How Black people were left behind in Civil War-era Boston

A Black resident of post-bellum Boston once remarked that “we can go most anywhere with the white man, and spend our dollar, but we cannot go anywhere with the white man and earn it.” The lament captures a painful paradox for Black people in the Massachusetts capital during the Civil War period: The city was a hotbed of radical abolitionism, but most of its Black workers were consigned to unequal treatment and dead-end jobs.

Jacqueline Jones, a Bancroft Prize-winning historian, highlights the city’s entrenched economic disparities in the remarkable “No Right to an Honest Living: The Struggles of Boston’s Black Workers in the Civil War Era.” She divides the hefty book into three sections, chronicling the difficulties Black laborers encountered before, during, and after the war. At each juncture, she finds, “the casual cruelty endemic to the Boston job market contrasted with the soaring rhetoric of egalitarian-minded white men and women during the turbulent era of the Civil War.”

Jones brings this history to life with graceful storytelling and a generous use of primary sources. She returns to many of the same figures again and again, allowing readers to follow their experiences over time. Some were part of the Edloe 66, a group of men, women, and children who arrived in Boston in 1847 after being freed by their enslaver, Carter Edloe, upon his death. White abolitionists observed them with great interest, seeing them as something of an experiment in whether, in a post-emancipation world, formerly enslaved people would be able to support themselves by working, without having to depend on public or private aid.

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