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Mapping Malcolm’s Boston

Exploring the City that Made Malcolm X

Photo of Ella Little-Collins and a young Malcolm X (then known as Malcolm Little) taken at the side of their house at 72 Dale Street in 1941. Malcolm is wearing a zoot suit and has his hair conked, a style he picked up while living in Boston. From Rodnell P. Collins and A. Peter Bailey, Seventh Child: A Family Memoir of Malcolm X (Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1998) (photo credit: Rodnell P. Collins).

Kayla Wheeler


In his autobiography, Malcolm X writes of his move to Boston, “No physical move in my life has been more pivotal or profound in its repercussions.”1 He lived on and off in Boston from 1941 to 1953 and frequently visited the city after taking up permanent residence in Harlem, where he served as the principal minister of Mosque No. 7 and later founded the Muslim Mosque Incorporated. His time in Boston was essential to his religious and political development. It is in Boston where Malcolm began his life as a small-time hustler, which would eventually land him in prison for burglary. While imprisoned, Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam by his siblings, improved his reading skills, and found his passion for public speaking and debate.

While much has been written on Malcolm X’s life in Harlem—pre- and post-Nation of Islam—far less has been written on his time in Boston. My digital project, Mapping Malcolm’s Boston, will fill this void by exploring sites in the Greater Boston area that were central to Malcolm X’s political and religious development, as well as more mundane locations that help to present him as a full human being rather than a mythical figure.

When completed, Mapping Malcolm’s Boston will feature an interactive map that highlights ten sites important to Malcolm X’s political and religious development. I will use three main texts to detail Malcolm X’s life in Boston: The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley; Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable; and Seventh Child: A Family Memory of Malcolm X by Rodnell P. Collins.

The map will be based on visual archival research, photography, and interviews with local Bostonians. Where possible, I will pair current images of locations with pictures of what those sites looked like when Malcolm X was living in Boston. In addition to telling the story of Malcolm X’s life in Boston, my project will highlight gentrification, demographic shifts, and urban renewal in the Greater Boston area. Many of the places Malcolm frequented no longer exist, having been replaced by apartment complexes and chain stores. Were he still alive today, Malcolm X might not recognize the Boston of his youth. My goal is to bring those sites back to life through this project.

The Sites

So far, there are ten sites featured in Mapping Malcolm X’s Boston, eight of which can be seen in the map below. These sites are plotted along a path winding from Roxbury, south of Boston proper—where Malcolm’s life in Boston began—to Charlestown in the north—where he was incarcerated at Charlestown Prison. Not visible on this map are two other important sites, the Massachusetts Correctional Institute-Concord and the Massachusetts Correctional Institute-Norfolk, formerly the Norfolk Prison Colony; the latter is especially important, as here Malcolm X developed the speaking style that would attract thousands of converts to the Nation of Islam.

Map highlighting eight of ten sites in Boston important to Malcolm X’s religious and political development, covering sites 1-8 in the list below.

Here is a brief overview of the ten sites.

