Boston’s Two Freedom Trails

Looks like I’ve stumbled on my first public history scandal surrounding the Civil War since moving to Boston.  Before proceeding I should note that I am only vaguely familiar with the tours that are referenced in the article below.  On Wednesday I am off to Nashville to give two talks as part of the Civil War Preservation Trust’s Annual Teachers Institute, but when I return I hope to begin exploring much more of my new home.

The controversy surrounds the release of a new guidebook for Civil War Boston that was published by The Freedom Trail Foundation.  The Foundation is best known for its downtown tour of some of the most significant spots of the American Revolution, which may lead some to wonder why the organization decided to publish a short pamphlet on Civil War related sites.  Folks associated with the Black Heritage Trail are apparently not pleased with the scope of the pamphlet and its failure to acknowledge a number of important sites associated with the story of African Americans as well as the work of area institutions that are focused on black history.

You will have to read the article for yourself, but this seems like a bit of a turf war that admits of no clear answers.  Clearly, there is room here for better communication, though I have no way of knowing the history between the various  groups involved.  Perhaps some of my readers can fill in some of the gaps.

It does seem ironic that the major historical institutions in the former capital of the Confederacy may be further along in effectively integrating the story of black and white Virginians during the Civil War than the “Hub of Abolitionism.”  I am thinking specifically of the Museum of the Confederacy, the Virginia Historical Society, American Civil War Center at Tredegar, and the Richmond and Petersburg National Battlefield Parks, to name just a few.  The city has also benefited from popular figures such as Ed Ayers, who has worked tirelessly to bring various constituencies together through The Future of Richmond’s Past.

I don’t know if any of this is relevant to this little squabble, but perhaps I can follow up as I learn more about the public history scene here in Boston.

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11 comments… add one
  • Sherree Jul 14, 2011 @ 4:07

    Hi Kevin,

    Congratulations on your successful move to Boston! I feel certain that your time in this great city will be well spent and that you will leave your mark behind, if you choose to move elsewhere, as you have done in Virginia.

    Not to be a curmudgeon, but perhaps a good place to begin the discussion about differences in interpretation of the ACW would be with a candid delving into the views of African American men and women and of white men and women concerning the movie “Glory”, then discussing the legacy of another type of “glory” captured in the famous photograph taken in the 1970s entitled, “The Soiling of Old Glory” (wikipedia entry – )

    Do some of the attitudes depicted in the photograph still remain? As historians well know, but the general public may not, the history of New England–and of Boston in particular–was not a seamless one of racial equality in which the abolitionists worked tirelessly to bring about the end of slavery, white soldiers fought with their African American brothers until slavery did end, and then the two races lived happily ever after. Some of the ugliest, racially motivated fights over busing took place in Boston, as the aforementioned photograph documents. It was also in Boston that I, personally, first learned the true meaning of de facto segregation, as opposed to de jure segregation. I think you may have uncovered more than a turf war. Time will tell. Either way, let’s all work for resolution, reconciliation, and understanding.

    Thanks, Kevin. Sherree

    • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2011 @ 6:01

      You make an important point about an incredibly rich and divisive history that I look forward to exploring. Thanks for the comment.

      • Sherree Jul 15, 2011 @ 1:26

        You’re welcome, Kevin. And thank you.

        I find it fascinating that your life has taken you to both the Capital of the Confederacy and the Hub of Abolitionism. I truly look forward to what you will have to say in the coming months and years, and to insights that you will no doubt glean from living in these two environments that are so very different in so many ways, yet that are so vital–and equally important–as historic sites that “witnessed” the founding of our nation and its near dissolution.

  • Jennna Jul 13, 2011 @ 18:22

    I have spent some time visiting Boston, and have taken a ranger led tour of the African American Heritage Trail. I have visited countless parks over the years, and this tour was absolutely the best I have ever been on. The ranger that led the tour was engaging, knowledgeable, and interesting, and we were a group of very hard to please historians.

    Based on my limited experience, your observations are correct. The two trails (not to mention the Women’s Heritage Trail, which is a whole other issue) are unfortunately separate both in advertisement and practice. Maybe you can work on changing this while you are in Boston!

    • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2011 @ 2:49

      Thanks for sharing, Jenna. I look forward to exploring these places over the next few weeks.

  • Dudley Bokoski Jul 12, 2011 @ 1:18

    Sad to say, you get a sense of ownership in the discussion, as if any one institution or individual can or should have the right to dictate how history is interpreted. If you believe in diversity you should be able to embrace the idea there are many different stories all worth telling. Filling in the neglected blanks in Boston’s Civil War history, which the pamphlet attempts to do, doesn’t take anything away from other stories. There is no deep philosophical question here, just pettiness.

    • K.P. Marshall Jul 12, 2011 @ 14:36

      Seems to be a lot of this “only we can speak for those who can speak no longer” attempted ownership going on and not just the SCV. I wonder if this is strictly an issue with the period of the Second Revolution or is this just an American or a HUMAN reaction when something that people have clung to and allowed to define them is controversial to some?

  • Matt McKeon Jul 11, 2011 @ 18:46

    As a long term Boston area resident, I can assure you this isn’t truly a Boston scandal, since it doesn’t involve murderous, but well connected mobsters, pedophile priests, or the Speaker of the House.

  • Will Stoutamire Jul 11, 2011 @ 10:48

    I didn’t realize the Black Heritage Trail was part of an NPS Historic Site… for some reason I always thought it was an independent program. Anyways, for your travel reading pleasure, here’s a little background info on the trail (or, at least, on the buildings along the trail):

    At least according to the NPS database, nobody has conducted an admin history of this historic site. Thus a quick search reveals absolutely nothing about when/why it was created, etc. It sounds like you’ve found yourself an interesting little controversy and it might be a good idea to try tracing it back a little further to figure out why we have two separate trails in the first place. Does this “turf war” have a history? Perhaps going back to the creation of the Black Heritage Trail in the first place? (just thinking out loud there, but you get the point)

    It might not be explicitly Civil War memory, but I’m sure any historical comparison of the two trails will have a memory component. I could be wrong, but I’d be surprised if the BHT hasn’t always been seen, at least in part, as a response to what I believe is the fairly “white” narrative presented on the more popular Freedom Trail.

    Happy travels and best of luck with your talks.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2011 @ 10:49

      Hi Will,

      Thanks for the link. I was thinking along those lines as well. Great minds think alike.

  • Rob Jul 11, 2011 @ 10:46

    Interesting. I am not overly familiar with the cohesiveness with those historical organizations in Virginia, but if their relationship is as you described it would seem they are doing a better job of collaboration. It would seem that the Freedom Trail is expanding itself to cover Revolution up to Civil War, which prior to this seemed to be the concentration of Black Heritage Trail. I wonder if there is s sense of a historical turf war. But that might be stretching things. Whatever the case, it is obvious that there seems to be a serious lack of “team work.”

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