Boston Public Schools Educators Pick Their Best Bostonians

The BPS Department of History and Social Studies weighs in with their choices, from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

We’re asking prominent locals who they think are the Best Bostonians of all time. The Boston Public Schools Department of History and Social Studies, comprised of director Kerry Dunne and assistant directors Josue Sakata and Natacha Scott, submits five nominees for your consideration. Play along by voting in our online game.

Boston Public Schools Department of History and Social Studies

Boston Public Schools Department of History and Social Studies / Courtesy photo


Bill Russell

“Former Celtics player and NBA coach Don Nelson said this of Bill Russell: ‘There are two types of superstars. One makes himself look good at the expense of other guys on the floor. But there is another type who makes the players around him look better than they are, and that’s the type Russell was.’ In his 13 seasons with the Celtics, Russell led his team as they won 11 NBA Championships, including a record-setting, eight consecutive titles (1959-1966). Off the court, Russell provided leadership as well, carrying himself with class and dignity in a city with a history of racial discrimination.”

Mel King

“At age 87, King remains a towering figure who made Boston better as a teacher, community organizer, civic leader, and politician. He has advocated for people in need, affordable housing, and community input into government policy since the 1950s, and continues to speak on behalf of Boston Public Schools students, most recently testifying to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. His South End Technology Center provides computer and engineering skills training to children and adults.”

Meta Warrick Fuller

“Meta Warrick Fuller resided in Framingham with her husband Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, a pioneering African-American psychiatrist. She was a nationally acclaimed sculptor, and her work provides the best examples of Harlem Renaissance era material visual art, reflecting themes of African-American history, justice, and freedom. Her sculpture, Emancipation, is located in the Harriet Tubman Park in the South End. Two footnotes regarding Meta Warrick Fuller: Fuller Middle School in Framingham is named after the Fuller family, who resided around the corner from the school. A sad postscript: Meta Warrick Fuller’s grand-daughter, Meta Fuller Waller, was a top- ranking Armed forces civilian administrator who was killed on 9/11 by the plane that crashed into the Pentgon.”

Joe Moakley

“South Boston native Joe Moakley was elected to the US House of Representatives as an independent, defeating Louise Day Hicks amid the backdrop of a city roiled by the ‘forced busing’ that resulted from a school desegregation court order. He had little personal interest in foreign affairs but his empathy for newly arrived Salvadoran refugees living in his district, and his horror at the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero and, later, six Jesuit priests, drove him to lead congressional investigations into the use of American funds to support military death squads in El Salvador.”

Melnea Cass

“A leader of women’s civic organizations in the South End and Roxbury from the early 1940s through the 1970s, Boston can thank Melnea Cass for preventing the destruction of the historic South End and Lower Roxbury to make way for an interstate highway. Her advocacy for ‘people before highways’ ultimately defeated the plans for the highway’s construction. Today, the Southwest Corridor Park bike path and community gardens dot this proposed highway’s path instead. Melnea Cass also served as the president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, and provides an enduring role model for today’s community activists.”



Charles Sumner

“Of course, we had to choose the namesake of one of our terrific Boston Public Schools, the Charles Sumner School in Roslindale. But really, we chose Sumner, a Boston Public Schools graduate, because of his brave and outspoken leadership for the end of slavery on moral grounds while serving as in the US Senate representing Massachusetts. His 1856 ‘Crimes Against Kansas’ speech in the Senate, where he famously used the unseemly language of ‘mistress’ and ‘harlot’ in describing the relationship that Senators Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler held with slavery, resulted in the famous retaliatory caning of Sumner by Butler’s cousin, Representative Preston Brooks. Beaten so severely that he required a three-year convalescence, Sumner ultimately returned to the senate, where he pressured Lincoln to stay true to the goal of emancipation, led the effort to recognize the newly free nation of Haiti, and helped to establish the Freedman’s Bureau at the conclusion of the Civil War.”


“We’ll acknowledge that we are stretching the limits of ‘Bostonian’ for this native of Japan and South Shore resident. But every Massachusetts resident and student should learn about Manjiro! Shipwrecked off the coast of Japan in 1841, he was rescued by a whaling ship from MA. Adopted by the ship’s captain, he attended Fairhaven, MA, schools as Massachusetts’ first Japanese immigrant before returning to the high seas as a whaling ship’s first mate. Returning later in life to Japan, he became an advisor on foreign affairs for the imperial government and helped to open Japanese trade with the West, and served as a distinguished professor of English. His descendants kept in close contact with the descendants of his adopted father, Captain Whitfield for more than 5 generations and his legacy is celebrated by Japanese today as the foundation of Japanese and American friendship, and his home in Fairhaven remains a popular tourist attraction for Japanese tourists. Learn more about this fascinating Massachusetts resident by reading Margi Prues’ excellent Heart of a Samurai.”

