BOSTON ― The Harriet Tubman House stands tall in the South End, one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. In the afternoon, the sun hits the front of the three-story brick building, entering its atrium and halls through picture windows and shining on art dedicated to Black history and culture. A mural, wrapped around the front and right side of the building, celebrates the building’s namesake, other trailblazers and a community with a rich history hidden in plain sight.
Since 1976, the Harriet Tubman House’s rooms have been filled with multiple generations of people, mostly Black, who wanted to be fed, nurtured and understood.
The cherished building, which sits at 566 Columbus Ave., is owned by a 127-year-old community institution, United South End Settlements (USES). Among its tenants are six community organizations that aim to help Boston’s most disempowered. Through those nonprofits, families have been able to find affordable housing, get child care, obtain their GEDs, acquire job training and find solace. The Harriet Tubman House, in a neighborhood unlike many of the homogenous parts of Boston, helped bring a community together.
But in recent weeks, the building has been mostly empty. It is now in the process of being sold, news that has sparked protests from community members who wish to preserve an icon of Black history in Boston. But USES told HuffPost that selling the Tubman House was necessary in order for the organization to survive, per publicist Sean Hennesey.
In February, USES told its tenants that it was planning to sell the building to real estate development group New Boston Ventures, which would demolish it to make way for a six-story commercial and residential space with a “social enterprise café” for community gathering, according to New Boston Ventures principal David Goldman. The new building will keep the Tubman House’s mural and designate some workspace for USES programs, changes Goldman said were made after listening to community members.
In May, leaders at USES told tenants that they had 90 days to leave the building (the original deadline was since extended to Nov. 30). Four of the nonprofit organizations under USES’ lease — Multicultural AIDS Coalition, Boston Prime Timers, Boston Debate League and Montessori Parent Child Center — agreed. USES and the development company worked to permanently relocate the four groups to new buildings close to the neighborhood.
But the remaining two groups, housing rights organization Tenants Development Corporation and reproductive rights group Resilient Sisterhood, refused and stayed behind to fight for the legacy of the Harriet Tubman House and against efforts to gentrify a neighborhood full of Black history. And they brought other community members and alumni of USES programs with them.
Demonstrations commenced ahead of community meetings, including two in August that engaged the broader community beyond just tenants. Protesters chanted to let the facilitators of the sale know “we will not be erased.”
It became a battle to save their home and their history.
A Legacy Of Black History In Boston
The Harriet Tubman House is now facing its fourth move in its history. In 1904, six Black women — including one of Tubman’s friends Julia O. Henson — rented the first Harriet Tubman House at 37 Holyoke Street in the South End to help other Black women who had just moved from the South and were looking for a place to stay. Later, Henson donated her home, located on the same street, for the house’s expanding programs. Along with Cornelia Robinson, Annie W. Young, Fannie R. Contine, Jestina A. Johnson, Sylvia Fern and Hibernia Waddell, she organized a settlement house to feed, clothe, shelter and provide community for Black women transitioning to a new city, going on to officially incorporate it in 1906. Tubman was named honorary president of the house just four years before her death in 1913. In 1960, the house was merged with other local settlement houses to form USES.
In 1976, 566 Columbus Avenue was erected to serve as a modern home for USES’ programs and to honor Tubman’s legacy. It sits on land that was home to Boston’s historic Hi-Hat jazz club, the famed venue where icons like Miles Davis used to play. Behind it was a former Pullman porter meeting place where Black workers would organize. Across the street on Massachusetts Avenue sits the building where W.E.B. DuBois held some of the first NAACP meetings. Just a block away on the same street is the home in which Martin Luther King Jr. lived while attending Boston University.
Arnesse Brown, head of I Am Harriet, a group formed out of the fight to save the building, often went to the Tubman House as a child. She told HuffPost that the building is one of the last standing pieces of Boston’s Black history that hasn’t been relegated to a mere plaque. She is also the corporate relations manager of TDC, the Black-owned housing and development company founded in the Tubman House that won a case that helped secure tenants’ rights across the country. She said she finds it ironic that her nonprofit is being displaced from the building that gave birth to it.
“This particular place, where it sits, and it was done purposefully, it sits in a tremendous amount of African American history, some known, some unknown, and it’s still needed,” Brown said. “This is creating more condos in an area that is overwhelmed by condos. But it’s also one of Boston’s most diverse neighborhoods and has been celebrated as such and it’s becoming more and more homogenized, less and less people of color and more and more wealthy and affluent whites.”