  1. Humboldt Avenue at Townsend Street (Roxbury): Former location of the Townsend Drugstore and Soda Fountain, where in 1941, Malcolm worked as a soda jerk and met Laura, one of his first girlfriends in Boston.
  2. 72 Dale Street (Roxbury): Malcolm lived here with his sister, Ella Little-Collins, after moving to Boston in 1941, until 1944. It is the only known home from his childhood that is still standing.
  3. Leverett House (Cambridge): Harvard University residence hall, where Malcolm delivered one of his first speeches about the newly formed Organization for Afro-American Unity on March 18, 1964, after announcing his break from the Nation of Islam on March 8, 1964.
  4. 15 Burbank Street (Boston): The former home of the Roseland-State Ballroom, where Malcolm was introduced to jazz and lindy hopping in 1941.
  5. 405 Massachusetts Avenue (Boston): The former location of Mosque No. 11, which Malcolm and his brother Wilfred helped expand from a small group that could fit into a living room to several hundred members between 1952 and 1953.
  6. 410 Massachusetts Avenue (Boston): The former home of Savoy Café, a jazz club that Malcolm frequented in the early 1940s.
  7. South Station (Boston): A main stop on the New Haven Railroad, Malcolm worked as a Pullman porter on this line, as well as the Colonial and New Yankee, on and off between 1942 and 1944. Through these jobs, Malcolm was first introduced to Washington D.C. and Harlem.
  8. Bunker Hill Community College (Boston): Site of the former Charlestown Prison, where Malcolm was first imprisoned for burglary—from February 1946 to January 1947—and where he completed his sentence in 1952.
  9. Massachusetts Correctional Institute-Concord, formerly known as the Massachusetts Reformatory at Concord: Where Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam by his siblings. He was imprisoned there from January 1947 to March 1948.
  10. Massachusetts Correctional Institute-Norfolk, formerly known as the Norfolk Prison Colony: Where Malcolm accepted the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and developed his writing and debating skills. Malcolm was imprisoned here from March 1948 to March 1950.

Below, I go into greater detail about three sites that were important to Malcolm X’s life in Boston: 72 Dale Street, the Roseland-State Ballroom, and the Norfolk Prison Colony.

72 Dale Street

Malcolm X first visited his older paternal half-sister, Ella Little-Collins, in the summers of 1939 and 1940. After he was moved to a juvenile home in Mason, Michigan, Ella invited Malcolm to move permanently to Boston, which he did in February 1941.

Top: 72 Dale Street (1952). Ella Little-Collins, Malcolm X’s sister and the owner of the house, is pictured in the front. His aunt, Sarah Alice Little, is sitting on the porch. From the Boston Landmarks Commission Study Report (1998) (photo credit: Rodnell P. Collins). Bottom: Malcolm X in front of his Dale Street house. From Rodnell P. Collins and A. Peter Bailey, Seventh Child: A Family Memoir of Malcolm X (Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1998) (photo credit: Rodnell P. Collins).

72 Dale Street, also known as the Malcolm X-Ella Little-Collins House, is in Roxbury, an area considered the heart of Black Boston. 72 Dale Street is historically significant, as it is the last standing childhood home of Malcolm X. There, he lived with Ella and his two paternal aunts, Gracie and Sarah Alice (also known as “Sas”). He lived there on and off until 1944. Ella bought the house in August 1941 for $1200 from a white family after the house went into foreclosure. She lived in the home until 1961. She never returned to the Dale Street house after her brother’s assassination in 1965.

The house was occupied by tenants until 1975, after which time it feel into disrepair and remained unoccupied. The Collins family retained ownership of the house after Ella Little-Collins died in 1996. Ella wanted the house turned into a family museum.2 In 1998, the house became a Boston landmark. Since then, several initiatives have emerged to restore and transform the home.

The house was named one of the eleven most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2011.3 In 2013, Historic Boston Inc. and the Deen Intensive Foundation partnered to raise $1.5 million to restore the home. The plan was to restore it to its 1940s condition and to use it for graduate student housing. In a joint effort, the Collins family, the City of Boston, and University of Massachusetts-Boston are renovating the house. In 2016, the City of Boston led a two-week long community excavation; residents were invited to observe the dig and meet Malcolm’s nephew, Rodnell Collins, while archaeologists conducted a survey of the structure. As of November 2017, the house has yet to be restored. Orange cones and caution tape block the driveway. A black rubber membrane covers the roof, which protects the house from further water damage.

Left: The Malcolm X and Ella Little-Collins House at 72 Dale Street, November 2017 (photo credit: Kayla Wheeler). Right: Plaque designating 72 Dale Street as a historical landmark. It was given this designation in 1998 (photo credit: Kayla Wheeler).

