Boston’s Black Community Fights To Save Harriet Tubman House From Being Shut Down Over Gentrification

A portrait of Harriet Tubman, African-American abolitionist and a Union spy during the American Civil War, circa 1870. (Photo by HB Lindsey/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Boston’s Black Community Fights To Save Harriet Tubman House From Being Shut Down Over Gentrification

“We will not be erased.”

Published October 4th

Written by Zayda Rivera

The Harriet Tubman House in Boston’s South End is up for sale. 

The United South End Settlements (USES), a 127-year-old community institution, currently owns the building that houses six community organizations, which aim to help Boston’s most disempowered, the Huffington Post reports.    

Those community organizations have assisted local families in finding affordable housing, getting childcare, obtaining their GEDs, acquiring job training and finding solace, according to HuffPost. 

The three-story building, located at the corner of Massachusetts and Columbus Avenues, has been a staple in the community for more than 40 years.

While the community is in an uproar over the sale of the historic property, USES said the sale is needed and the proceeds from it will ensure USES lives on, the Bay State Banner reported when the sale was first announced publicly.

“We’ve had to look at how we ensure the organization keeps its doors open,” Executive Director Maicharia Weir Lytle told the Bay State Banner. “We’ve been looking at how we can utilize our real estate to further our mission.” 

RELATED: Harriet Tubman Liberated Herself On This Day In History

In recent weeks, the building that is usually bustling with activity has been quiet and empty during the process of being sold. 

The new plans will include demolishing the building to make way for a six-story commercial and residential space with a “social enterprise cafe” for community gathering, according to New Boston Ventures principal David Goldman, the HuffPost reports. 

What will remain is the Tubman House’s mural and some workspace will be designated to USES programs, which was something the community members want, Goldman said, according to the HuffPost. 

Tenants have until Nov. 30 to vacate the building, a deadline extension from the original move out date in August. 

Four out of the six community organizations that have lived and thrived in that building, have agreed to go. 

USES and New Boston Ventures worked to permanently relocate the Multicultural AIDS Coalition, Boston Prime Timers, Boston Debate League and Montessori Parent Child Center, according to the HuffPost.

As for the other two COs -- housing rights organization Tenants Development Corporation and reproductive rights group Resilient Sisterhood -- refused to leave and are instead fighting for the legacy of the historical building. 

They are not alone in their efforts to preserve the neighborhood full of Black history. Other community members and alumni of USES programs have joined in the fight with them, HuffPost reports. 

“We will not be erased,” protesters chanted during two demonstrations that took place ahead of community meetings in August. 

“South end residents demanding an end to private developers building luxury condos in place of the historic site of the Harriet Tubman House,” Deborah Shariff captioned a video on Facebook during one of the protests.

If sold, this won’t be the first time the Harriet Tubman House has had to move. In fact, this will be it’s fourth time, according to HuffPost. 

In 1906, it moved from its original location, which was rented by six Black women, including one of Tubman’s friends, Julia O. Henson, in 1904. The first move was to Henson’s home, which she donated to house the expanding programs. It remained in that location on Holyoke Street until 1960 before moving to 566 Columbus Avenue in 1976, where it stands today, the HuffPost reports.

I Am Harriet is a group formed out of the fight to save the building. The head of the group, Arnesse Brown, frequently visited the Tubman House as a child.

According to Brown, the Tubman House is one of the “last standing pieces of Boston’s Black history that hasn’t been relegated to a mere plaque,” she told the HuffPost.

“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 a area that is overwhelmed by condos,” Brown continued. “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.” 

Despite the resistance, USES President Weir Lytle said the sale is necessary to fund the expansion of the new Harriet Tubman House located at 48 Rutland Street, less than half a mile away from its current location, HuffPost reports. 

“Our strategic planning process clearly indicated that … in order to financially survive, we needed to consolidate our programs under one roof,” she told the 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.” 

While the decision to move was a difficult one for Weir Lytle, there are other benefits that attracted her to do it. Besides the survival of USES and its programs, the Rutland Street building is in better condition than the current location and is also old enough to be considered “historic” by law, which would qualify for a tax credit, according to the HuffPost. 

“The most people who are going to be impacted are the underserved, low income families, the low-income people who lost all of their services,” Brown told HuffPost. “This is a center that served the entire city of Boston, low-income white, low-income Asian, but predominantly low-income Black and Latino.”

Photo: HB Lindsey/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

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