Engaging with public history on Boston’s Freedom Trail

December 20, 2018 |  Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Engaging with public history on Boston’s Freedom Trail

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 My obsession with history started in elementary school, but my obsession with visiting historical sites and places began with our seventh grade spring trip to Boston. I had been to Boston many times, having lived in Haverhill, a depressed former mill town an hour north of the city. I had never, however, wandered its streets or known anything about its history beyond the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s ride (which actually wasn’t done by Revere himself, and went somewhat differently than the oft-repeated story). Seventh grade is the year that New York City public middle school students study United States history up to the Civil War, and so earlier in the year we covered colonial history and the broad strokes of the events leading up to the War of Independence. I remember that I had written an amusing skit about the events of the Boston Massacre based on the famous plagiarized print done by Paul Revere (amusing because the brown dog in the print became a character that made its first appearance in my skits throughout the year) that was quite well received by my classmates and teacher. I had little idea what we’d actually be doing, but the lot of us were going on a trip together to a new place, which was exciting at the time. We got to school early in the morning that spring day, waiting in the auditorium for the bus to pick us up and drive all the way to Boston, a trip I now know takes about five hours, but then was a ways away. For most of the trip to Boston, we either dozed off, catching up on sleep, or looked out the window as the bricks, steel, and concrete of New York City gave way to the suburbs of Upstate, and then long stretches of green forest and rock faces and British-sounding New England towns. I’m also sure we pestered our chaperones on how close we were to Boston, getting waved away and told to entertain ourselves– these were the days just before cell phones became ubiquitous and GPS tracking answered those questions for us.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0  

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 As we neared Boston, our chaperones began to educate us on the basics of Bostonian history. Founded by English Puritan settlers (they didn’t call them colonizers in those days) in 1630, it was supposed to be a haven for those fleeing religious persecution back home– but only those who shared the beliefs of the religious leaders. Boston was to be a grand “city on the hill” that was to be an example for the world in terms of ‘godliness’ and society-building. They told us that while the so-called Pilgrims arrived some years before, it was the Puritans who built a more robust and secure society, eventually taking in them in as the Massachusetts Bay Colony expanded outwards. We were told that a number of our visits would be to churches, especially those that played an important role in gaining independence. Sooner than we knew it, we were in Boston.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0  

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 I can’t recall where the bus stopped, but I do remember that we started our trip in the northern part of the city. Our first stop was the Old North Church, where it was explained to us its role in the Paul Revere story, also marked by a large equestrian statue outside. It is the oldest church in Boston, and I had never quite seen a church like it before– stark white, with wood paneling, a balcony, and pews that one could lock! All the churches–Catholic–that I’d been in had long wooden pews, stone or concrete walls, high ceilings, stained glass windows, and a graphic crucifix with Jesus in all his agony on it. This was much more reserved, much more ‘New England’ than anything I’d ever seen before– it was historical, and I was hooked.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Our next stop was the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, which was the oldest cemetery I had ever stepped foot in. I don’t think I had seen gravestones so old that one couldn’t read the names on them, or that they were even sunken into the dirt! Some of the graves had strange, old-timey religious names like “Patience” or “Jebadiah,” and death dates that went all the way back to the 1600s. One detail that has stuck with me is the winged skull design that was quite in fashion on seventeenth century headstones– the way the skull grins at one as it floats atop the stone stuck with me, and a couple of years ago found a ring with a similar design upon it. They mentioned to us some of the famous people interred in Copp’s Hill, such as Cotton and Increase Mather (see? Those names!). I did not know at the time about the interred Prince Hall, a Black abolitionist, activist, and the founder of a Black branch of Freemasonry, nor did they tell us about the Black burial grounds that have numerous unmarked graves. I suppose they weren’t thought to be important to the overarching story of Independence.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0  

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Afterwards wending among the tombstones, we made our way over to the Paul Revere House. On the way, we were told to stop and smell the air: almost a hundred years before, a molasses factory exploded, leaking a flood of sticky, hot molasses through the streets of Boston, killing 21 people and injuring over a hundred. It is said that one could still smell the sickly-sweet molasses; we couldn’t smell anything but damp Bostonian air. While we didn’t get to enter the Paul Revere House, we did get to wander through the tight, winding cobbled streets all around it, which was quite exciting for someone used to the wider, grid-like streets of Queens– they don’t make them like this anymore! It was a taste of another later interest of mine: historical architecture and urban design in the places I visit. At some point, I noticed that we were following a red stripe through the town: the Freedom Trail itself!