Roseland-State Ballroom

Cornell West writes:

Malcolm X was music in motion. He was jazz in motion, and, of course, jazz is improvisation, swing and the blues. Malcolm had all three of those things. He could be lyrical and funny and, in the next moment, he’d shift and be serious and push you against the wall. The way he spoke had a swing to it, had a rhythm to it. It was a call and response with the audience that you get with jazz musicians.4

Malcolm was introduced to jazz at the Roseland-State Ballroom in the Fenway-Kenmore area. The Roseland-State Ballroom was owned by two brothers, Charlie and Cy Shribman. The site was originally two separate ballrooms, the State Ballroom at 217 Massachusetts Avenue and the Roseland Ballroom at 15 Burbank Street. Eventually, the wall separating the two ballrooms was removed. The Roseland-State Ballroom went on to become “the crown jewel of the Ballroom District.”5 It was the largest ballroom in the Northeast, second only to the Savoy in Harlem.

Malcolm replaced his brother-in-law, Kenneth Collins (who in his autobiography is called Freddie), as a shoeshine boy in the ballroom.6 There, he met famous musicians like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and Cootie Williams. He was also introduced to hustling. He spent most of his time selling liquor and marijuana to patrons, as well as connecting white men with African-American sex workers.7 Eventually, Malcolm quit his shoeshine job so he could devote his time to dancing on Negro dance night. Describing the Roseland-State Ballroom, Malcolm writes, “The band, the spectators and the dancers would be making the Roseland Ballroom feel like a big, rocking ship. The spotlight would be turning pink, yellow, green, and blue, picking up the couples lindy-hopping as if they had gone mad.”8

Top: Massachusetts Avenue entrance of what was once the Roseland-State Ballroom (photo credit: Kayla Wheeler). Bottom: Burbank Street entrance of what was once the Roseland-State Ballroom (photo credit: Kayla Wheeler).

According to his autobiography, Malcolm met a woman that he calls “Sophia,” who would become his lover and one of his crime partners, while dancing at the Roseland-State Ballroom. Manning Marable identifies her as Bea Caragulian.9

Malcolm hypothesized that his association with Sophia/Bea, an upper middle-class white woman, is what led to his harsh prison sentence for burglary—8 to 10 years, compared to Sophia’s sentence of probation for the same crime.10 He would start his sentence at the Charlestown Prison, eventually being transferred to the Massachusetts Reformatory at Concord and the Norfolk Prison Colony, before returning to Charlestown to complete his sentence.

Cy Shribman died in June 1946 and his brother sold the Roseland-State Ballroom in fall 1958. It opened in November 1958 under new management and with a new name, the New State Ballroom. It featured Irish and American folk music.

In May 1968, it, along with the State Theater Building, which housed the ballroom, was demolished. Today, a commercial complex, which features CVS, GNC, Boston Market, and Economy Hardware Store, sits in the Roseland-State Ballroom’s place. Above the complex is the Church Park Luxury Apartments, with apartments that start at $2600 per month.

Norfolk Prison Colony

Ella arranged Malcolm’s transfer from the Massachusetts Reformatory at Concord to the Norfolk Prison Colony with the help of a local African-American politician and a white judge in March 1948.11 Describing the prison, he writes:

The Colony was, comparatively, a heaven in many ways. It had flushing toilets; there were no bars, only walls—and within the walls, you had far more freedom… Norfolk Prison Colony represented the most enlightened form of prison that I have ever heard of. In place of the atmosphere of malicious gossip, perversion, grafting, hateful guards, there was more relative ‘culture,’ as ‘culture’ is interpreted in prisons.12

Top: Gate House, Norfolk Prison Colony (ca. 1934). Norfolk Prison Colony Collection (MS 074). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. Bottom: Inmates playing baseball at Norfolk Prison Colony (photo credit: Winslow Collection).

The Norfolk Prison Colony, now known as the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk (MCI-Norfolk), opened in 1932. The prison was conceptualized by Harvard University sociologist Howard Belding Gill, who served as the prison’s first superintendent until 1934.

