Boston is a city of firsts.
The first official US police force, established 1631; birthplace of the American Revolution in 1775; the inaugural World Series won by their Red Sox baseball team in 1903.
Yet it remains one of the last big US cities to elect a mayor who isn’t a white man.
That’s now changing.
A historic race is under way where all five candidates on the September preliminary ballot are people of color, four of them women, two of whom are black.
“There’s never been an election like this in Boston,” said Erin O’Brien, an associate professor in political science and race at the University of Massachusetts. “The city has a reputation for being one of the most unequal places in America.”
Boston and the surrounding area is known as the “Athens of America” – home of the Kennedys, of Harvard and MIT, extraordinary biotech advancements, including the Moderna vaccine, and many sporting heroes.
It’s also famous for racism.
From being one of the first states to legalize slavery, to the violent 1970s desegregation bussing protests, to the false arrest of an African American Harvard professor in 2009 for “breaking into his own house”, to the taunting of black athletes.
A 2015 survey found that whilst the median net worth of white Bostonians, who make up 52% of the population, was $247,000, the worth of non-immigrant, African American Bostonians, who make up 25%, was $8.
Or as Leonardo DiCaprio put it in the Oscar-winning gangster film The Departed: “You’re a black guy in Boston. You don’t need any help from me to be completely fucked.”
Then something happened in January.
“When mayor Marty [Walsh] was tapped to be Biden’s labor secretary, it set off a starting gun,” said O’Brien.
After a year of Black Lives Matter, coronavirus and a loosening of the Democrat party’s “wait your turn” policy, for the first time anyone could run – apart from white men.
“We’ve ended up with an embarrassment of riches,” she added.
The top four candidates hoping to do battle in November are all women of color.
Michelle Wu, 36, the Chicago-born, Harvard-educated, Taiwanese American who became the city’s first Asian female councillor in 2013, the first woman of color council president in 2016, and who was endorsed by her former professor Elizabeth Warren.
Andrea Campbell, 39, an African American lawyer turned city councillor, who grew up in Boston public housing and ran for office after her twin brother died in a prison hospital aged 29.
And Annissa Essaibi George, 47, a former teacher of Arab and Polish immigrants, and a city councillor at large.
The fourth candidate, Kim Janey, is technically already Boston’s first female and black acting mayor, after, as council president, stepping into the vacated seat in March.
“It’s a historic vote”, said the 56-year-old Janey, a fourth generation Bostonian who previously worked in education non-profits.
She’s already unpacked, hanging pictures of Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris, and a sign that reads: “Work, Pray, Slay.”
The honeymoon was short. One of her first acts was to fire the new African American police commissioner, appointed by Walsh, over domestic abuse allegations, amid a $250,000 police overtime fraud and an officer reportedly recorded gloating about running over protesters during a racial justice march last year.
Janey added: “We’ve come a long way since I was bussed as an 11-year-old, when I had racial slurs and rocks thrown at me, but we have more to do. Returning to normal is not the goal. We are hungry for change. It’s about building a movement where everyone has a seat at the table.”
There’s only one top seat though.
A June poll put Wu and Janey as the frontrunners, followed by Essaibi George and Campbell and the fifth, male candidate, John Barros, 48, a Cape Verdean American and ex-city economic development chief, last.
But Wu, who pushed through paid parental leave and banned health insurance discrimination over gender identity, has been called an “elite outsider”, despite eight years in office and raising her sisters during her mother’s mental health illness.
She told the Guardian she grew up “unseen and unheard” but is amazed at the “rapid transformation of Boston politics”.
Wu added: “When I first joined the city council, we doubled the number of women [of color] from one, then councillorAyanna Pressley, to two. Now, our city council is majority women of color. We are at a turning point in our city.”
Whilst Essaibi George touts 13 years of teaching and “immigrant parents who sacrificed a lot”, Campbell and Janey cite their “lived experience” as local Black women who relate to challenges facing people of colour.
Janey’s supporters claim she’s experiencing unfair criticism that white male acting mayors didn’t.
Whilst Campbell has faced controversial calls to stand down to avoid “splitting the black vote”.
Campbell, who recently broke “generational cycles of poverty” to become her family’s first homeowner, said: “Black women are not a monolith. There’s room for more than one on the ballot. I refuse to sit on the sidelines.”
In 1983, Suzanne Lee, an Asian American community leader and former Boston public school principal who arrived from China aged 11 and twice stood for district councillor, campaigned for Mel King, the first Black mayoral candidate to reach the final.
He lost, like everyone else in the last 199 years, to a white man.
“I’ve been waiting 40 years for another chance,” said 71-year-old Lee.
“Boston is very insular and exclusionary. Unless you were born here, you’re not part of Boston. If you look different, you’re not part of Boston. No-one will do it for us, we have to do it together. People of color, working people and immigrants … fighting for equality, justice and democracy. Finally, we are coming.”