On Monday evening I attended a panel discussion at the Old North Church, sponsored by Revolution 250 to discuss the anniversary of events leading up to and including the American Revolution. Events have already marked the anniversaries of the Stamp Act Crisis and other events in the early years of colonial protest, but the big push will come in 2025-26 with the anniversaries of Lexington, Concord, etc. Boston will certainly be a popular destination for heritage tourists from the United States and beyond.
Panelists included William Fowler, Northeastern University; Martha McNamara, Wellesley College; Robert Allison, Suffolk University and Representative Byron Rushing. I didn’t have any expectations, beyond an interest in how the presenters were framing the anniversary. On this score I left just a bit disappointed.
The bicentennial commemoration of the Revolution (1976) received a great deal of attention. One presenter spoke passionately about how his experience as a young boy propelled him into a career in historic preservation. Others spoke of its successes and as something the city can build on, but apart from one speaker I heard very little in terms of narrative. Representative Rushing, however, confronted the issue directly by insisting that events address the African American and Native American experiences. I suspect his memory of the centennial is very different from that of the other panelists.
In contrast with the Civil War community I have very little understanding of the relationship between the many organizations devoted to public history and heritage tourism here in Greater Boston area. Beyond the National Park Service I also don’t know much about the institutional history of these organizations.
That said, I don’t get the sense that the narrative that framed the bicentennial of the American Revolution is seen as something that needs to be corrected in significant ways. Concerns about the preservation of historic sites and engaging the youth in our communities is certainly important, but we will have a better chance of hitting those targets only if we ensure that the overall narrative is compelling and reflects the best current scholarship and is deemed as relevant to our own lives and the nation.
I may certainly be wrong about this and I encourage those of you who are familiar with the relevant issues to chime in.
What is clear to me is that the commitment on the part of numerous organizations to correct the Civil War centennial narrative went far to shaping the sesquicentennial. It was in that tension between the Lost Cause and the emergence of new voices and themes that, in my mind, led to the most creative and challenging commemorative moments during the sesquicentennial. Where is that tension in Boston’s commemorative past?
Looking forward to continued discussions.