Gill advocated for rehabilitation rather than punishment to prevent recidivism. Compared to his experiences at Charlestown and Concord, Malcolm enjoyed more freedom at Norfolk. The layout of the prison mirrored a small town, complete with a library, community center, farm, and dormitories in which the windows did not have bars.

Malcolm cites two experiences at Norfolk that played a formative role in his life: reading and debate.13 While imprisoned here, he copied an entire dictionary to increase his vocabulary and improve his penmanship, at the recommendation of his sister, Hilda.14

He took advantage of the prison’s extensive library, including the Parkhurst Collection, which exposed him to the works of European philosophers and historians. Of his prison self-education, Malcolm writes:

I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn’t seeking any degree, the way a college confers a symbol upon its students. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America.15

While at Norfolk, Malcolm finally accepted the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. His brothers, Philbert and Reginald, introduced him to the Nation of Islam while he was at Concord. They described the Nation of Islam as “the natural religion of the black man” and a way for Malcolm to get out of prison.16 Malcolm initially rejected the message, but as he learned about the history of the African continent and colonialism, he came to embrace the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm joined the Norfolk Debating Society, the prison’s renowned debate team, which he called his “baptism into public speaking.”17 Members of the debate team squared off with students from MIT, Harvard University, Yale University, and the University of Oxford. By 1966, the Norfolk Debating Society’s record was 144 wins and 8 losses.18 A common theme in his speeches was white supremacy.19 He used the debates to teach his fellow Black prisoners about their place in global history and to spread the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s message. Of debating he writes, “It was right there in prison that I made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself—or die.”20 Malcolm was also a contributing writer for the prison newspaper, The Colony, using the space to further hone his writing and persuasion skills. After two years at Norfolk, he was transferred back to Charlestown, where he served the remainder of his sentence, potentially as punishment for organizing prisoners to demand better treatment, refusing to eat pork, and proselytizing.21

Aerial view of MCI-Norfolk in 2016 (photo credit: Axiom Images).

Today, MCI-Norfolk is the largest medium-security prison in Massachusetts. Many of its rehabilitative programs were phased out after the 1970s, when the prison’s focus shifted towards punitive measures. However, the prison’s renowned debate team was revived in 2016 with the help of Boston College students.

Conclusion

Describing the significance of Boston, Malcolm X writes, “All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did. If I hadn’t, I’d probably still be a brainwashed black Christian.”22 Without Boston, there might have never been a Malcolm X. Mapping Malcolm’s Boston will highlight the sites that made his transformation possible.

 

KAYLA WHEELER is a Visiting Scholar in the African American Studies Program at Boston University, where she is conducting research for her book on Black Muslim fashion. She is also the curator of the Black Islam Syllabus.

 

  1. Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999 [1965]), 39.
  2. “The Malcolm X – Ella Little-Collins House 72 Dale Street, Roxbury,” Boston Landmarks Commission Study Report (1998), 28.
  3. “Old House, New Partnership,” National Trust for Historic Preservation, July 12, 2013.
  4. Cornel West, “Why Malcolm X Still Speaks Truth to Power,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2015.
  5. Richard Vacca, The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937-1962 (Boston: Troy Street Publishing, 2012), 54.
  6. Rodnell P. Collins and A. Peter Bailey, Seventh Child: A Family Memoir of Malcolm X (Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1998), 61.
  7. X and Haley, Autobiography, 51.
  8. Ibid., 53.
  9. Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 46.
  10. X and Haley, Autobiography, 153.
  11. Collins and Bailey, Seventh Child, 79.
  12. X and Haley, Autobiography, 160.
  13. Ibid., 185.
  14. Ibid., 175.
  15. X and Haley, Autobiography, 182.
  16. X and Haley, Autobiography, 158.
  17. Ibid., 185.
  18. Adam M. Bright and Natasha Haverty, “Stories from the Norfolk Prison Debate Team,” Mass Humanities, April 14, 2011.
  19. Marable, Malcolm X, 91.
  20. X and Haley, Autobiography, 188.
  21. Collins and Bailey, Seventh Child, 81.
  22. X and Haley, Autobiography, 40.

