An Open Letter to the members of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission
A resident of our community crossed Beacon Street on a bright October morning in 2016, she saw a collection of flyers pinned to the fences of the Common. “Black Lives Don’t Matter” had been posted across our neighborhood in dark font. The experiences of many people of color in Beacon Hill are riddled with such aggressions – some blatant, others more subtle. As a household of 21 people of various racial identities, our community hears some of these stories such as, the neighbor who demanded to know why a black housemate was entering his own home, or the dark-skinned guest who was so anxious about simply dropping by that she asked that our whole house be notified she was coming and be ready to let her in.
The 2010 U.S. Census found that 54% of Boston residents identified as white, while 24% identified as Black or African American. In contrast, 86% of Beacon Hill’s population identified as white, while only 2% identified as Black or African American. While undoubtedly systemic racism plays into this disparity (namely Boston’s historical redlining in the 1950’s and ongoing housing policy), it seems extremely likely that the contemporary attitudes and culture of our neighborhood play some role.
As a center for Quaker thought and practice, the Beacon Hill Friends House (BHFH) feels it has an obligation to more publicly repudiate racism in Beacon Hill and engage in a broader dialogue around racial justice with our neighbors. Like many of the other historic churches around Boston – including the Arlington Street Church, Old West Church and Old South Church – we feel called to express our allyship through a simple Black Lives Matter sign.
On April 17, the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission heard our request to hang a Black Lives Matter sign during our speaker series on Working for Racial Justice On June 23, our request was denied. This decision was echoed by the Beacon Hill Civic Association, despite strong support from several other neighbors. Although a few members of the Architectural Commission expressed sympathy for this cause, it was ultimately decided that hanging a sign on our house would establish a precedent for other residents to hang whichever signs they pleased. One commission member expressed concerns that households across the neighborhood would feel empowered to hang Bruins signs. We do not understand this rationale, since the Commission would need to grant permission for any future signs.
We believe that displaying a Black Lives Matter sign was an appropriate choice for our religious, non-profit organization. Moreover, it represented an opportunity for our whole community to respect the history of Beacon Hill, through honoring a positive legacy of racial justice and by taking a small step to redress historical enslavement, segregation and gentrification on this hill. This was, after all, home to the first public school for African American children in the country, to the stoic outrage and fire of Frederick Douglass, and to the wisdom of the abolitionist movement.
We call on the Commission and concerned neighbors to reflect on what Beacon Hill stands for today. Are we more concerned with preserving a pristine space than engaging with a living, breathing history, or protecting actual human beings?
In sharing a Black Lives Matter sign, we hoped that every tourist who visits this community would have the opportunity to reflect on meaningful issues, as well as architectural beauty. We hoped that black residents and guests would feel just a little bit safer, and that white residents would have to work through and learn from their own discomfort. We hoped to feed into a national conversation, and acknowledge the incredible work that Black Lives Matter organizers have done across the country for all our liberations.
We urge each member of the Architectural Commission to reconsider their decision and reflect on the role civic institutions can play in resisting structural racism. In order to continue a community dialogue, we would also like to invite each of you to an upcoming Anti-Racism workshop hosted by Shay Stewart-Bouley at our home at 6 Chestnut Street. Events details can be found on at www.facebook.com/BHFHBoston.
Finally, we invite our other neighbors to personally call on the Committee at (617)635-3850 to express their support for hanging a Black Lives Matter sign. If nothing else, we believe this unfortunate incident can spark a greater discussion and push us to create a more just neighborhood.
In frustration and hope,
The Beacon Hill Friends House Anti-Racism Committee
Ben Lynch, Lisa Bjerke, Will Harlan, Zoe Miller & Holly Baldwin (BHFH Director)