As the fight continues for racial equity and police reform in America, WBUR spoke with two Black women from different generations to discuss their respective activism and how their lives have intersected.
Jordan Motley, 20, is a college student from Stoughton. She recently co-organized a Black Lives Matter demonstration in her home town, after several aspects of the town’s official vigil for George Floyd rubbed her and her co-organizers the wrong way.
“The chief of police of our town actually said ‘Gregory Floyd’ and everyone had to correct her twice and scream out from the crowd, like ‘George! George!’ And then, on top of that, someone said after their speech — which was a nice speech — but they ended it with ‘all lives matter,’ ” Motley said. “This vigil took place a week and a half after the death of George Floyd … You would think that people would be sensitive and make sure they got it right.”
Phyllis Ellison-Feaster lives right down the street from Motley and is close friends with Motley’s parents from college days. But a teenager in the 1970s, she lived in Boston. In 1974, Ellison-Feaster was among the first Black students bused from Roxbury to South Boston High School — on orders from a federal judge to end de facto segregation in Boston Public Schools. As the busses rolled into Southie, the students from Roxbury were met by furious crowds of white protestors, hurling racist slurs and rocks.
Listen or read excerpts from the conversation below.
Ellison-Feaster: “Driving to South Boston High and seeing the people outside and the police and the shouting and the signs and all — that was scary. Because I didn’t know what I was really driving into on that bus.”
Oakes: “When you later understood what federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity had done to desegregate schools in Boston, how did you feel about being part of that first class?”
Ellison-Feaster: “At that time I was 14 years old. All I could think about was my right to go to school there and not the historical implications that I see now. Because I did finish and a lot of people did not — because of the pressures, because of some of the violence. I had a brother that attended South Boston High and we had a different perspective; he didn’t finish.”
Oakes: “Did you ever feel like you settled in there?”
Ellison-Feaster: “No … As far as having relationships with the white students? That didn’t happen. And when you talk about the learning environment? If you have police outside your door; you’re going through a metal detector; there’s so much tension in the school on a daily basis that you could cut it with a knife. White students were on one side of the room and Black students were on the other side of the room. And there was a lot of physical violence inside the school.
“The principal had to be removed at the time because we felt, as Black students, that he was a racist. And I was one of the students that testified in Judge Garrity’s court around desegregation. And this is right before Judge Garrity removed the principal because of the racism, and also he put in administrators that were people of color.”
Oakes: “How did you get called for that court case?”
Ellison-Feaster: “I was called because I was one of the students that was willing to testify about what was happening to Black students — that they weren’t being treated equally and that I wanted my voice to be heard.”
Oakes: So what do you both make of this moment in history?
Ellison-Feaster: “I see more of a change than I’ve ever seen before, you know, since George Floyd was killed. We have companies that are changing brands — like Aunt Jemima. Now they want to rebrand and Aunt Jemima. And Juneteenth, they are looking at it in Congress, possibly making it a national holiday. And all over the country moneys are being re-allocated — to not defund the police — but reallocating some of the moneys from the police. That didn’t happen in my time.”
Motley: “I love seeing these companies come out and say, basically, what they’re doing wrong. And it’s funny how many businesses are going to donate money to all these social justice funds.
“But the real question is, how are we seeing this systematic racism being addressed inside your organization? Because this is not just about police brutality. We’re walking for everything that hinders us from being great just because the color of our skin.”
Ellison-Feaster: “We don’t see Black people on boards — people that look like Jordan and myself. So that has an impact. And you see more now, you know, some Blacks, but not enough that are included. And particularly at the top of these organizations — banks and education and all — they don’t look like Jordan to me.”
Motley: “I like how you brought in education, because development is key to how you are when you grow up … And luckily, I had a great family structure with a dad and a mom who fought for these rights all their lives and raised me to see myself as more than what society sees me as. And not a lot of kids of color have this privilege to have a support system like that.”
Oakes: What do you hope comes out of this moment? What most do you want?
Ellison-Feaster: “I think this has to continue until there is a balance, because right now there is no balance with people of color. If you look at COVID-19 — the way that COVID-19 has affected people of color — the way housing affects people of color, the way education affects people of color. These things have to change in order for us to move on.”
Motley: “Seeing more people of color that are powerful positions in organizations — it’s not just putting them in high positions — like the hiring people are very important, too, because that’s what will get the cycle going. And also I like how I see a lot of non-people of color educating themselves, because Black people and people of color always have to deal with these issues on a daily [basis]. Racism is not just a Black people issue. We can’t defeat this if white people aren’t educating themselves.”
Oakes: “Do you both see yourselves as activists?”
Motley: “It’s kind of sad, but we, as Black people, we’re kind of forced to be activists because we have to fight and stand up for ourselves every day.”
Ellison-Feaster: “I don’t think it would be a role that I would have chosen for myself. But as far as being an activist for South Boston High School and the rights of Black students to be there? Yes, I was an activist at that time.”