Malcolm: The Boston years
The third in a month-long series of stories
commemorating Black History Month
Kenneth J. Cooper
After a long trip from Michigan, the red-haired teenager stepped
down from the Greyhound bus, starting his walk into history with
those first steps at the terminal at Park Square in Boston.
The dozen years he spent living in Massachusetts prepared Malcolm
Little to become Malcolm X, the Black Muslim feared in his own time
but so respected in death that an Ivy League college, Columbia University,
established a research center to study his life.
It was here in Boston that he went from being a partying teenager
who couldn’t keep a job, to a street hustler who got busted
and imprisoned as inmate number 22843. Behind the bars of Massachusetts
prisons he educated and remade himself into a disciplined, religious
man with the backbone to stand up for his people.
More than a half century after he moved away from Boston, there
are still many places in and around the city where anyone can look
at and say, “Malcolm was here.”
When he arrived in Boston, either in 1940 or 1941, according to
various accounts, Malcolm Little was no more than 16 and went to
live with his older half-sister, Ella Little Collins. Her two-floor
house at 72 Dale Street in Roxbury still stands and has been declared
a historical landmark by the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska and raised until his arrival here in the
smaller cities of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Lansing and Mason, Michigan,
Malcolm had been dazzled by the bright lights of “downtown
Roxbury”— apparently Dudley Square—when he visited
his half-sister the previous summer.
“I didn’t know the world contained as many Negroes as
I saw thronging downtown Roxbury at night, especially on Saturdays,”
Malcolm X wrote in his 1964 autobiography, co-authored by Alex Haley.
“Neon lights, nightclubs, poolhalls,[cq] bars, the cars they
drove! Restaurants made the streets smell-rich, greasy, down-home
black cooking. Jukeboxes blared Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington,
Cootie Williams, dozens of others.”
With only an eighth-grade education, he bounced from one menial
job to another. One was part-time at a parking lot owned by an in-law
of Ella Little Collins, Walker’s Auto Parks Company, which
was in Chinatown. Rodnell P. Collins, Ella’s son, wrote in
his 1998 book, “Seventh Child: A Family Memoir of Malcolm
X,” that she got Malcolm a job there on his second day in
Boston and he was working there when imprisoned on burglary charges
For a time he worked at the Roseland State Ballroom, which had separate
lindy hop dances for whites and blacks on different nights, shining
shoes in the men’s room — including those of Duke Ellington,
who frequently performed there.
The ballroom was on Massachusetts Avenue, where the Christian Science
park is located today. Malcolm told an amused Ella he quit that
job because “I couldn’t find time to dance and shine
Another place he hung out was the Savoy Cafe, a jazz club that used
to be at 410 Massachusetts Avenue, just west of Columbus Avenue.
He found other work as a soda jerk at the Townsend Drug Store, which
no longer exists but was in Roxbury on Humboldt Avenue at the intersection
with Townsend Street; as a busboy at the (Omni) Parker House in
downtown Boston; and as a packer at the Sears, Roebuck warehouse
in the Fenway, where the Landmark Center is now located at the intersection
of Brookline Avenue, Boylston Street and Park Drive.
For about a year ending in 1943, Malcolm worked as a Pullman porter
for the New Haven Railroad, washing dishes and serving coffee and
sandwiches to passengers on trains from South Station to Washington,
D.C. and New York City. He wrote in his autobiography that he was
so good at selling sandwiches that his fellow Pullman porters called
him “Sandwich Red.”
Before he got a job aboard trains, he loaded food supplies on to
them at the old Dover Street Yards in South Boston, according to
He spent another year in a Pullman job with the Seaboard Railroad
on long-haul trains to St. Petersburg and Miami, Florida, renting
pillows to passengers and cleaning the cars.
The railroad jobs introduced a teenage Malcolm to Harlem, which
he found even more dazzling than Roxbury, and then to the street
life. He moved to Harlem in 1943 and hustled there.
When he returned to Boston the next year, he lived in Roxbury with
his friend and partner in crime, Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis.
Malcolm Little’s first arrest came in November 1944 in Boston
for stealing and pawning an aunt’s fur coat, which was valued
at $250, according to his criminal record. He got a suspended sentence
of three months and a year of probation.
