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The gathering of prominent black leaders and activists at Faneuil Hall a century ago was a pivotal moment in the history of the African-American civil rights movement and for Boston, but it has been largely forgotten.
W.E.B. DuBois, Boston's William Monroe Trotter, and scores of other organizers of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization that spawned the NAACP, met in 1907 to discuss how best to oppose segregationist laws in the United States.
Disagreements among the 800 civil rights leaders and activists from around the country widened a split between DuBois and Trotter, fractured the young Niagara Movement, and marked the start of Boston's decline as a national political and social hub for African-Americans.
Yesterday, local scholars and community leaders, including Governor Deval Patrick, launched four days of recognition and educational talks about the 1907 Boston meeting and its role in the city's history.
Organizers at the NAACP, the William Monroe Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and other groups said they want to teach young people about black leaders who are often overlooked in American history classes.
"When our children are hard pressed to name their family three or four generations back, how can you expect them to know such a historic movement as the Niagara Movement or the inception of the NAACP?" said the Rev. John M. Borders, pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan. "It's a whole new reeducation. It's a reevaluation of who we are as a people that this could instigate, and that's my hope."
The story of Boston's black heritage is frequently eclipsed by the Boston Tea Party and other events of the American Revolution, said Janie Ward, professor and chairwoman of the Africana studies department at Simmons College.
"We in Boston need to be reminded of the richness of this history, and we need to be reminded that black folks have been here for a very long time," said Ward, whose three-story Cambridge house was once the home of a founder of the Niagara Movement. "This is our city."
Black leaders founded the Niagara Movement in 1905, nine years after the US Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, permitted policies of racial segregation.
The Niagara Movement held its first meeting on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and its second a year later at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where abolitionist John Brown led a raid to free enslaved Africans nearly 50 years earlier.
Boston was chosen as the site for the third annual meeting the following year, because of its abolitionist history and because it was Trotter's home base. Trotter, a Harvard graduate, businessman, and newspaper publisher, was Boston's most prominent black leader at the turn of the century and was a large figure on the national stage.
The Boston meeting was the largest of the Niagara Movement sessions and the first to include women. Although the organization met twice more, the session spelled the movement's end. Tensions mounted between DuBois and Trotter at the Boston meeting regarding the group's leadership and particularly whether it should include whites in leadership roles.
DuBois joined liberal whites and helped found the NAACP in 1909. Trotter, who broke off to form the National Equal Rights League, and other black activists felt that the NAACP was too radical and that it should not include whites in leadership roles.
"They were out of touch with the racial politics of the time," said Kerri Greenidge, who teaches in the African-American studies department at Northeastern University.
With the black migration from the South to the North and the beginning of an economic downturn in New England, the black population grew more slowly in Boston than in cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, said state Representative Byron Rushing, who is a historian.
Trotter was the last black leader of national stature in Boston, he said.
"This actually represented the end of that period of Boston being involved in national activism in the civil rights movement," said Rushing. "If you were going to become a national leader you had to be at a center of black activity."
"There wasn't a Boston Renaissance," Rushing said. "There was a Harlem Renaissance."
The celebration kicked off yesterday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the State House, where Patrick, the state's first black governor, signed autographs for middle school students and reflected on the Niagara Movement and Boston's civil rights past.
"People were talking about issues like lynching, how to deliver the full panoply of rights and responsibilities that go with citizenship to citizens who were black," Patrick said in his remarks. "That work continues."
This week's meetings will include panels on the decade that produced Niagara and the NAACP, and African-American women's activism between the 1890s and World War I.
US Representative James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina and House majority whip, was expected to speak last night at a private ceremony at UMass-Boston.
Organizers said the event will prompt attendees to consider how blacks should respond to developments like this year's Supreme Court decision that prohibits schools from making race-based assignments for students, and the "Jena 6" case, in which six black teenagers in Jena, La., were arrested after a fight with a white student.
"It's shocking to receive still, in 2007, letters from people that have been discriminated against in public transportation, in accommodations on private bus lines ... because of the color of their skin," said Karen L. Payne, president of the NAACP's Boston branch. "We're fighting the same fight."