A Brief Overview of the History of Roxbury
Roxbury’s changes over time are visible throughout the neighborhood in both clear and subtle ways, with the hills, streets and buildings recalling the almost four centuries of Roxbury’s history.
In 1630, ten years after the Pilgrims established Plymouth, a group of English Puritans, led by John Winthrop, landed slightly further north and founded Massachusetts Bay Colony with headquarters in Boston. With coastal Native American populations decimated from disease, brought to them by earlier fishermen, traders, explorers and colonists, the Massachusetts Bay Colony found the coastline largely empty, and quickly founded a group of six towns, among them Boston, Cambridge, and Roxbury. For more than 200 years, Roxbury also encompassed West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain.
The salt marsh surrounding much of the Shawmut Peninsula has been so thoroughly filled in over the last few centuries, it’s difficult to picture Boston sitting isolated at that tip of land. Three miles south the only land route to the capital led through Roxbury, which made the town important for both transportation and trade.
Roxbury in the 1600s also held many of the resources settlers prized: potentially arable land, timber, Stony Brook—a source of both water and water power—and stone for building. In fact, it was the unique stone, later dubbed Roxbury puddingstone, which led to the name “Rocksberry.” That particular stone, visible on stony outcroppings and in buildings, such as the Warren House, exists only in the Boston basin.
Within a few decades, Roxbury’s prized orchards led to another unique claim to fame, the Roxbury Russet apple, particularly suited for hard cider, a favorite beverage for early settlers. So taken with this apple were the farmers (and cider drinkers) that they gave the yellow-green, pock-marked, coarse, crisp, tart little fruit at least 15 names, including the Roz and Leathercoat. Thomas Jefferson planted a number of the trees in Monticello’s South Orchard in 1778, closer to home, one can see Roxbury Russet apple trees growing at the historic Shirley-Eustis House (the oldest house in Roxbury) museum and at the Dillaway Thomas House, (the second oldest house), and part of Roxbury Heritage State Park.
Though the topography and borders of Roxbury have changed, the early layout of the village still forms the framework of the modern-day neighborhood. Washington, Dudley, Centre, Roxbury, and Warren streets were all laid out in the first years of the settlement.
The town center was located at John Eliot Square, where in 1632 the first meetinghouse was built, for both church services and civic affairs. Nearby the Eliot Burial Ground was established in 1632 at the corner of Eustis and Washington streets. Also hailing from the earliest days are a parting stone placed at the junction of Roxbury and Centre Street pointing the way to Dedham and Providence (south, to the left) and Watertown and Cambridge (north, to the right) and a milestone on Centre St, indicating Boston is three miles away.
The American Revolution
Roxbury’s location and high hills made the town strategically important during the Siege of Boston, in 1775-1776. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, the colonists chased the British back to Boston and then encircled Boston from Cambridge to Roxbury. The British were trapped in Boston for almost a year. The colonists constructed Roxbury High Fort in Roxbury Highlands in 1775 to guard the land route to Boston. Troops camped on the lawn of the First Church in Eliot Square and throughout Roxbury. They cut down trees and tore down buildings to use as firewood General John Thomas, in charge of the troops in Roxbury (the right wing of the patriot army) lived in the (now) Dillaway Thomas House. Although no battles were fought in Roxbury, firing back and forth between the British and Americans also disrupted the community. Most residents left for safer areas. After the American victory, Roxbury’s citizens rebuilt their war-damaged community. The present day First Church was rebuilt in 1804 on the site of the town’s original meetinghouse.
The first generation of the independent United States saw many changes as cities grew and industries developed. Those able to afford it sought to live in free-standing, single-family houses away from their jobs in the city. Public transportation made this possible. With the 1820 horse-drawn bus line across Boston Neck and down Washington Street as well as the 1835 opening of the Boston to Providence, RI railroad, Roxbury’s farmland began to be subdivided for single-family homes. Many were built in a style called Greek Revival, symbolizing the republic of ancient Greece, a democracy that the young United States admired.
For the well-off Roxbury was a fashionable place to live in the early 1800’s. Some of the homes of these wealthy residents still stand today—the Edward Everett Hale House on Morley Street, the Alvah Kittredge Mansion on Linwood St. the Spooner Lambert House on Dudley Street, Rockledge on Highland St. and Ionic Hall on Roxbury Street. Oakbend, the last mansion built in Roxbury, (in 1872) now houses the Museum of the National Center of Afro American Artists.
Industry was growing in Roxbury in the 1800’s, both along the Stony Brook River and in the areas on both sides of the neck, which was gradually filled in. In the 1700’s mills and tanneries made up the main industry of Roxbury, but by the 1800’s breweries, ropewalks, piano makers, iron foundries and rubber makers provided employment for a growing Roxbury population.
The population of Roxbury began to change as the century progressed. At the beginning of the 1800’s Roxbury was home almost exclusively to upper and middle class Yankees. Beginning in the 1840’s many Irish immigrants flooding to the Massachusetts to escape the potato famine. As immigration continued some Irish families settled directly in Roxbury, or second generations families moved from Boston to Mission Hill and later in the Dudley Street area.
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, the first Catholic Church in Roxbury (with a predominantly Irish congregation) was built in 1846. In the 20th century Irish dance halls proliferated on Dudley Street which became a mecca for Irish dancing. One of these, Hibernian Hall, built in 1913, is now the Roxbury Center of the Arts. Many famous Irish were born in Roxbury including James Michael Curley, John Lawrence Sullivan (first heavyweight boxing champion) and Maurice Tobin (
German immigrants also settled in the Mission Hill area of Roxbury, and were instrumental in developing the many breweries that prospered along the Stony Brook until prohibition. Mission Church, The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was established by a German Catholic order (the Redemptorists) in 1876. Senator Ted Kennedy’s funeral mass was held here in 2009.
