered lodging and a rehearsal space for Count Basie's band, Duke Ellington and other jazz musicians at a time when hotels denied entry to Black people.
  • Today, the building at 510 Columbus Ave. remains intact — housing millionaire condos.
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