Malcolm peddled cocaine and gambled big in poker games until he
hit upon a criminal idea he figured would reap greater returns—breaking
into the homes of the well-to-do. The white girlfriends of both
Malcolm and Shorty, and a black man who waited on tables at exclusive
parties, cased the houses. They used as a base of operations a ground-floor
apartment near Harvard Square, according to the “Autobiography
of Malcolm X.”
His life of crime ended in January 1946, when he tried to pick up
a stolen watch that he had left for repair at a jewelry store in
Roxbury. The owner had reported that a watch with a broken crystal
had been taken in a Christmastime burglary in Milton, and police
had alerted all jewelers in Boston. Detectives were waiting for
him two days later when Malcolm returned. He made a prudent decision
not to resist arrest, probably preventing him from being killed
in a shootout. The whole crew, except the waiter, got busted.
Malcolm Little was prosecuted twice, on charges of breaking and
entering and larceny, in Middlesex Superior Court in East Cambridge
for burglaries in Belmont and in Norfolk Superior Court in Dedham
for others in Milton.
During the trials, he was held in the Norfolk House of Correction
in Dedham. Within six weeks, he had pleaded guilty to seven counts
and sentenced on each, 6 to 8 years or 8 to 10 years of hard labor,
to be served concurrently.
In his autobiography, Malcolm wrote about his suspicions that he
and Shorty got a high bail, $10,000, and an overly long sentence
because they had been consorting with white women.
The first stop for Malcolm, then 20, was the aging Charlestown State
Prison, which was built in 1805 and torn down in 1957. It used to
be where Bunker Hill Community College is today. He later did stints
at what are now MCI-Concord and MCI-Norfolk.
During much of his year at Charlestown, Malcolm was so foul-mouthed
that other inmates nicknamed him “Satan.” But he began
to turn his life around, taking a correspondence course in English
and then one in Latin.
At Concord Prison, several of his siblings sent letters in 1948
urging him to do as they had, and join the Nation of Islam and follow
Elijah Muhammad’s strictures against eating pork and smoking.
He promptly gave up both, inspired by one brother’s promise
it would help him get out of prison. Late that year, his half-sister
Ella succeeded in winning his transfer to Norfolk, which he described
in his autobiography as “an experimental rehabilitation”
prison at that time.
Norfolk had an outstanding library, and Malcolm devoured its books,
from the “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. DuBois
to “Paradise Lost” by Milton. He copied an entire dictionary.
He joined the debate team. Contemplation and correspondence with
his siblings drew him deeper into the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.
His last year in prison was back in Charlestown, transferred there,
Malcolm suspected, because of the content of his letters.
In August 1952, after six and a half years inside the Commonwealth’s
prisons, Malcolm Little was released on parole. He moved to Detroit,
joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Malcolm X.
A transformed Malcolm visited Boston often to see his relatives
and spread the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Some accounts credit
him with founding Muhammad’s Mosque No. 11 in Roxbury and
serving as its minister in1953 and1954, but Minister Don Muhammad,
the mosque’s longtime leader, said in an interview last week
those accounts are inaccurate.
Minister Muhammad joined the Roxbury mosque in 1957 and said Malcolm
did oversee the temple’s activities in his role as a regional
minister over mosques from Philadelphia to Boston. At the same time,
he was leader of the Harlem mosque.
“He was never the minister,” Don Muhammad said. “Malcolm
was in Boston quite often. He did not do so much preaching. He came
to represent Mister Muhammad in public forums ... and public gatherings.”
Muhammad said Malcolm was a frequent guest on a late-night talk
show, the first hosted in Boston by the late Jerry Williams. His
ratings apparently shot up whenever the provocative Malcolm was
on the show, which began in 1957 and was broadcast live on WMEX
1510 from studios in Fenway Park. “Jerry became very popular
because of Malcolm’s presence,” he said. It is undisputed
that Malcolm founded Mosque No. 13 in Springfield.
Muhammad is one of about a half-dozen senior members of Mosque No.
11 who had contact with Malcolm when he was a leader of the Nation
of Islam. Through them, and the places he frequented, the memory
of Malcolm X lives in the Boston area, more than four decades after
his death at the hands of assassins in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom
on February 21, 1965.
|Malcolm X speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C. on May 16, 1963.
|Malcolm X addressing a rally in Harlem. (AP photo)