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0  

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 At some point afterwards, we ended up in the center of Boston, passing by the more ‘important’ civic institutions of the colonial era: the Old South Meeting House, King’s Chapel, the Park Street Church, the Boston Latin School, the Old State House, the Boston Common, and the State House. These were all places that were host to the influential and powerful players that shaped Massachusetts and national history, and it showed in the scale of the building, the refined characteristics of the architecture, their proximity to important state and commercial buildings, and all the famous people that were either associated with them or buried in their limits. Perhaps most interesting was the Granary Burial Ground, the final resting place for several patriots (Crispus Attucks, Paul Revere), signers of the Declaration of Independence (Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Robert Treat Paine), as well as members of Benjamin Franklin’s family, and a judge in the Salem witch trials. It was unbelievable that so many famous historical figures that we’d learnt about in school could be buried so close to one another, and somewhat of an honor to be among them! Of course, we learnt about the ‘famous’ figures, and it is so very common that the rest of the populations of the past are covered in generalizations or not at all.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0  

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Our next stop was in the area of Faneuil Hall, where a cobblestone circle marks the site of the 1770 Boston Massacre. We stopped for a solemn moment as we acknowledged the site and tried to envision the event as it occurred (it was rather difficult). We had to take the time to situate ourselves in a historical moment that occurred two centuries earlier in the very spot we stood in– history, we learnt, could–and did–happen anywhere, and was all around us, an idea that still sticks with me as I travel about the city and the wider world.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 This solemn moment of remembrance and contemplation was broken by our move to Faneuil Hall itself– once a market and meeting hall, it was now a sort of mini-mall, with all the banalities and overpriced junk that sort of operation entails. I did get something to eat, but wandered about, looking for an interesting shop to peruse that didn’t remind me of Times Square. I found a winner in a downstairs shop that sold historical souvenirs– facsimiles, books, wooden knick-knacks from olden times, and relevant books. In this, I was introduced to the historical souvenir industry (sure, we were on a historical trip, but no souvenirs came with it), one that gave one an illusory, but tangible connection to the past through a physical object that resembles one of true historical value. I believe that I got myself a package of facsimile colonial paper money, in awe of how big and easy to forge they were, and also the fact that each state had its own bills. Fascinating!

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0  

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 We were then led to our last stop on the trip, the USS Constitution, the legendary ship that’s the oldest floating warship. I vividly remember the trepidation of crossing the Charles River on a bridge whose footpath was merely a grille through which one could see the water below our feet! But we made it to the other side. Unfortunately, the ship itself was not open to visits at the time, so we spent a deal of time in a building connected somehow with the ship itself– it was mostly a gift shop, so we looked through the items on sale there. I found for myself a facsimile of the Declaration of independence and a map of colonial Boston (which still hangs on my wall), although other items such as a quill and ink writing set were tempting. Eventually, our consumption time had to end, and we were loaded back on the bus to return to New York.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0  

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Thus was the end of our public history excursion– which would be for me but the first. Since then, I’ve been through historical sites in New York City, Paris, Salem, MA, Amherst, MA, Deerfield, MA, Santiago in the Dominican Republic, Buenos Aires, Washington, DC, Port Townsend, WA, and all sorts of spots in between. The ability to be in the presence of a historical event or a place where a historical ‘grandee’ lived or worked gives me such a thrill, and serves as a reminder of the ubiquity and importance of history and its remembrance. While the Freedom Trail is imperfect– it omits the Boston Tea Party and the contributions of regular people, especially Black people from its narrative of “freedom.” I didn’t know until recently that there was a separate Black Heritage Trail that ran through Boston, separate from the Freedom Trail, that honors sites relevant to Black American history from colonial times to the Civil War. Public histories are imperfect, especially when they are done ‘from above,’ which is to say from the point of view of the powerful and ‘great’ figures in historical and present-day society. These narratives often occlude those who did not have money or prestige, but still made a mark on history in some way. Individual sites, such as the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, are an attempt to address these shortcomings, but even in this case, these commemorations do not occur without pressure ‘from below.’ Public history belongs to everyone, and it is imperative that a fuller rendering of approachable history be done with participation by and with all sorts of people. This is part of my mission in the field of history: to bring forth histories that are relatable, relevant, and inspiring for a better future, while also recognizing the realities of the past and the present are their own.


Comments are closed.

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind

Spam prevention powered by Akismet

Skip to toolbar