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Mapping Malcolm’s Boston

Exploring the City that Made Malcolm X


Kayla Wheeler


In his autobiography, Malcolm X writes of his move to Boston, “No physical move in my life has been more pivotal or profound in its repercussions.”1 He lived on and off in Boston from 1941 to 1953 and frequently visited the city after taking up permanent residence in Harlem, where he served as the principal minister of Mosque No. 7 and later founded the Muslim Mosque Incorporated. His time in Boston was essential to his religious and political development. It is in Boston where Malcolm began his life as a small-time hustler, which would eventually land him in prison for burglary. While imprisoned, Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam by his siblings, improved his reading skills, and found his passion for public speaking and debate.

While much has been written on Malcolm X’s life in Harlem—pre- and post-Nation of Islam—far less has been written on his time in Boston. My digital project, Mapping Malcolm’s Boston, will fill this void by exploring sites in the Greater Boston area that were central to Malcolm X’s political and religious development, as well as more mundane locations that help to present him as a full human being rather than a mythical figure.

When completed, Mapping Malcolm’s Boston will feature an interactive map that highlights ten sites important to Malcolm X’s political and religious development. I will use three main texts to detail Malcolm X’s life in Boston: The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley; Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable; and Seventh Child: A Family Memory of Malcolm X by Rodnell P. Collins.

The map will be based on visual archival research, photography, and interviews with local Bostonians. Where possible, I will pair current images of locations with pictures of what those sites looked like when Malcolm X was living in Boston. In addition to telling the story of Malcolm X’s life in Boston, my project will highlight gentrification, demographic shifts, and urban renewal in the Greater Boston area. Many of the places Malcolm frequented no longer exist, having been replaced by apartment complexes and chain stores. Were he still alive today, Malcolm X might not recognize the Boston of his youth. My goal is to bring those sites back to life through this project.

The Sites

So far, there are ten sites featured in Mapping Malcolm X’s Boston, eight of which can be seen in the map below. These sites are plotted along a path winding from Roxbury, south of Boston proper—where Malcolm’s life in Boston began—to Charlestown in the north—where he was incarcerated at Charlestown Prison. Not visible on this map are two other important sites, the Massachusetts Correctional Institute-Concord and the Massachusetts Correctional Institute-Norfolk, formerly the Norfolk Prison Colony; the latter is especially important, as here Malcolm X developed the speaking style that would attract thousands of converts to the Nation of Islam.

Map highlighting eight of ten sites in Boston important to Malcolm X’s religious and political development, covering sites 1-8 in the list below.

Here is a brief overview of the ten sites.

  1. Humboldt Avenue at Townsend Street (Roxbury): Former location of the Townsend Drugstore and Soda Fountain, where in 1941, Malcolm worked as a soda jerk and met Laura, one of his first girlfriends in Boston.
  2. 72 Dale Street (Roxbury): Malcolm lived here with his sister, Ella Little-Collins, after moving to Boston in 1941, until 1944. It is the only known home from his childhood that is still standing.
  3. Leverett House (Cambridge): Harvard University residence hall, where Malcolm delivered one of his first speeches about the newly formed Organization for Afro-American Unity on March 18, 1964, after announcing his break from the Nation of Islam on March 8, 1964.
  4. 15 Burbank Street (Boston): The former home of the Roseland-State Ballroom, where Malcolm was introduced to jazz and lindy hopping in 1941.
  5. 405 Massachusetts Avenue (Boston): The former location of Mosque No. 11, which Malcolm and his brother Wilfred helped expand from a small group that could fit into a living room to several hundred members between 1952 and 1953.
  6. 410 Massachusetts Avenue (Boston): The former home of Savoy Café, a jazz club that Malcolm frequented in the early 1940s.
  7. South Station (Boston): A main stop on the New Haven Railroad, Malcolm worked as a Pullman porter on this line, as well as the Colonial and New Yankee, on and off between 1942 and 1944. Through these jobs, Malcolm was first introduced to Washington D.C. and Harlem.
  8. Bunker Hill Community College (Boston): Site of the former Charlestown Prison, where Malcolm was first imprisoned for burglary—from February 1946 to January 1947—and where he completed his sentence in 1952.
  9. Massachusetts Correctional Institute-Concord, formerly known as the Massachusetts Reformatory at Concord: Where Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam by his siblings. He was imprisoned there from January 1947 to March 1948.
  10. Massachusetts Correctional Institute-Norfolk, formerly known as the Norfolk Prison Colony: Where Malcolm accepted the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and developed his writing and debating skills. Malcolm was imprisoned here from March 1948 to March 1950.

