Feb 14, 2024 - News

The South End native keeping Boston's Black history alive

Historian and journalist Dart Adams poses for a photo on Columbus Avenue.

Dart Adams. Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Dart Adams grew up hearing about how Quincy Jones hung out in the South End and how Malcolm X recruited locals for the Nation of Islam back in the day.

  • But there weren't any statues, plaques or other historic markers pointing to the legacy behind his neighborhood at the time.

Why it matters: Thousands of Bostonians drive past or walk the streets where Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and other jazz legends performed — and they might not even know it.

What's happening: Adams, a journalist, historian and Boston native, has spent more than 15 years digging into Boston's Black history.

What they're saying: "When you're Black in Boston, you kind of feel like you're being gaslit," Adams tells Axios.

  • "If all these famous people were here, if all this Black culture existed, then why does nobody else know it?"

Zoom in: Adams has made it his mission to make this history known.

  • Here are some of the sites he's focused on:

Sammy Davis Jr's homes

Singer Sammy Davis Jr. lived at 66 West Rutland Square between 1939 and 1941 when he was a member of the Will Mastin Trio, per Adams and Boston Globe archives.

Post-1941, he moved around, living at 499, 505 and 510 Columbus Avenue, Adams says.

  • Davis later reminisced about singing at the Silver Dollar Bar and Izzy Ort's, both near what used to be the Combat Zone, per Globe archives.
  • Sammy Davis Jr. came back to perform with the Boston Pops in 1988.

Roseland-State Ballroom

Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cootie Williams and other musicians frequented the Roseland-State Ballroom, a jazz and swing venue across the street from the Christian Science Church.

  • Malcolm X, who worked there as a shoeshiner, was introduced to jazz and met those jazz legends.
  • He also met a woman he calls "Sophia," who became his lover and a crime partner. When they were convicted of burglary, she got probation, while Malcolm got 8 to 10 years in prison, per the "Mapping Malcolm's Boston" project by Kayla Renée Wheeler, the Africana Studies program director at Xavier University.
  • The ballroom is long gone, replaced by a strip of apartments and restaurants.
451 Massachusetts Ave. is the site of the original NAACP Boston branch HQ.
451 Massachusetts Ave. is the site of the original NAACP Boston branch HQ. Photo: Steph Solis/Axios

NAACP Boston HQ

Boston has the NAACP's oldest chartered branch, founded in 1912.

  • The building was firebombed on Dec. 10, 1975, a day after federal judge Arthur Garrity Jr. placed South Boston High School into federal receivership over its failure to desegregate.
  • Today, the building is privately owned, and the NAACP's Boston branch is on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Roxbury.
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