The 100-Year-Anniversary of the 1919 Boston Police Strike Commemorated at UMass-Boston

The 100-Year-Anniversary of the 1919 Boston Police Strike Commemorated at UMass-Boston: In a stirring reenactment of the strike vote taken by Boston Police Officers 100 years ago on September 8, 1919, present day Boston Police Officer Robert Anthony, dressed in a uniform resembling the one worn by officers in 1919, addressed a packed room of over 500 family members and descendants of the striking police officers during a ceremony on the campus of UMass-Boston. Employing the same words used by Boston Police Union President John F. McInnes who presented the question of whether or not to strike to officers inside a packed union hall in the South End 100 years earlier, when the fateful votes were cast to sanction a strike on the following day, September 9, 1919, Anthony, expertly recreating the extremely courageous moment, looked out at the assembled audience, and bellowed, “My fellow brother officers how do you vote?” One by one, descendants of the 1919 Boston Police Officers proudly stood up and rendered their verdict. Said one, “On behalf of my father, I vote yes.” Said another, “On behalf of my grandfather, I vote yes.” Within minutes, the votes were cast and all assembled stood and applauded as the room radiated with a palpable sense of pride gleaned from a satisfaction gained in reaffirming the courageous actions taken by family members 100 years earlier. Said an officer present at the ceremony, “It was an incredibly powerful moment to see and hear the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the 1919 officers proudly standing and echoing the courageous votes cast by their loved ones 100 years ago.”

boston police employment record from 1919

By the end of the original vote in 1919, the ballots cast left little doubt about the intentions of a police force desperate for increased working conditions, improved wages, fairer labor standards and a level of decency and respect that should have been afforded one of the nation’s finest police departments. The final ballots showed officers in favor of a strike by a vote of 1,134 to 2. Violence, looting and general disorder in the city would follow in the days after the strike. In response, Governor Calvin Coolidge would activate close to 5,000 State Guard troops while adamantly rebuffing efforts by union officials eager to reach a compromise aimed at reinstating the striking officers. Coolidge would gain great notoriety for his strong-worded repudiation of the striking officers, saying, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” Instead of reinstatement, the striking officers were terminated, replaced, and roundly disgraced. Labeled traitors and deserters by some, the officers were stigmatized for years to follow simply for standing up for what was right while seeking improved wages, working conditions and the right to form a union designed to help them advocate and address long-held, but largely ignored, grievances.  Official employment records state the striking officers abandoned their duty. Rebutting the assertion, a grandson of one of the striking officers stated, “The officers who voted for the 1919 strike didn’t abandon their city, but rather, it was city officials, like Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis and Calvin Coolidge, who abandon them and their cause.”   

December 1919: Governor Calvin Coolidge swearing in replacement officers three months after the Boston Police Strike of 1919. (CALVIN COOLIDGE PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY & MUSEUM, NORTHAMPTON, MA)

December 1919: Governor Calvin Coolidge swearing in replacement officers three months after the Boston Police Strike of 1919. (CALVIN COOLIDGE PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY & MUSEUM, NORTHAMPTON, MA)

Ironically enough, several months later, a new Boston police force would be recruited and hired by Commissioner Curtis. The new force, totaling 1,574 officers, outnumbered the previous force in both numbers and pay. The new officers received a starting salary of $1400 per year, more than the raise requested by the striking officers who sacrificed their careers for the eventual betterment and benefit of all who would follow them.

Thanks to a collaboration between the Boston Police Department Archives, Boston Police Archivist Margaret Sullivan and University Archives and Special Collections in the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston, the history and stories of the officers involved in the strike have been documented and preserved for all to see.

To learn more about the 1919 Boston Police Strike, visit: https://www.bpstrike1919.org.

Special thanks to Officers Kim Tavares and Stephen McNulty for their impressive rendition of God Bless America at the opening of the ceremony.