Below, I go into greater detail about three sites that were important to Malcolm X’s life in Boston: 72 Dale Street, the Roseland-State Ballroom, and the Norfolk Prison Colony.

72 Dale Street

Malcolm X first visited his older paternal half-sister, Ella Little-Collins, in the summers of 1939 and 1940. After he was moved to a juvenile home in Mason, Michigan, Ella invited Malcolm to move permanently to Boston, which he did in February 1941.

Top: 72 Dale Street (1952). Ella Little-Collins, Malcolm X’s sister and the owner of the house, is pictured in the front. His aunt, Sarah Alice Little, is sitting on the porch. From the Boston Landmarks Commission Study Report (1998) (photo credit: Rodnell P. Collins). Bottom: Malcolm X in front of his Dale Street house. From Rodnell P. Collins and A. Peter Bailey, Seventh Child: A Family Memoir of Malcolm X (Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1998) (photo credit: Rodnell P. Collins).

72 Dale Street, also known as the Malcolm X-Ella Little-Collins House, is in Roxbury, an area considered the heart of Black Boston. 72 Dale Street is historically significant, as it is the last standing childhood home of Malcolm X. There, he lived with Ella and his two paternal aunts, Gracie and Sarah Alice (also known as “Sas”). He lived there on and off until 1944. Ella bought the house in August 1941 for $1200 from a white family after the house went into foreclosure. She lived in the home until 1961. She never returned to the Dale Street house after her brother’s assassination in 1965.

The house was occupied by tenants until 1975, after which time it feel into disrepair and remained unoccupied. The Collins family retained ownership of the house after Ella Little-Collins died in 1996. Ella wanted the house turned into a family museum.2 In 1998, the house became a Boston landmark. Since then, several initiatives have emerged to restore and transform the home.

The house was named one of the eleven most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2011.3 In 2013, Historic Boston Inc. and the Deen Intensive Foundation partnered to raise $1.5 million to restore the home. The plan was to restore it to its 1940s condition and to use it for graduate student housing. In a joint effort, the Collins family, the City of Boston, and University of Massachusetts-Boston are renovating the house. In 2016, the City of Boston led a two-week long community excavation; residents were invited to observe the dig and meet Malcolm’s nephew, Rodnell Collins, while archaeologists conducted a survey of the structure. As of November 2017, the house has yet to be restored. Orange cones and caution tape block the driveway. A black rubber membrane covers the roof, which protects the house from further water damage.

Left: The Malcolm X and Ella Little-Collins House at 72 Dale Street, November 2017 (photo credit: Kayla Wheeler). Right: Plaque designating 72 Dale Street as a historical landmark. It was given this designation in 1998 (photo credit: Kayla Wheeler).

