“I became a busboy at the Parker House in Boston. I wore a starched white jacket out in the dining room, where the waiters would put the customers’ dirty plates on silver on big aluminum trays which I would take back to the kitchen’s dishwashers.”
In the summer of 1940, fifteen year old Malcolm Little boarded a Greyhound bus in Lansing bound for Boston. Born in Omaha, Malcolm had spent most of his life in foster homes in Mason, Michigan until his half sister Ella invited him to spend a summer with her. This was Malcolm’s first trip out of the Midwest. From the back of the bus, Malcolm watched “white man’s America rolling past for what felt like a month.” What would meet him in Boston would profoundly change the course of his life.
Malcolm had never been impressed with anyone like he was impressed with Ella. Ella was “the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life,” an attitude unheard of in segregated Lansing. Jet black and outspoken, Ella lived in Roxbury, a community Malcolm X would later describe as practically effervescing with black culture. “I didn’t know the world contained as many Negroes as I saw thronging downtown Roxbury at night” Malcolm recounted in his 1965 autobiography. “Neon lights, nightclubs, pool halls, bars, the cars they drove! Restaurants made the streets smell rich, greasy, down-home black cooking! Jukeboxes blared Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Cootie Williams, and dozens of others. The biggest bands, like these, played at the Roseland State Ballroom on Massachusetts Avenue-one night for Negroes, the next night for whites.” In central Michigan, Malcolm had only known life as a black person in white spaces, following the cultural framework that unofficially mirrored the Jim Crow laws of the South. For the first time, in Roxbury, Malcolm was a black person in a completely black space. Roxbury showed Malcolm Little an African American experience that was intelligent, creative, outwardly successful and unafraid, everything that his small community in Mason was not.
Returning to Mason at the end of the summer, Malcolm felt restless. This change was palatable to his classmates as well as his foster parents. Those that knew Malcolm continued to ask him what was wrong, but Malcolm was either unable to articulate how Roxbury made him feel, or afraid that being honest about his feelings would be damaging to the relationships in his life, especially with the small group of white people he had grown up with, and trusted. Always a top student, a major tipping point occurred when Malcolm’s English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, asked Malcolm, one of the top students in the school, if he was thinking about a career. “Well, yes, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.”
Mr. Ostrowski saw in Malcolm the kind of future white people saw for black people in 1940, the kind of future where race dictated expectations. Malcolm needed to be realistic. He suggested Malcolm plan on carpentry. This was a poor appraisal of Malcolm’s future, and one that Malcolm Little was intent on proving wrong.
Malcolm expressed to Ella in a letter that he wanted to come to Boston and live with her. Ella arranged for official custody, and Malcolm headed to Boston.
Once she enrolled him in a private boys school downtown, Ella encouraged Malcolm to postpone getting a job until he got a feel for his new home, so he observed the comings and goings of Roxbury, but soon branched out and began to explore the entire city of Boston. Malcolm gawked at the historic buildings, with plaques and markers and statues for famous events and famous men. Malcolm wrote at length to his family in Lansing about the cobblestone streets and the department stores. In Boston Common, he was astonished to see a statue of a black man, Crispus Attucks, the first to fall in the Boston Massacre.
In the fall of 1941, Malcolm found himself a job at one of Boston’s most storied institutions, the Parker House. Established in 1855, the Parker House Restaurant claimed to be the first to serve Boston Cream Pie, Parker House Rolls, and scrod, and was a famous haunt of local politicians and writers like Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton. At the Parker House, Malcolm held the benchmark of low-paying restaurant jobs: the busboy.
The Parker House, now run by Omni Hotels & Restaurants, looks, feels and smells like an institution that thrives on established wealth. Its consistency makes a strong selling point to those accustomed to an old fashioned notion of luxury, and little has changed. It is proudly past its prime.
The Parker House is the type of place one might imagine being underdressed in, until you arrive and realize that money is money-even yours, and guests are happily getting along in flip-flops and Disney sweatshirts. The same 1856 Boston Creme Pie recipe is still as venerated as it once was, yet now it’s woefully overshared on social media as a key component in the Boston experience.
The crisp white shirts Malcolm X wore have been replaced with gold vests and ties, yet the notion that the busser is present but anonymous remains. There is no temporary stewardship of the guest experience, or push for the upsell. Bussers are encouraged to fade into the background, yet they are expected to maintain a complementary demeanor. They are the only component of a restaurant that exists comfortably among the table linens and silver trays of the dining room, and the dish bins and sinks in the kitchen, the most vital connectors between the front of house and back of house. They clean up after the servers and vacuum the crumbs from the carpet. They lift heavy bus bins, take out the trash and are responsible for what is often a restaurant’s most thankless, labor-intensive work. The colloquial job title is still woefully, pejoratively gendered, as the term ‘busboy’ is fundamentally belittling. There is no question the work environment of a sixteen year old African American male, a self professed “hick” from Michigan just months before Pearl Harbor in a well to do downtown Boston restaurant was not one of respect or appreciation. A black person in an expectedly subservient white space.
Research has showed that little has changed. In restaurants, the lighter your skin, the more likely you work in a front of house job such as a bartender or server. Black and Latino workers are far more likely to hold busser, food runner or dishwasher positions.
Service industry professionals build a thick skin against the criticisms of both their guests and co-workers. You learn to internalize anger, as being agreeable and non-confrontational are seen as not only positive attributes, but traits that will get you the biggest tip percentages and the best table sections. You brush off disparaging comments and harassment, and learn to keep your head down. While the Parker House wasn’t Malcolm X’s first service industry job or his last; he washed dishes at a restaurant in Mason and would go on to shine shoes at the Roseland Ballroom in Roxbury, it was undoubtedly a place where he saw the distinctions between social classes clearly. Was he talked down to by white customers and white staff? Did he see fellow black employees struggling to make ends meet at menial jobs? While Malcolm X wrote little about his time at the Parker House or in the service industry, he borrowed generously from personal experiences throughout his life, allowing them to inform his ideologies at various stages. Perhaps it was this job, the first outside of his hometown, where he further developed the sense of frustration and anger towards the status quo that would lead him to champion African American self-determination and later cast a wide net fighting against racism, Colonialism and white supremacy.