Walking through the Highlands, the buildings show the changes in the latter half of the 19th century. As the need for more workers rose, old farms and the grand estates were subdivided, and with the advent of electric trolley service in 1887, single family homes, row houses, and triple-deckers sprang up to accommodate the growing population. As more laborers came into town, Lower Roxbury saw the construction of wooden tenements and row houses, which can still be seen at Frederick Douglas Square.
Responding to the need for increased municipal services, the citizens of Roxbury voted to incorporate as a city in 1846, and later to become annexed to Boston in 1868. The Eustis Street Fire Station (the oldest fire station in Boston) and the Cochituate Stand Pipe built on the site of Roxbury High Fort in 1870 to provide water pumped from Lake Cochituate to Roxbury are two examples of the services provided in the late 1800’s.
During this population boom, city planners set aside land for Franklin Park—with 527 acres it is the largest park Boston. Designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Franklin Park is the final jewel of the Emerald Necklace, the seven mile stretch of public parkland that begins at Boston Common.
Dudley Station opened in 1901 as the southernmost terminus of the Boston Elevated Railway, once a part of the MBTA Orange Line. By the turn of the 20th century Dudley Square swarmed with department stores, dominated by Ferdinand’s Blue Store (a furniture retailer once famous throughout New England), hotels, silent movie theaters, banks, and even a bowling alley, all designed by prominent Boston architects in a rich mixture of revival styles.
The 20th Century
The early 20th century also saw a broadening of demographics. A large Jewish community settled around Grove Hall area along Blue Hill Avenue and a vibrant Jewish community grew and prospered until most families moved onto to the suburbs. Many Jewish families lived in a new form of housing – fine multi family apartment buildings – built along and north of Seaver Street. Several synagogues remain to tell the story of the flourishing Jewish community: Adath Jeshurun (1906), the first synagogue in “upper” Roxbury now the Haitian Baptist Church on Blue Hill Ave and Temple Mishkan Tefila, (1925) which in 1968 became the home of the famed Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts and in 2001 was rededicated United House of Prayer for All People after a $14 million renovation.
Other groups settling in Roxbury included Scandinavians, Italians and Latvians. In the mide1900’s Roxbury was home to the largest Latvian immigrant population in the US. with the community centered at the Trinity Lettish Evangelical Lutheran Church (now Timothy Baptist Church) on Highland Street.
The black population of Roxbury developed starting in the early 1900’s. The free black community that took roots on the north slope of Beacon Hill in the 1800’s left Beacon Hill and moved to the South End, then Lower Roxbury (“in town”) and finally throughout Roxbury, especially “the hill” the highland area south of Dudley Square. They were joined by immigrants from the Caribbean, especially Jamaica and Barbados and after World War II by southern blacks migrating north.
Many important and talented black people grew up or lived and worked in this flourishing community including Elma Lewis, Melnea Cass, Otto and Muriel Snowden, Carl McCall and Harry Elam, Sarah Ann Shaw and the Haynes family to name only a few. Malcolm X lived with his half sister Ella Little Collins on Dale Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached at Twelfth Baptist Church.
For a brief period Roxbury was a diverse multicultural community, with Jewish and black families living next to each other in Lower Roxbury and “the hill” and Irish and other immigrant groups spread throughout the neighborhood.
A vibrant art community beginning in the 1930’s still thrives today with artists such as John Wilson, Alan Rohan Crite, Richard Yarde, Paul Goodnight, Susan Thompson, Ekua Holmes, Napoleon Jones Henderson and many more creating works and public art in a wide variety of media. Elma Lewis established the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, which taught both children and adults dance, music, theater and visual arts as well as bringing Black Nativity to the stage each holiday season and Playhouse in the Park to Franklin Park every summer.
Grassroots Activism and community organizing
By the 1960’s and 70’s Roxbury was almost entirely black and became the center of grassroots activism and community organizing to achieve justice, equality and power and to halt the forces that were destroying the community. The major issues were land and housing, education and employment.
Residents blocked the building of the Southwest Expressway a twelve lane highway that was planned to go through Roxbury, saving the neighborhood from irreparable disfigurement. This victory was achieved by a remarkable and diverse coalition of groups in Roxbury, the South End, Cambridge, Jamaica Plain and Milton. As result of this victory, the elevated subway line was dismantled and the orange line moved to the southwest corridor. This opened up space and light for residents but made rapid transit to downtown Boston more difficult for most of the Roxbury community, as the new orange line was moved closer to Jamaica Plain and did not go through Dudley or Egleston Square, major access points for Roxbury.
The urban renewal program of the Boston Redevelopment Authority dramatically changed the face of Roxbury with two programs, the Washington Park Urban Renewal Program and the Campus High Urban Renewal Program. Many homes, business, schools and churches were torn down and residents displaced, often permanently. One significant victory was the creation of the Lower Roxbury Community Development Corporation (now the Madison Park Development Corporation) which developed housing in the Madison Park area to replace the homes that were torn down.
The most prolonged struggle was around school segregation and quality education, which began with demands for school integration and continued to the 1974 Garrity decision which enforced integration by bussing of black students to white schools. Schools in Boston are still the focus of organizing and activism so that Boston students can finally receive an education that empowers them to succeed in the 21st century.
More recent community activism has revitalized historic areas and created Roxbury Heritage State Park. The relocation of the Orange Line and development of the land once cleared for the highway have spurred major investment, including Roxbury Community College, the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, and the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. As the physical landscape continues to change, so too do Roxbury’s demographics: Recent immigrants from Africa and African American residents constitute approximately 65 percent of Roxbury, people of Hispanic or Latino roots 25 percent, and white people 10 percent. What remains unchanged is people’s desire to use the land and buildings in ways that best benefit the community.