Roseland-State Ballroom

Cornell West writes:

Malcolm X was music in motion. He was jazz in motion, and, of course, jazz is improvisation, swing and the blues. Malcolm had all three of those things. He could be lyrical and funny and, in the next moment, he’d shift and be serious and push you against the wall. The way he spoke had a swing to it, had a rhythm to it. It was a call and response with the audience that you get with jazz musicians.4

Malcolm was introduced to jazz at the Roseland-State Ballroom in the Fenway-Kenmore area. The Roseland-State Ballroom was owned by two brothers, Charlie and Cy Shribman. The site was originally two separate ballrooms, the State Ballroom at 217 Massachusetts Avenue and the Roseland Ballroom at 15 Burbank Street. Eventually, the wall separating the two ballrooms was removed. The Roseland-State Ballroom went on to become “the crown jewel of the Ballroom District.”5 It was the largest ballroom in the Northeast, second only to the Savoy in Harlem.

Malcolm replaced his brother-in-law, Kenneth Collins (who in his autobiography is called Freddie), as a shoeshine boy in the ballroom.6 There, he met famous musicians like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and Cootie Williams. He was also introduced to hustling. He spent most of his time selling liquor and marijuana to patrons, as well as connecting white men with African-American sex workers.7 Eventually, Malcolm quit his shoeshine job so he could devote his time to dancing on Negro dance night. Describing the Roseland-State Ballroom, Malcolm writes, “The band, the spectators and the dancers would be making the Roseland Ballroom feel like a big, rocking ship. The spotlight would be turning pink, yellow, green, and blue, picking up the couples lindy-hopping as if they had gone mad.”8

Top: Massachusetts Avenue entrance of what was once the Roseland-State Ballroom (photo credit: Kayla Wheeler). Bottom: Burbank Street entrance of what was once the Roseland-State Ballroom (photo credit: Kayla Wheeler).

According to his autobiography, Malcolm met a woman that he calls “Sophia,” who would become his lover and one of his crime partners, while dancing at the Roseland-State Ballroom. Manning Marable identifies her as Bea Caragulian.9

Malcolm hypothesized that his association with Sophia/Bea, an upper middle-class white woman, is what led to his harsh prison sentence for burglary—8 to 10 years, compared to Sophia’s sentence of probation for the same crime.10 He would start his sentence at the Charlestown Prison, eventually being transferred to the Massachusetts Reformatory at Concord and the Norfolk Prison Colony, before returning to Charlestown to complete his sentence.

Cy Shribman died in June 1946 and his brother sold the Roseland-State Ballroom in fall 1958. It opened in November 1958 under new management and with a new name, the New State Ballroom. It featured Irish and American folk music.

In May 1968, it, along with the State Theater Building, which housed the ballroom, was demolished. Today, a commercial complex, which features CVS, GNC, Boston Market, and Economy Hardware Store, sits in the Roseland-State Ballroom’s place. Above the complex is the Church Park Luxury Apartments, with apartments that start at $2600 per month.

Norfolk Prison Colony

Ella arranged Malcolm’s transfer from the Massachusetts Reformatory at Concord to the Norfolk Prison Colony with the help of a local African-American politician and a white judge in March 1948.11 Describing the prison, he writes:

The Colony was, comparatively, a heaven in many ways. It had flushing toilets; there were no bars, only walls—and within the walls, you had far more freedom… Norfolk Prison Colony represented the most enlightened form of prison that I have ever heard of. In place of the atmosphere of malicious gossip, perversion, grafting, hateful guards, there was more relative ‘culture,’ as ‘culture’ is interpreted in prisons.12

Top: Gate House, Norfolk Prison Colony (ca. 1934). Norfolk Prison Colony Collection (MS 074). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. Bottom: Inmates playing baseball at Norfolk Prison Colony (photo credit: Winslow Collection).

The Norfolk Prison Colony, now known as the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk (MCI-Norfolk), opened in 1932. The prison was conceptualized by Harvard University sociologist Howard Belding Gill, who served as the prison’s first superintendent until 1934.

Gill advocated for rehabilitation rather than punishment to prevent recidivism. Compared to his experiences at Charlestown and Concord, Malcolm enjoyed more freedom at Norfolk. The layout of the prison mirrored a small town, complete with a library, community center, farm, and dormitories in which the windows did not have bars.

