Tag Archives: public history

“Abandoned His Duty”: Uncovering the 1919 Boston Policemen Strike

By Nina Rodwin

In the fall semester, my HIST 600 class had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative project between UMass Boston and the Boston Police Department Archives. We were tasked with documenting the lives of the officers involved in the police strike of 1919. Policemen had demanded a higher yearly salary, adopting the slogan “$200 or nothing” (Puleo, 143). When their demands were ignored, 1,400 police officers walked out. From September 9th to the 11th, Bostonians rioted and reacted violently (often towards the striking officers). President Wilson found the found the strike so disturbing that he described it as a “crime against civilization” (Puleo, 155-156). The police head clearly felt the same, firing all striking officers with no chance of re-employment. The men’s duty cards, which detailed each officer’s employment history, were stamped with a large “abandoned his duty, September 9th 1919.” These duty cards lay in the BPD archives for years, largely forgotten. It was only by chance that a former BPD archivist discovered these cards and was immediately filled with questions: who were these men and what happened to them after the strike?

Image of Hugh P. McGuire’s Duty Card

The scale of the project required collaboration, not only between UMass Boston and the BPD archivists, but also volunteers, the police officers’ descendants, and finally, my own class. While we entered the project in order to learn genealogical research skills, it was gratifying to see that our small contribution helped in a large-scale project. Each student was instructed to pick an officer and fill in vital information into a worksheet. We used public records to uncover these men’s lives, searching through the census, birth and death records, military records and newspapers. To me, the most engaging records were the census records, as they not only reflected a specific officer’s life, but also larger changing trends in America.

Image of Hugh P. McGuire from the 1901 “The Officers and The Men The Stations Without and Within of The Boston Police.” This book’s yearbook format was a great source for photographs of the striking BPD officers.

I choose Hugh P. McGuire, who seemed to have a relatively good life before the strike: he lived in his rented house with his wife and four children and had been on the police force since 1896. However, his whole family was drastically affected by the strike. Just one year later, McGuire was working as a watchman for a lumberyard. His eldest son and daughter, then in their twenties, continued to live in his house. These two children may have stayed home to contribute to family finances, as both were employed. By the 1930 census, it is clear that he was experiencing still more trouble: he was now unemployed, and while his sons seem to have left home, his two daughters remained as the sole breadwinners in his household.

By 1940, Hugh McGuire was 74 years old. According to census records, he was “unable to work.” His eldest daughter, Anna, now 40, continued to care for her parents as a secretary for the Veterans Bureau. As the sole breadwinner, she received a yearly salary of $1,980, which in today’s money ($34,500) would relegate the McGuire family to the lower class. However, this census information has its drawbacks: even though it offers us Anna’s yearly income, we don’t know, if McGuire’s sons contributed to the household, if McGuire received Social Security benefits, or if the McGuire family saved money before Hugh lost his job. In other words, the whole family may have been struggling to make ends meet.

Image from the United States Census, 1940.

The census records also leave out vital information about McGuire’s wife. Was she unemployed because she was fulfilling the stereotypical duties of white women at the time, or did her lack of education (she only completed the further grade) shut her out of the scant opportunities women could obtain? As much as the census can aid researchers, it will never be able to answer these compelling questions, and may often leave researchers with more questions!

Image from the United States Census, 1930. In the “Home Data” section, it asks the family to report if they own a radio set.

While census records offer the bare facts of an individual’s life, they are quite useful to demonstrate large-scale changes in health, education, immigration and even leisure through their questionnaires. For example, in both the 1900 and 1910 census, participants are asked to list the number of children born, as well as the number of children living. This distinction reflected the high child mortality rate during the time; Hugh’s wife was quite lucky that all four of her children survived. However, by the 1920s, efforts to combat childhood diseases increased, and the census no longer included this category. The most amusing category was in 1930s census, which included a category simply titled “radio set” reflecting the growing number of families with radios, including the McGuire family. This category disappeared by the next census in 1940, reflecting both that radio sets were no longer novelties and the assumption that most households owned a radio.

This research was so engaging that I chose to volunteer my time to help the project further. While completing the worksheets of three more policemen, I learned a valuable lesson about genealogical research: researchers should not always trust their internet searches. When attempting to find the birth records for a man named Owen Katon, I was unable to discover his information. It was only with the aid of UMass Boston archivist Joanne Riley that I noticed there had been a transcribing error between the physical documents and the online search results. When I searched for Owen Katon, I had only found one record for “William Katon” and promptly assumed it couldn’t be the correct person. However, Riley taught me an important lesson: never assume that the online search results are always correct. When I actually looked at the scanned records for “William Katon,” I discovered that the records were really for Owen Katon after all! This is not to say that websites are untrustworthy; rather, researchers must be aware of these human errors, and conduct their research accordingly.

The BPD Strike Project still continues, with the goal of completion by the 100th anniversary on September 9th, 2019. If you are looking to improve your genealogical skills, for your own personal or scholarly projects, I strongly I strongly recommend getting involved.


Puleo, Stephen. Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 2004.

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In the News: Public History Program Helps Dorchester Uncover Its Past

UMass Boston News featured a story about the exciting work that our Public History program has undertaken this spring. Text from the following article was written by UMass Boston News writer, Anna Fisher-Pinkert.

When most people think of Boston history, the images that come to mind are the Old North Church, the brownstones of Beacon Hill, or the Old South Meeting House. UMass Boston history professors and students are working to expand our knowledge and understanding of the history right in the university’s own Dorchester neighborhood through two new projects.

“Building a People’s History of Dorchester.” a community event that occurred in April.

