Ted Landsmark is sitting in his office, deep inside Charleston’s Old City Jail, where Denmark Vesey spent his final days before being hanged for planning a slave revolt almost 200 years ago. He is talking about The Photo That Changed His Life. It was a picture that rocketed around the globe long before the Internet, helping cement Boston’s reputation as a racist city and vividly showing America that the South had no monopoly on racial hatred. The black-and-white photo won a Pulitzer Prize for the great Boston photographer Stanley Forman, and accidentally put Ted Landsmark at the center of the defining moment of Boston’s bloody war over busing.
Forty years ago this month, Landsmark, then 29 and the head of a minority contractors association, was running late for a City Hall meeting when he ran head-on into white high school students at an anti-busing rally. “Get the n-----!” they shouted, and it was then that a kid named Joe Rakes lunged at Landsmark, in what looked like an attempt to impale him with a pole to which an American flag was attached. Landsmark ducked, but his nose was broken. That would heal soon enough, but it would take decades for Boston to recover from the deep wound of that photo — known as “The Soiling of Old Glory” — and what the city had done to itself over busing.
“The picture gained significance because it was a bicentennial year, and I was attacked by a group of young people with an American flag,” Landsmark, now 69, says today. “I immediately began to reflect on what had happened, why it had happened and what my role had to be. And that is why in the press conference immediately after I expressed a need for thoughtful reconciliation rather than anger. I knew anger wouldn’t move the city forward.”
Landsmark has spent a lifetime moving forward, while studying and learning from the past. He calls the attack at Boston City Hall “the transformative moment in my life,” but he never had any intention of allowing it to define his life. Having grown up in the projects of Harlem, having recovered from childhood polio, Landsmark has gone on to have a remarkable life. He has been an educator, lawyer, designer, social activist and worked in government. He has three degrees from Yale and a doctorate from Boston University, was at the March on Washington and Selma, and been a college president, among other things. And since January, academic vice president at the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston.
“Charleston is a terrific city,” he says, and he is talking not just about the architecture and the food, but as a place for both blacks and whites to live together.
Landsmark started coming to Charleston in the early 1990s, doing research in the Carolinas and Georgia into early African American craftsmen. “In the course of driving around, I fell in love with the place,” he says. He bought a house on Wadmalaw Island more than a decade ago.
He spent 17 years a president helping expand the Boston Architectural College, but was pushed out in 2014 amid declining enrollment and financial struggles. He remains on the board of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which oversees city development, and splits his time between Boston and Charleston. Given we both spent years in Boston and are now in Charleston, comparisons of the two cities were inevitable — and surprising. “Charleston is a city much more willing to address and highlight matters of racial justice,” he says. “The shootings in the Mother Emanuel tragedy have underlined that, that this is a city, which thanks in part to Mayor Riley and others in the public sector, has been willing to develop museums and monuments and extend recognition of the role that people of color and African Americans in particular have made in contributing to this culture and economy.
“And Northern cities like Boston often purport to be providing those kinds of points of access to education and opportunities for employment, but on the ground one doesn’t always see those attitudes reflected in behaviors.”
It is a theme he returns to often as we talk. As a student of history, Landsmark talks about how “there is a longer view of how races and cultures get along with each other here than in Massachusetts.” And as a student of architecture, he sees that as he walks around.
“I go to the waterfront here down to the piers that Sasaki designed, down to Riley Park, and there is a mixture of people there, young and old, black and white. I go to the waterfront in Boston, and I see very little evidence of people of color on the Boston waterfront. And you rarely see families. Why is that?”
Asked about retirement, he laughs. “In many repects, I have learned a number of things in Boston I think could prove useful here in terms of how one can increase and impact people of color on the cultural and economic life of the city,” he says.
We should take Ted Landsmark up on his offer. He has had a storybook journey, and he feels lucky to be here. We’re just as lucky to have him.
Steve Bailey is a former Boston Globe columnist who has returned to his hometown. He can be reached at email@example.com.