By Jaime Grant
My grandmother, Josephine Mary Ahern married my grandfather, Patrick J. Grant in 1920 when she was 29 years old. In January of that year, the U.S. Census found her single. She was living at home with her mother and brothers, but by the year’s end, she was married to my grandfather who turns out had quite a year for himself.
Pat was a basketball star in the West End of Boston, which in 1920 was a dense, sprawling ghetto of nearly 60,000 Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants. This was more than 25 years before the NBA formed, and the West End Knights of Columbus team was the era’s equivalent of the Celtics. There was more than one article in the Boston Globe that year speculating about it, and then reporting on “Paddy’s” retirement, noting that his thousands of fans were coming to terms with the fact that he had “boils” and could no longer play. Pat retired that year at 32; he also lost his mother and married Josie.
My grandparents settled down at 330 Saratoga Street in East Boston, a triple decker that my grandmother, a buyer for Jordan Marsh Department stores, had bought for her family. Josie moved Pat into the household and soon delivered my uncle, Edward, and my father, James, who were born in 1923 and 1925 respectively. Josie’s mother, Mary Sweeney Ahern, lived at 330 Saratoga until her death in 1926. Her brothers Jimmy and Bill Ahern also lived there throughout my father’s childhood, working as longshoreman on the docks. My grandfather shifted from being a “steamfitter” into a new job as a police officer, which was the brass ring in the world of Irish employment at the time. Almost immediately, Josie started organizing.
City newspapers in the 1920s and 30s were flowery recorders of daily events. National news and major local issues were reported on alongside hundreds of tiny social and political gatherings of the day. From the 20’s through the 40’s, my grandmother appears in the Globe as an organizer of everything from bridge tournaments to political fundraisers.
Josie’s best friend, Susan Bradley Donovan, related by marriage, served as the East Boston representative in the Massachusetts House from 1939-1944. During the era in which my Great Aunt Susie served, Josie was constantly organizing fundraisers and political gatherings.
For me, the most eye-opening story about my grandmother is entirely unknown in the family. It pertains to work we heard quite a lot about as children, which was her labor organizing, especially on behalf of the police, whose union was busted in 1919 when they went on strike in solidarity with peer striking workers in the city (truly hard to imagine in our current context).
This was where I first encountered Josie when I started looking for her. She was splashed across the pages of the Globe, standing regally among peer organizers, under headlines like “Mayor Meets with the Wives” or “Mayor Curley Refuses the Wives Again.” In this picture, she’s standing with the wife of future Mayor Tobin, and holds the title of legislative chairman for the Boston Police Wives Association.
It’s clear that throughout the 40’s, Josie and the other “wives” argued strenuously for overtime pay and reasonable work weeks for the police, and also for a broad swath of municipal workers who were often working 60 hours a week or more at very low wages. While the Irish were gaining political power in Boston in this period, rank and file workers had only fledgling unions and few champions as they built the city’s infrastructure, educated its children, swept the streets, loaded and unloaded ships in the harbor, and policed the often cramped quarters where various waves of immigrants encamped to gain a foot hold. In my grandparents’ world, the third floor of 330 Saratoga was reserved for family fresh off the boat, and census records from the 20’s through to their move to suburbia in the 60’s show a shifting stream of Grant and Ahern relatives passing through on their way “up.”
So, here’s where this story gets (even more) interesting. In 1951, following Josie’s failed attempts at lobbying the Mayor for decent wages, the Globe reports a major racketeering scandal involving municipal workers via the Boston City Post Office. At the time, all municipal workers punched their timecards at the post office and officials discovered that millions of dollars had been skimmed off the city budget by workers reporting time that they had not worked. The payroll scandal was major news and the investigation and prosecutions went on for over a year, with several – largely Irish – ringleaders getting jail time and hundreds of others enduring arrest and paying fines.
From the first moment I saw the story, the hair on the back of my neck stood up just a bit. I trolled through the Globe archive, reading articles pertaining to the investigation, including lists of people arrested who served time and/or paid fines. And there they were – my great uncle James J. Ahern, Jr., Josie’s brother, and my uncle Edward Grant, Josie’s firstborn, a young schoolteacher at the time. When I read their names, it was like finding buried family treasure. I noted that Jimmy and Ed were both fined and released.
I sat down and made a spot of tea; I drank it from heirloom china on my mother’s side, hand-painted by my great-aunt, Sophia MacNeill, just to add to my enjoyment.
Dr. Jaime M. Grant, author of Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey and co-editor of Friendship as Social Justice Activism is a social justice researcher, writer, and activist who has been engaged in LGBTQ, women’s and racial justice movements since the 1980s. She is the creator of the podcast, Just Sex: Mapping Your Desire and was the founding Executive Director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership.