Black & White Boston, a model to build on by Marjorie Arons-Barron

A wonderful reunion was held Thursday, a celebration of the 20-year history of John and Diddy Cullinane’s stewardship of Black & White Boston Coming Together.  They have published a book commemorating the contribution of that organization and of many civic and business leaders to the economic and spiritual health of Boston, a community with still-open wounds from busing and from botched handling of the Charles Stuart murder case. Recent polls show Boston is still evenly divided on whether or not we are a racist community. But every once in a while, we can learn from focusing on something positive.

Many of the activists gathered at the Harvard Club last week to reflect on what had been accomplished and to lay out the case for continuing to build economic opportunities for all parts of Boston. Diddy Cullinane had grown up in Dorchester, a good Catholic girl from a large family, whose charitable impulses ranged far and wide. Husband John was the founder of Cullinet, the first entrepreneur to prove that software could be sold as a stand-alone product. The technology pioneer was also a social entrepreneur, whose contributions to civic society are also manifold.

At a difficult time in the city’s history, Black & White Boston brought together blacks and whites from corporate, media, clergy, academic, sports and public sectors to further understanding between the races, give a leg up to young people seeking to improve their lives, and spur economic initiatives that could further the goal of equal opportunity.  Its new book recalls certain milestone events, from Nelson Mandela’s visit, to a series of fundraising galas supporting a variety of minority programs, working in collaboration with other organizations like Catholic Charities or the Kennedy Library.  For a decade, “Black & White on Green” golf days raised funds for summer jobs, mentoring and scholarships. For two decades, business community breakfasts fostered diverse work environments, skill development and access to capital.

There have been many great success stories in the African-American community. The late Archie Williams founded Freedom Industries, always seeking to expand the economic base of the inner city.  His family carries on his mission. Clayton Turnbull, David Lee, Ken Granderson, Ken Guscott, Ed Dugger, Edward Owens, Ron Homer and scores of others all helped to lay the groundwork for the work that continues today, to expand opportunity and close the income gap between blacks and whites.

White leadership has worked collaboratively.  According to Diddy Cullinane, Mayor Tom Menino never missed a meeting of Black & White Boston, starting when he was a City Councillor.  And he was just one of many, including Bill Van Faasen of Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Paul La Camera of WCVB-TV, Ira Jackson of BankBoston, the Chamber’s Paul Guzzi, Fleet Bank’s John Hamill –  a list of leaders too numerous to name.

In 2008, after two decades, Black & White Boston closed its doors, having proven its “goodwill demonstration” that people of different races can work together to advance an agenda.  But the challenge remains. It’s no longer a black and white issue.  In 2000, Boston became a majority minority city. Asian and Latino populations have grown twice as fast as African-American populations, and, combined, exceed the black population. (Blacks are 22.4 percent; Hispanics, 17.5 percent; Asians 8.9 percent.) With immigration, whites represent 47 percent of the population.  Boston speaks 140 languages.

Today, Boston is a wonderfully vibrant place to live, but it is the U.S.  city with the greatest income disparity, according to The Brookings Institution. It’s not a first place we should covet. Income for the top five percent was $226,224, while the bottom 20 percent earn $14,925.  That study echoes the Boston Fed study on The Color of Wealth.  The money gap reflects enduring racial divides.

While  Black & White Boston ceased to exist as an organization, its spirit endures. Richard Taylor, real estate management executive and former transportation secretary under Governor Bill Weld, spoke about a group called New Boston Hospitality,  one of several entities working with Omni Hotels to create a thousand-room hotel in the Seaport District near the convention center.  MassPort issued a request for proposals that encouraged the use of powerful joint ventures to increase  economic opportunities for those traditionally unable to get a meaningful piece of the action.

As Taylor put it, those undertaking such initiatives are standing on the shoulders of Diddy and John Cullinane and their efforts to make Boston a better city, one that will no longer be the butt of racism one-liners on programs like Saturday Night Live.