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Lawrence Harmon

Rolling out the red carpet for black conventions

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / September 19, 2010

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BOSTON’S ORNERY reputation doesn’t stop conference organizers in medicine, life sciences, and academia from booking the city’s convention center. Then again, Bostonians never stoned busloads of modern language professors during the 1970s or tried to impale a visiting scientist with a flagpole on City Hall Plaza.

Minority meeting planners, on the other hand, have shunned Boston for years. Decades-old images of rocks raining down on black students during school desegregation and the 1976 flag assault on a black luminary have kept some civil rights groups and black tour groups away from Boston for 35 years. What seems like a bizarre throwback to locals still feels fresh to many black out-of-towners. Why, then, should minorities take a risk on Boston when convention space beckons in sunny Orlando, friendly Nashville, or cosmopolitan New York City?

After five years of intensive marketing by the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority and determined efforts by the city’s black leadership, Boston has landed two coveted black conventions. As many as 15,000 conference-goers from the National Urban League and Blacks in Government will be arriving in July and August to see for themselves whether Boston’s lingering reputation for hostility to minorities is deserved or drivel.

No city is a bastion of brotherhood. But the overt racism of the 1970s has about as much to do with today’s Boston as does the 19th-century whaling industry. The school desegregation battle is of deep historical significance. But the period no longer informs day-to-day relations between the races, and hasn’t for many years. Slightly more than half of the city’s residents are minorities. Beaches on Boston Harbor where blacks and whites were loath to mix a few decades ago now look like a publicity photo for a multicultural festival. And South Boston, the site of the worst school desegregation violence, is better integrated than any liberal suburb in Massachusetts.

If conference attendees encounter sneers next summer it will be because of “geography of personality,’’ not race hostility. A 2008 University of Cambridge study on the phenomenon ranked Massachusetts residents near the bottom of the 50 states on extroversion and agreeableness. And that study controlled for variables such as race. But the same study ranked Massachusetts near the top of the nation on openness to new ideas. Urban League attendees may not get a cheery greeting from our twisted lips. But they are sure to find an open-minded local audience for their presentations on the state of black America and other research topics.

All Bostonians, meanwhile, should consider how much work it took to change outdated views. Since 2004, marketers for the Boston convention center have hosted black meeting planners for “weekends of discovery.’’ Black leaders in politics and business ushered visitors along the city’s black heritage trail and accompanied guests to the city’s premier multicultural social event — the annual “Steppin’ Out’’ Gala for the Dimock Community Health Center. Darnell Williams, president of the local Urban League affiliate, worked tirelessly to promote Boston to his counterparts across the United States.

The city’s black leaders even hit the road to redeem Boston’s reputation. In July, city Councilor Ayanna Pressley worked the crowd at the Urban League’s centennial conference in Washington, D.C., where she issued scores of personal invitations to next year’s conference in Boston. Often she was met with shock by blacks who didn’t know that Boston has a thriving black community. A few were unaware even that Massachusetts has a black governor. But people had heard of Charles Stuart, a white man who killed his pregnant wife in 1989 and convinced much of the city — for a time, at least — that a black gunman had done it.

“Those images left an indelible impression,’’ said Pressley, a native Chicagoan who came to Boston for college in 1992.

And what image of Boston does Pressley, the first black woman elected to the City Council, have of the city? “I’ve always had a love affair with Boston,’’ she said.

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said his members like to venture into the host community and enjoy “cultural tourism.’’ That’s a plus for Boston over, say, Orlando. He also said his members enjoy the red-carpet treatment and “want to be embraced.’’ That could be a problem given the findings of the “geography of personality’’ study.

But Morial can be certain of one thing. Bostonians are honored to host the event, even if we have a hard time showing it.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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