On April 22, Jane Becker, internship coordinator and history lecturer, and Monica Pelayo, assistant professor of history and director of the public history master’s program, collaborated with John McColgan, Archivist, Boston City Archives, to host “Building a People’s History of Dorchester” at the Dorchester Historical Society. The event was designed to encourage current and former Dorchester residents to take part in telling the story of their neighborhood.

Approximately 30 people attended this initial meeting, and contributed ideas for building a timeline of Dorchester history. For Pelayo and Becker, this is just the beginning of a conversation about how to help the community tap into their own history.

“What’s important about this process is that it comes from the bottom up, not from the top down,” Pelayo said.

She added that people don’t always realize that their family photos, documents, or keepsakes are potential historical resources for their communities. Pelayo and Becker plan to have more events in the future to encourage individuals and community organizations to participate in the project.

UMass Boston public history master’s students are also involved in revealing a piece of Dorchester’s history. This semester, students partnered with city archaeologist and UMass Boston alum Joe Bagley to tell the stories of women and girls who lived and worked at the Industrial School for Girls in the 1860s. The school was founded in the 1850s to train poor girls to work as domestic servants.

Online exhibit documenting the history of Dorchester Industrial School for Girls.

The history graduate students wrote about the women and girls at the school, and created a website to share their findings with the public. Much of the information on daily life in the school came from the objects uncovered by Bagley in a 2015 archaeological dig.

Exhibition Opening & Reception: Dorchester’s Industrial School for Girls.

Want to learn more about the rich history of Dorchester Industrial School for Girls?

The graduate students and Bagley will present their findings on May 10 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum.

Join us at this event–it’s free and open to the public.

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Beloved UMass Boston Professor and Scholar Passes Away

We mourn the loss of Professor Emeritus James R. Green, who passed away in Boston on June 23 after nearly two years struggling with complications of leukemia.

James Green, Professor Emeritus of History, College of Liberal Arts
Jim Green, Professor Emeritus of History, College of Liberal Arts, UMB.

Jim Green was a prolific scholar and beloved teacher. One student commented:

“Jim Green was my favorite teacher. He inspired us to read, understand and learn from workers’ history. Most of all he showed us he cared about us as students. He was a gift to working people!”


Cover of The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom (2015).
Cover of The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom (2015).

His two most recent books received wide acclaim: Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America (2006) and The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom (2015). The latter was the basis for an “American Experience” PBS program, The Mine Wars, broadcast on January 26, 2016; four million viewers tuned in.

A prominent member of a wave of historians who transformed labor history in the 1970s and 1980s, Jim Green deeply influenced the broader field of social history. In 2010, Jim was named Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. Indeed, he was the recipient of many awards, including in April of this year the Labor and Working Class History Association’s Award for Distinguished Service. The text of the award reads in part: “In seven books, many articles, films, exhibits, local tour guides, and other cutting-edge labor education and public history projects, Professor Green has opened new avenues of scholarly inquiry and pioneered new ways to communicate historical narratives to broad audiences.”

Jim received his doctorate in history from Yale University, where he studied with C. Vann Woodward, who proved a model for writing history with a purpose. Jim came to UMB’s College of Public and Community Service (CPCS) in 1977. At CPCS he developed the Labor Studies Program, served as Acting Dean for a year, and held several other positions of academic leadership. In 2006, he joined the Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts, where he founded and directed the Public History Graduate Track, from 2009 until his retirement in 2014.

Not only were Jim’s publications distinguished by their scholarly rigor and depth of analysis, but, as one colleague put it: “Reading his books was like reading novels. He was a marvelous story teller.” Jim worked hard to be that story teller, but he was fundamentally committed to helping people tell their own histories. Jim worked to bring historical scholarship to audiences outside the academy, and democratize the writing and telling of history in both academic scholarship and public venues.  His work across multiple contexts—as university teacher, historian of the labor movement, participant in neighborhood history projects, editor and contributor for the journal Radical Ame51Q8TRWJRJL._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_rica, co-founder of Massachusetts History Workshops, President of the Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA), and partner and collaborator on documentary films–Jim’s personal and professional commitments serve as models for public historians and indeed, all publicly engaged scholarship. Jim tells his own story eloquently in his 2000 publication, Taking History to Heart: The Power of the Past in Building Social Movements.

Jim’s work as a scholar was matched by his devotion to his teaching. Students over the years viewed his courses as life-changing. One former student commented: “Jim Green was my favorite teacher. He inspired us to read, understand and learn from workers’ history. Most of all he showed us he cared about us as students. He was a gift to working people!”

In 2014, Jim Green was interviewed at the UMass Boston Mass. Memories Road Show about his work at UMass Boston and as part of union activities on campus.

In 2011, he donated his papers to University Archives & Special Collections. This collection details his career and activist history from 1964 to 2010. View the finding aid for the James Green papers here.

Jim Green is survived by his wife, Janet Grogan; their son, Nicholas Green of Somerville; his daughter by an earlier marriage, Amanda Green of Cambridge; his former wife, Carol McLaughlin; his mother, Mary Kaye Green; and three siblings and several nieces and nephews.

The family asks that people wishing to honor Jim’s memory to make a contribution either to nurses at the bone marrow transplant ward on Feldberg 7 at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center—send to BI Deaconess Medical Center, Office of Development, 330 Brookline Avenue-OV, Boston, MA 02215, with “James Green/Nursing General Fund” on the memo; or to the “James Green Scholarship in Labor Studies,” and send to University Advancement, UMass Boston, 100 Morrissey Blvd., Boston, MA 02125.

An open house will be held at 5 p.m., Thursday, June 30, in Dr. Green’s Somerville home (72 Mt. Vernon St.). A larger, public memorial gathering will be announced for later in the year.

A great deal more information about Jim can be found at http://jamesgreenworks.com/ obituaries appear in the Boston Globe and New York Times.



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