UMass Boston

History of 1919 Boston Police Strikers Lives on Through Healey Library Website

03/06/2020| Colleen Locke

Photographs and Stories Can Still Be Submitted at

A student checks out the Roll Call website
Image By: Sultan Samidinov

“ To be able to write [my grandfather’s] biography, [and know that] it'll be there in perpetuity—I think he’d be glad, and proud. ”

On September 9, 1919, 1,177 Boston police officers went on strike in hopes of gaining long-promised improvements in wages and working conditions. None of the strikers ever worked as Boston police officers again. Some were so ashamed that they spoke very little about their former jobs to their family, if at all.

Now, descendants, hobby genealogists, historians, and the community as a whole can read about these strikers through a website created by librarians at UMass Boston’s Joseph P. Healey Library,

The 1919 Boston Police Strike project first came about in 2012, when Margaret Sullivan, records manager and archivist for the Boston Police Department, contacted Joanne Riley, now interim dean of University Libraries at UMass Boston, about an interesting historical set of records the police department held.

There was an index card for each member of the department who went out on strike in September 9, 1919, with a red stamp on each that says, “Abandoned His Duty Sept 9, 1919.” Sullivan recognized the value of these roster cards and thought about how to showcase them given the approaching 100th anniversary in 2019.

“UMass Boston has the interest in labor history, the interest in local history, and the interest in untold stories that made it a good match for this program,” Sullivan said.

Riley got to work, bringing UMass Boston faculty, students, and outside volunteers on board.

“In the aftermath of the strike, [the city] hired approximately 16,00 substitutes, to whom they gave the concessions that the strikers had been asking for for so long, so in many ways, it was an event that had an effect on labor history and the ability of public employees to go out on strike, and the very, very personal effect that it had on people in the city: the strikers, their families, people who took their places. It was a very deeply important event in Boston history,” Riley said.

After volunteers typed up the information in the shoebox of index cards, a set of volunteers called “starters” looked for what else they could find out about the strikers, combing through primary source documents such as census records, city directories, and war records. Volunteer Ken Liss, the head of liaison & instructional services at Boston University, was one of those “starters.”

“I just love researching people whose stories aren’t often told, especially if they are part of a larger tapestry that tells a bigger story, and this really kind of fit that bill,” Liss said. 

After this first pass at filling out worksheets on each striker, another volunteer would make sure nothing was missing. During the “closing phase,” a volunteer would input the data from the worksheet into the online database, which would generate a biography for every striker. The last phase was writing a biography on each striker.

Susan Eppling does genealogy for fun. One day she was on her account and saw someone linking to records of her grandfather, Cornelius Crowley.

“There aren’t many people that survive that are relatives that I don’t know about, and I emailed this person through Ancestry and they told me about the project, and then I contacted the people at UMass Boston. I took part in their massive open online course to become one of their volunteers, and then it just snowballed,” Eppling said.

More than 80 volunteers put in more than 90,000 hours of research work over seven years on the 1919 Boston Police Strike project. Organizers and volunteers talk about the process in this video.

All of this research led up to an event at UMass Boston on September 7, 2019, at which the website was unveiled, and family members reenacted the moment when their ancestors decided to strike.

“My sister and I stood up and said, ‘On behalf of our grandfather, Cornelius Crowley, we vote to strike,’ and everyone was popping up all over,” Eppling said. Watch the video of the September 7, 2019 event.

Riley says that just because the website is live, doesn’t mean that the data collection is over. Volunteers and descendants can continue to contribute photos and information. And the stories can continue to be told, and read.

“To be able to write [my grandfather’s] biography, know that it’s part of this growing collection—it’ll be there in perpetuity—I think he’d be glad, and he’d be proud,” Eppling said.

Looking at Roll Call site on phone

About UMass Boston
The University of Massachusetts Boston is deeply rooted in the city's history, yet poised to address the challenges of the future. Recognized for innovative research, metropolitan Boston’s public university offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s 10 colleges and graduate schools serve 16,000 students while engaging local and global constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service. To learn more, visit