Malcolm cites two experiences at Norfolk that played a formative role in his life: reading and debate.13 While imprisoned here, he copied an entire dictionary to increase his vocabulary and improve his penmanship, at the recommendation of his sister, Hilda.14

He took advantage of the prison’s extensive library, including the Parkhurst Collection, which exposed him to the works of European philosophers and historians. Of his prison self-education, Malcolm writes:

I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn’t seeking any degree, the way a college confers a symbol upon its students. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America.15

While at Norfolk, Malcolm finally accepted the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. His brothers, Philbert and Reginald, introduced him to the Nation of Islam while he was at Concord. They described the Nation of Islam as “the natural religion of the black man” and a way for Malcolm to get out of prison.16 Malcolm initially rejected the message, but as he learned about the history of the African continent and colonialism, he came to embrace the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm joined the Norfolk Debating Society, the prison’s renowned debate team, which he called his “baptism into public speaking.”17 Members of the debate team squared off with students from MIT, Harvard University, Yale University, and the University of Oxford. By 1966, the Norfolk Debating Society’s record was 144 wins and 8 losses.18 A common theme in his speeches was white supremacy.19 He used the debates to teach his fellow Black prisoners about their place in global history and to spread the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s message. Of debating he writes, “It was right there in prison that I made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself—or die.”20 Malcolm was also a contributing writer for the prison newspaper, The Colony, using the space to further hone his writing and persuasion skills. After two years at Norfolk, he was transferred back to Charlestown, where he served the remainder of his sentence, potentially as punishment for organizing prisoners to demand better treatment, refusing to eat pork, and proselytizing.21

Aerial view of MCI-Norfolk in 2016 (photo credit: Axiom Images).

Today, MCI-Norfolk is the largest medium-security prison in Massachusetts. Many of its rehabilitative programs were phased out after the 1970s, when the prison’s focus shifted towards punitive measures. However, the prison’s renowned debate team was revived in 2016 with the help of Boston College students.

Conclusion

Describing the significance of Boston, Malcolm X writes, “All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did. If I hadn’t, I’d probably still be a brainwashed black Christian.”22 Without Boston, there might have never been a Malcolm X. Mapping Malcolm’s Boston will highlight the sites that made his transformation possible.

 

KAYLA WHEELER is a Visiting Scholar in the African American Studies Program at Boston University, where she is conducting research for her book on Black Muslim fashion. She is also the curator of the Black Islam Syllabus.

 

  1. Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999 [1965]), 39.
  2. “The Malcolm X – Ella Little-Collins House 72 Dale Street, Roxbury,” Boston Landmarks Commission Study Report (1998), 28.
  3. “Old House, New Partnership,” National Trust for Historic Preservation, July 12, 2013.
  4. Cornel West, “Why Malcolm X Still Speaks Truth to Power,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2015.
  5. Richard Vacca, The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937-1962 (Boston: Troy Street Publishing, 2012), 54.
  6. Rodnell P. Collins and A. Peter Bailey, Seventh Child: A Family Memoir of Malcolm X (Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1998), 61.
  7. X and Haley, Autobiography, 51.
  8. Ibid., 53.
  9. Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 46.
  10. X and Haley, Autobiography, 153.
  11. Collins and Bailey, Seventh Child, 79.
  12. X and Haley, Autobiography, 160.
  13. Ibid., 185.
  14. Ibid., 175.
  15. X and Haley, Autobiography, 182.
  16. X and Haley, Autobiography, 158.
  17. Ibid., 185.
  18. Adam M. Bright and Natasha Haverty, “Stories from the Norfolk Prison Debate Team,” Mass Humanities, April 14, 2011.
  19. Marable, Malcolm X, 91.
  20. X and Haley, Autobiography, 188.
  21. Collins and Bailey, Seventh Child, 81.
  22. X and Haley, Autobiography, 40.

Mapping Malcolm’s Boston

Exploring the City that Made Malcolm X

Mapping Malcolm’s Boston

Exploring the City that Made Malcolm X