America Was All Abuzz About Ashby
ASHBY -- It was Town Meeting more than four decades ago. President Richard Nixon had just announced a cease fire in the Vietnam War that didn’t stop soldiers from coming home in body bags. The Watergate scandal was intensifying, and civil rights activists were still in the shadow of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
It was the evening of March 13, 1973 and hundreds of voters gathered in the auditorium of Ashby Elementary School for the meeting. Among the articles considered was a resolution calling on the town to endorse freedom and equality for minority groups, and declare their town a welcoming destination for people of all races.
The debate was brief and civil, because voters had their minds made up, said former Unitarian minister Philip Zwerling about Article 13, the pledge to “work for a multi-racial community here in Ashby.”
It was defeated, with 79 people in favor and 148 opposed.
“The opponents quickly emerged and said, ‘Well, if you pass this, every black person in Boston is going to come out and move to Ashby,’ ” said Zwerling recently.
The town in the early 1970s was almost entirely white. Three of Ashby’s 2,269 residents, or just over a tenth of one percent, were African American then, according to census data.
Zwerling doesn’t remember whether he or a parishioner wrote the resolution, but newspaper clippings from the time attribute the words to him.
What he does remember is how certain he felt that residents would seize the opportunity to codify for the public record that “we’re a welcoming community, and we’d be happy to have people of any color come and live in Ashby.”
“I said, ‘Why don’t we put this up and Ashby will pass it, and we can say we did something,’ ” Zwerling said, chuckling, during a recent interview. “I don’t think any of us realized how controversial it would be.”
More than 220 residents gathered at the school and listened as the moderator, John F. Nash, read the article: “We the townspeople of Ashby would like to take the opportunity of this Town Meeting to reaffirm our belief in the American ideals of freedom and equality and the universal religious ideal of brotherhood by making it known that we welcome to our town, as neighbors, people of color and members of other minority groups in this country.”
He continued: “Distressed by the gulf that has grown up between the races in this country, and the lack of true integration and representation of the diverse peoples of our country here in our town, we call upon our town officials, our local realtors and businessmen, and all of our neighbors to work for a multi-racial community here in Ashby.”
Person after person rose to speak, said Zwerling, some in favor, others opposed. Then, a motion came to amend the article, which was rewritten to remove references to the division between the races.
The amended resolution called on “neighbors to plan and work for a multi-racial community.” And then the resolution failed.
A self-described city kid from New York, Zwerling was looking for a job in 1971. He needed real-world experience, and a source of income to start paying down his student loans.
He was raised in the Unitarian Church, a faith chosen by his Jewish father and catholic mother who searched for a denomination accepting of their origin faiths.
Drawn to the ministry as a way to help others, he fit well within the tradition of Unitarian social engagement. In college he marched with Coretta Scott King after her husband was murdered.
“I knew I wanted to be a minister. It seemed to me like any other profession was about getting paid to do work you wouldn’t do otherwise, that’s why they had to pay you for it,” he said.
In the halls of his Ivy League school hung a bulletin board advertising employment opportunities to the young theologians. Scanning the pages he saw a listing seeking a part-time minister at First Parish Church, a Unitarian Universalist place of worship in Ashby.
He’d never heard of Ashby until that moment. Later he traveled to the small town with a colleague from Billerica, on whose recommendation he was hired.
At the church Zwerling held “teach-ins” with former Secretary of State John F. Kerry, then representing the Vietnam Veterans Against War, and Father Robert Drinan, the Catholic priest and Massachusetts Congressman who won election while opposing the war in Vietnam.
John Howard, then leader of the Montachusett branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, endorsed Zwerling’s article in a speech at the church. It was entitled, “The Great Fear,” which centered around the topics of job and housing discrimination and “other issues that have faced the black community for years,” a Fitchburg Sentinel reporter wrote in the March 14, 1973 edition.
After one such teach-in about a dozen people filed into a room downstairs. They asked themselves what they, as members of a small Massachusetts community, could do address racial prejudice.
“What can we do?” Zwerling asked. “Race relations were precarious, black people feel under seige, what could we do?”
Zwerling thought Article 13 would sail through the vote. He recalled the nearly seven-foot tall chair that was placed in the parsonage. The desk once belonged to a Reverand Brown, who left Ashby for Kansas prior to the Civil War to join abolitionists pushing for Kansas to be accepted into the Union as an anti-slavery state.
The Underground Railroad ran through nearby Townsend, said Zwerling, who once uncovered an old diary written by a young man who left Ashby to fight in the Civil War for the Union, and was compelled by the “strong anti-slavery feelings he described.”
So the vote took Zwerling by surprise.
Today, Zwerling says he believes his status as an “outsider” also informed some of the opposition to what he believed was an “innocuous article.”
Longtime Ashby resident Lillian Whitney says that assessment is based in truth.
Whitney said she was a member of First Parish when Zwerling was hired. She recalled a speech Zwerling gave on Memorial Day when he expressed his belief that American troops should not be fighting in Vietnam, a speech Whitney characterized as “unpatriotic.”
Her nephew was killed in the war, Whitney said, and the speech upset her. Others were offended, too, she said, and the speech had much to do with the opposition to Article 13 at Town Meeting.
“Ashby was always a welcoming community and I think it was mostly voted down due to the person that submitted it,” she said. “I just think it came from the wrong person after that Memorial Day speech. I think that’s what it all goes back to.”
Residents interviewed at the time by the Associated Press called the resolution “loaded.” One man told a reporter, “I don’t object to anyone moving in to town whatever his creed or color. At the same time, I don’t think I should invite anyone into town.”
Zwerling left the Ashby church that year, eventually leaving the ministry in 1994. Four years later he earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of New Orleans, and a doctorate from the department of the dramatic arts at the University of California’s Santa Barbara campus.
He wrote a book about the benefit of theater programs for at-risk youth, and edited a collection of essays titled “CIA on Campus” and helped a former Central Intelligence Agency spy sent to help overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba write his memoirs about being kidnapped twice by his own employer. Zwerling would go on to become the director of the master’s level fine arts program at University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley before his retirement this year.
In retrospect, Zwerling says his bid to have the town publicly state its commitment to diversity backfired. Decades later, in 2010, Ashby’s total population remains overwhelming white, with just 12 black residents out of a total population of 3,074, according to the most recent census data.
“The end result was exactly the opposite of what we’d hoped for, instead of taking some sort of positive step, it was seen, fairly or unfairly, as a very negative thing,” he said. “The story became not just, they didn’t want to go on record welcoming people, it was almost as if they were on record trying to keep people out.”