Memory of Malcolm X Returns to Boston in Prison Letter Auction

Malcolm X penned the three page, double-sided letter while serving time at Norfolk Prison Colony.
Malcolm X penned the three page, double-sided letter while serving time at Norfolk Prison Colony. –RR Auction

Human rights activist, brother of Islam, Black nationalist, jazz enthusiast. Former Roxbury resident Malcolm X—born Malcolm Little–was all of these things, some more well-known to the public than others. The last part of that description will be getting some extra attention, as a letter he penned inside a Norfolk prison in 1950 is returning to Boston to be sold at auction.

The six-page letter to a friend combined 25-year-old Malcolm X’s recent conversion to Islam and the jazz musicians he had come in contact with while working at the Roseland State Ballroom on Massachusetts Avenue and frequenting the Savoy Jazz Cafe near Symphony Hall.

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Malcolm X served most of a six-year larceny sentence in what was then known as Norfolk Prison Colony. Before beginning his sentence in 1946, he resided in Roxbury and worked at Boston’s Omni Parker House. That same hotel will host the RR Auction on January 22.

It remains unclear who, exactly, the letter was sent to, since Malcolm X most likely used a salutation rather than the recipient’s actual name. Still, the message reveals personal details about the young activist.

“No wonder we so continuously have sought the lures of night life to create some sort of peace within ourselves,’’ he wrote of the “devils’’ of society who imprisoned him. “No wonder we have so longingly turned so often to music for its comforting effects.’’

He also wrote about the jazz scene in which he immersed himself before being sent to Norfolk, claiming to have spent time with famous musicians and wondering if they too might now be followers of Islam.

The closing note of the six-page letter. —RR Auction

“Today I fear the temptations of that life and its memories, so I steer as far clear from the subject as possible unless I know the fellows are brothers,’’ he wrote, pledging to only indulge in jazz music if it came from a follower of Islam. “There are many that I really should write to…so I ask you the ones who are for the Truth.’’

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“My ace girl was Dina (sic) Washington,’’ he wrote of legendary crooner Dinah Washington, who became the most popular black female singer of the 1950s and was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “She’s still the greatest.’’

According to an RR Auction statement, Malcolm X later wrote of Boston’s jazz scene in his 1964 autobiography, in which he recalled meeting Boston-born saxophonist Sonny Stitt and vibraphonist Milt Jackson, who attended Berklee College of Music.

RR Auction Executive Vice President Bobby Livingston told Boston.com that in bringing the letter to Malcolm X’s former workplace “we can bring the spirit of him back to Boston.’’

“[The letter] reveals a lot about him when he was a teenager,’’ Livingston said. “He ventured back in his mind to 1945, to leaving Michigan and coming to Boston. He had been around musicians since he was a shoe-shine boy’’ at the Roseland State Ballroom.

Jazz was “one of the most modern art forms of African American music,’’ Livingston said. “It fit into the black nationalist movement.’’

Also among the auction’s items is a 1964 TIME Magazine Man of the Year cover recognizing Martin Luther King, Jr. and signed by King himself. The public auction will be held in The Martin Luther King Room at the hotel.

Livingston said the Malcolm X letter will be on display at RR Auction’s gallery at 236 Commercial Avenue on January 21, and is expected to go for $15,000-$20,000. Anyone can participate in the January 22 auction by registering online or at the Omni Parker House.

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