Murmurs about the sale permeated the walls of the Tubman House for more than two years, but nothing had been confirmed. USES leadership met with tenants in December 2017 to discuss a “strategic plan implementation and real estate options for the future,” saying they were “in a period of hearing from the community at large (including you) on these options,” according to an email sent to tenants.
A Financial Bind
In November 2018, tenants received a letter from USES President Maicharia Weir Lytle and board chair Julia Johannsen stating that the organization was “exploring the creation of a new Harriet Tubman House” at one of its other buildings located at 48 Rutland Street, less than half a mile away. The letter also stated that they were “seeking proposals for 566 Columbus Avenue to fund the expansion.”
Around the same time, USES leaders notified tenants that their spaces would transition to month-to-month leases until June 30, 2019, at the earliest, despite not having a buyer at the time.
“Our strategic planning process clearly indicated that … in order to financially survive, we needed to consolidate our programs under one roof,” Weir Lytle told HuffPost. “We knew we were going to enter a real estate process. We did that with as much transparency as we were able to do.” Weir Lytle said USES held community meetings about entering the real estate planning process and after the organization decided it would consolidate to the Rutland Street building.
Some tenants and community members, however, say that USES wasn’t transparent about the sale. Rachel Goldberg, a real estate investor and community member opposed to the sale, said the organization’s process didn’t actively engage the community.
“The process itself was flawed. People were not aware of it,” Goldberg told HuffPost. She suggested either repurposing it or changing the position of the property in the market as alternative solutions. “Demolition is really the last and final option and in this case not necessary at all.”
Weir Lytle told HuffPost that USES explored other options but were left with the decision to either sell the Tubman House or risk shuttering their organization. She and Johannsen told HuffPost that parting ways with the building was hard for them, too, but said that it was necessary for the survival of USES and its programs that benefit thousands. They noted that the building on Rutland Street is not only in better condition than the Tubman House but also old enough to be considered “historic” by law, which would qualify for a tax credit.
Since the early 2000s, the organization has had difficulty fundraising and hasn’t been able to recover, said Weir Lytle.
“We spend over $400,000 a year just to keep the doors open and the lights on. So being able to offload that on our budget and take that money and actually invest it into our programs is really necessary,” she said of the Tubman House.
Though the building isn’t old enough to be deemed historic by law, community members and the two nonprofits who are against the sale feel as though one of the last pieces of Black history remaining in the South End is being ripped away from them.
“This is yet another one of the major Black institutions in Boston that is being bulled over and in this case torn down for condos,” former city councilor Tito Jackson told HuffPost. “To lose these institutions is not only an institutional loss but it’s also a loss of services and a loss of history in particular.”
Brown and the rest of I Am Harriet know this is about more than a building. They fear what will come of the people who severely needed the Tubman House’s programs, especially those that could be cut because of USES’ new vision.
“The most people who are going to be impacted are the underserved, the low-income families, the low-income people who lost all of their services,” Brown said, noting that many of the people who benefited from the GED, ESOL and job training services at the Tubman House came from other Black neighborhoods in the city like Mattapan, Dorchester and Roxbury. “This is a center that served the entire city of Boston, low-income white, low-income Asian, but predominantly low-income Black and Latino.”
Goldman of New Boston Ventures said the new building will host workspace for displaced USES nonprofit organizations on its ground level. According to Goldman, 17% of the condos in the building will be affordable housing units for local artists, 4% higher than the city’s requirement for new condo buildings.
Lilly Marcelin, a member of I Am Harriet and the founding director of the Resilient Sisterhood Project, said that this compromise is not enough.
“They’re taking away our properties and they’re giving us crumbs and the crumbs are in the form of units,” she told HuffPost. “But they’re really pitting the community against one another and if you resist the crumbing of luxury condos, it’ll appear as though you aren’t supporting these artists in getting access to the apartments.”
Weir Lytle apologized on behalf of USES “if people did not feel listened to or heard” in the process of the building’s sale.
“As a woman of color leading an agency that predominantly serves people of color, I think that’s really unfortunate,” she told HuffPost. “USES is in the business of making sure that our communities that have been traditionally left out and oppressed, which has been the Black community of Boston, have access to services. That is the sole purpose of our organization. And I will continue to tell people that that is what we do.”