Malcolm X in Roxbury

by Andrew Hatt

Twelve years of Malcolm X’s life were spent in Massachusetts. Upon arriving here in either 1940 or 1941 at the age of 16, Malcolm Little went to live with Ella Little Collins, his older half-sister. She lived at 72 Dale Street. Having been born in Omaha, Nebraska and raised in both Milwaukee and Lansing, Michigan, he initially marveled at the bright lights of Dudley Square. According to his 1964 autobiography, he “didn’t know the world contained as many Negroes as I saw thronging downtown Roxbury at night, especially on Saturdays.”

Despite having only an eighth grade education, Malcolm pursued employment almost immediately after he arrived in Roxbury. His first job was as a parking lot attendant in Chinatown, working for a relative of Ella Little Collins. He later worked for the Roseland State Ballroom, which used to host segregated lindy hope dances and was located where the Christian Science Plaza is today. Additionally, he was employed as a soda jerk at the Townsend Drug Store, which was located on Humboldt Avenue, as a busboy at the Parker House in Downtown Boston and as a packer for Sears, Roebuck and Company at their warehouse in the Fenway, where the Landmark Center is today. For most 1943, Malcolm was employed as a Pullman Porter for the New Haven Railroad, working on trains that originated at South Station and went as far south as Washington D.C., and later with the Seaboard Railroad, on trains that went to St. Petersburg and Miami, Florida.

The life of a Pullman Porter exposed Malcolm to areas of the United States that he found even more dazzling than Roxbury, in particular Harlem, New York, where he moved in 1943. A year later, however he returned to Roxbury and lived with his friend Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis, both of whom would eventually become partners in crime. Malcolm Little was first arrested in November of 1944 for stealing and eventually pawning his aunt’s fur coat. Malcolm and Shorty’s criminal activities eventually led them to breaking into the houses. Malcolm was arrested again in January of 1946, when he went to pick up a watch he was having repaired from a jewelry store in Roxbury. The watch was stolen from a family in Milton and Boston police had alerted all of the jewelers in the area. Malcolm would go onto to be prosecuted for both breaking and entering and larceny.

At the age of twenty, Malcolm Little was sentenced for both crimes, receiving sentences of six to eight years or eight to ten years hard labor to be served concurrently. Initially, he was placed in Charlestown State Prison, but was later transferred to what are today MCI- Concord and MCI-Norfolk. While in prison, Malcolm made a concerted effort to educate himself by reading everything that the prison library had to offer. In addition, with the urging of various family members, Malcolm began following the tenets of Nation of Islam. After spending six years in prison, he was released in 1952 and promptly moved to Detroit where formally joined the Nation of Islam. He later return to Roxbury to found Muhammad’s Mosque No. 11 and according to some accounts, served as its minister from 1953 to 1954. Later in life, Malcolm X would routinely come back to Roxbury to visit the family members that were responsible for is first coming to the area in the early 1940s.