Harriet Hemenway

“One of our favorite Boston history books for young audiences is Katherine Laskey’s She’s Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head!. We recommend that you read it as well to learn more about Harriet Hemenway’s contributions to environmentalism. Hemenway, a member of a prominent Boston family, used her resources and acumen to build a social movement that helped to end the practice of killing exotic and local birds by the thousands in order to use their feathers on women’s hats. Ultimately, she helped found the Massachusetts chapter of the Audubon Society, preserving open space and natural habitats and landscapes for generations of Bostonians to come.”

Robert Morris

“A native of Salem, Morris was Massachusetts’ first African American lawyer, admitted to the bar in 1847. He argued many cases, most notably the landmark Sarah Roberts v. Boston with co-counsel Charles Summer. This suit by a young African-American girl who had to walk past five all-white schools en route to a black school in Beacon Hill, led to the 1855 Massachusetts law banning school segregation by race in our state. Morris also represented the legal interests of escaped slaves living in Boston during the era of the Fugitive Slave Law, and, after the Civil War, served as the governor’s appointed judicial magistrate for Essex County. In his private practice, Morris specialized in representing the interests of Irish immigrants facing discrimination.”

Frederick Law Olmsted

“A transplanted Bostonian, Olmsted’s 20 years spent designing and perfecting the park system that is today known as the ‘Emerald Necklace‘ impacts the quality of life of every Bostonian today, and still serves as a model of thoughtful urban planning. The interplay of open expanses and picturesque, detailed rocky nooks, integration of naturally occurring features, and use of native plants whenever possible provided an enduring model for landscape design. You can visit Olmsted’s home and design firm office in Brookline.”


Peter Salem

“An estimated 10-15 percent of the Continental troops in the Revolutionary War were African-Americans. One heroic African-American Revolutionary War soldier who Bostonians should know about is Peter Salem of Framingham. Salem fought for the duration of the war, seeing action in the Battle at Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, Stony Brook, and Saratoga. Most notably, Peter Salem killed British major Pitcairn at Bunker Hill, and his image is depicted in the far lower right corner of the famous John Trumbull painting of this battle. Peter Salem died in his hometown of Framingham and is commemorated by a monument in the town’s Old Burying Ground.”

Mercy Otis Warren

“Mercy Otis Warren pushed gender stereotypes by writing propaganda during the American Revolution. One of her great works included a series of dramatic satires that she anonymously published in the patriotic press that attacked supporters of the British Crown, including Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Her Observations on the new Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions admonished Americans to not ratify the Constitution unless the Bill of Rights was added to it to protect individual freedoms. Read more about Mercy Otis Warren! And, if you are looking for a great children’s book on women and girls of the American Revolution, check out Independent Dames by Laurie Halse Anderson.”

John Adams

“Adams is no doubt one of the Boston area’s (he was born in Quincy and resided in Braintree for most of his adult life) most accomplished project, serving as member of the Continental Congress, diplomat, vice president, and ultimately president of the United States. But he showed his true character earlier on, when as a prominent Boston lawyer and supporter of the Patriot cause, he agreed to represent the British soldiers brought to trial for the killings that occurred during the Boston Massacre. His belief in due process, a right to attorney, and the value of justice trumped his political leanings, and his stature guaranteed the accused a fair trial– which ultimately resulted in a verdict of manslaughter, not murder, for the accused.”

Abigail Adams

“A native of Weymouth, Abigail Adams lived most of her adult life in Braintree and Quincy. Like many Revolutionary Era women, she ran the family farm while her husband was away on business, assisting with the Patriot cause, and later served as ambassador to Great Britain in the Washington administration. During their separations, Abigail was an ardent, thoughtful correspondent with her husband, keeping him apprised of domestic affairs and offering insight and advice into political matters. Her advocacy for women’s rights is evident in this correspondence. While serving as first lady, Abigail’s prominent place in the administration led her to be referred to derisively as ‘Mrs. President.’ ”

Phyllis Wheatley

Slavery did not stop Phyllis Wheatley from becoming one of the greatest poets of her era and showcasing the artistic and intellectual capacity of the African people who Europeans had enslaved. Brought to Boston as a slave when she was around seven years old, and taught to read by her master’s wife, Wheatley’s poetry achieved great popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. Wheatley wrote about 145 poems, and in some of those she expressed her disdain for slavery. In On the Death of General Wooster, for example, she pinpointed the hypocritical stance of those who embrace Christianity but oppress people through slavery. Sadly, though Wheatley was ultimately freed from bondage by her master’s wife, and became a valued congregant of the Old South Meeting House, she died at age 30 after suffering from ill health.

Whom would you choose? Help us pick the Best Bostonians of all time.