On the front lines of history
by Melanie Fernandes, ‘16
My time at Boston African American National Historic Site, though brief, has given me new insight on how people view history. Right off the bat, it’s quite clear that within a city with a near-record number of historic properties, Boston African American National Historic Site is a smaller and less well-known historic site than many of its neighbors. While the park is affiliated with many other neighboring sites, it has its own unique mission: to preserve and promote the history of the African American struggle, both in the city and on a national scale, particularly during the time leading up to and through the Civil War. This is obviously a lesser-known history than that of the revolutionaries Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, but it is arguably no less interesting or significant.
The rangers that I have been working with have told me that their biggest struggle is the mentality of their audiences. Again and again, they meet countless visitors who have no interest in hearing a more complicated history—visitors who are perfectly content with the “happy” history that tells of our Revolutionary heroes who saved the day against the tyrannical British, or the morally superior Northerners of the Civil War era who all adamantly opposed slavery. The experiences of black Bostonians fundamentally challenge both of these narratives of American history, and consequently the rangers at Boston African American NHS often have difficulty drumming up interest in the site.
However, there is a flip side to this challenge. When people visit the site, their interest tends to be very genuine. The visitors who come to a site such as this tend to be well-versed in history and passionate about it. One experience that has stuck with me was watching a woman on a tour get particularly emotional during a program at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial when the interpreter talked about the risks that the men of the 54th Regiment took and the lengths they went to to prove their worth to those who scoffed at their abilities. Later in the tour she thanked the ranger for what he was doing, for preserving and sharing the history of the African American population, a group whose struggle continues even today.
She explained that she was Jewish and felt she understood the need to remember the struggles of the past. It was clear that she felt connected to story of the men of the 54th because she understood the history of discrimination experienced by her own ethnic community. This moment that I witnessed bears out the findings of Thelen and Rosenzweig in their Perspectives on History article, affirming that people are most interested in history that relates directly to them.
And yet, I’d like to see people take this one step further. While I respect the connections visitors have to their familial, racial, or community history, I think it is also necessary for them delve deeper than that. I thought it was wonderful that this woman on the tour felt invested in the presentation and interpretation of African American history even though she was not part of this racial group. She valued the story of the 54th Massachusetts, connecting it to her own identity, but also appreciating it for its broader significance.
I wish that more visitors would make deeper connections like that, realize that their own personal history has been shaped by forces outside their own family or ethnic community. If the biggest reason that people find history uninteresting is because they don’t feel it relates to them, bringing these stories together could help people understand that history actually is relevant.
One of my goals for this summer is to help visitors to Boston African American NHS recognize the connections between different histories. For example, a Jewish community arose on the same slope of Beacon Hill as the free African American community because these groups faced similar economic struggles. The connection between the suffrage movement and the abolitionist movement is another example; women hoped that in winning rights for African Americans, they would also be liberated. These are just two of the ways that the stories this park interprets can help people of diverse racial and ethnic groups connect to each through common historical experiences. Making connections between the histories of different groups broadens our understanding. It is my belief that through this lens, people of all ages can gain new perspectives not only on their own histories, but on history itself.