History of African-American Success in Cambridge

History of African-American Success in Cambridge

Historical overview

African-Americans have been able to elect representatives to both bodies in almost every election in the 1960’s and 1970’s even at a time when their share of the city’s population was less than 10% and below the threshold:  African-Americans often have held a higher percentage of political seats than their proportion of the total population.

Once African-Americans crossed over 10% of the voting age population in 1980 (it is 12%), they have always had representation on both bodies, sometimes with two representatives on a body (1971: two city councilors, 1993 & 1997: two school committee members, 2001: two city councilors & two school committee members).


The Cambridge city council consists of nine members elected at-large, and the school committee consists of six members elected at-large. Both city elections use the Choice Voting method of proportional representation. In city council elections, a cohesive voting-bloc of 10% of the total population can guarantee their choice of one city council member, and a voting-bloc of approximately 14% can guarantee their choice of one school committee member. In 1903, before proportional representation was adopted, the first African-American, James Lew, was elected to the school committee. After his retirement in 1908, the community wouldn’t have representation on the committee for more than half a century. From 1941-1957, the African-American population in Cambridge was less than 5% of the population, and never elected an African-American member of the city council or school committee. It wasn’t until 1959, after proportional representation was adopted and the African-American population neared 5.3%, that they were able to elect a school committee member, Gustave Solomons. Solomons was subsequently re-elected to five consecutive terms on the school committee.


In 1963, after decades without representation, Cambridge elected an African-American council member, Thomas Coates. Note though, that 10% is needed to guarantee a city council seat, but the population was only around 5.3% at this point. Hence, while Coates was re-elected in 1965, no African-Americans were elected in 1967. Coates eventually won his seat back in 1969, but as you can see, electoral success can be precarious with such a small percentage of the population.

See Table A Below


By 1970, Cambridge’s African-American population reached 6.8%, and in the following year’s election, two African-Americans were elected to the city council. With only approximately 7% of the population then, African-Americans held 22% of the city’s council seats. Unfortunately, the victory was not a long-lived one, as only one of the candidates was re-elected in the next election. Saundra Graham, however, ended up serving nearly two decades and nine terms on the council. The school committee elections during this period, on the other hand, were not as stable for African-Americans. From this group, one member was elected in 1971 and re-elected in 1973, but African-Americans had no representation in the 1975 and 1977 elections. Finally, in 1979 Henrietta Attles was elected for two terms, followed by Fran Cooper for four terms.


Note that in 1980, the African-American population in Cambridge finally crossed 10%, the percentage of the population needed to guarantee a council representative. Ever since then, African-Americans have been able to elect members to the city council, and even on the school committee. Sometimes, the group has held more than one seat on the council or school committee, as happened in 1993, 1997, and 2001. The level and consistency of this electoral success would not likely be possible under a traditional at-large, winner-take-all system, because a majority 51% of the population could dominate all 9 seats. In addition, the Cambridge African-American population is geographically dispersed, making super-majority, single-member districts unfeasible.

Asian-American representation

It is important to keep in mind though, that Choice Voting is not a guaranteed quota system. A 10% citywide population of African-Americans does not automatically get a seat on the council, merely an opportunity. For example, the Asian-American voting-age population in Cambridge is 12.3%. This is a significant figure, in that this group has crossed the 10% threshold needed to elect a city council member, and is very close to the near 14% needed to elect a school committee member. In spite of this, this group has not yet elected an Asian-American candidate, nor run a candidate, even as the Asian-American percentage of the city population has increased from 3.8% in 1980, to 8.4% in 1990, and 12% in 2000.

According to some accounts however, there is an explanation for this. The Asian-American population is mainly driven by those who are students at Harvard and MIT, and most students never vote in local elections. This perception is confirmed by the fact that the Asian-American voting-age population is larger than the overall Asian-American population. Typically when minority groups relocate or expand in an area, the overall population percentages will be higher than the group’s corresponding voting-age population, as children will make up a large part of the group’s membership. The fact that the Asian-American population is largely a student population helps explain why the voting-age figures are larger. In contrast, African-Americans make up 11.9% of the overall population, but only 10.1% of the voting-age population, while Hispanics are 7.4% and 6.5%, respectively. The Hispanic community being so small, has had limited success in electing members to represent them. There have been two members elected to the school committee from that group, Susana Segat and Sara Garcia. Garcia however, was only a one-term member, and though she ran with the community’s support likely won due to the fact that she was endorsed as part of the CCA’s slate, as 14% is needed to win. Segat, on the other hand, has won numerous terms on the committee, as a CCA candidate, however some accounts indicate that the Cambridge Hispanic community does not feel that she has represented them. Segat tends to win with CCA support and by playing to different groups, especially labor unions.

Despite this, African-Americans have formed a cohesive voting block, as many of their families have been fully integrated into Cambridge civic life for several generations. Like other longtime residents and city natives, African-Americans generally vote in every election. Some accounts indicate that these voters tend to vote pretty solidly for black candidates for school committee, and largely so for City Council, but to a lesser extent. So, as you can see a high minority population is not in itself determinative of electoral success, but it certainly provides a significantly greater opportunity under a proportional representation system. Further dampening the strength and cohesiveness of minority voting groups is the fact that the voting-age population figures do not take into account whether members of the racial groups are citizens and how long they have been in Cambridge. The 1990 Census data indicates that 22.3% of the city’s population was foreign-born in that year.

Table A:
Cambridge African-American City Council
& School Committee Representation
(format: Year City Council-School Committee)

[TABLE A NEEDS TO BE INSERTED HERE (link: http://archive.fairvote.org/?page=2457 )]


2008: Comparative data

Representation of the African-American community in City Councils in 2008

[TABLE NEEDS TO BE INSERTED HERE (link: http://archive.fairvote.org/?page=2457 )]