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Posts Tagged ‘Massachusetts’

The Site That Isn’t

Some NPS historic sites are magnificent. Some seem mundane but teach very important lessons. Others try but miss the mark. Then there are sites that simply aren’t there at all. The Boston African American National Historic Site fits that last category.

Basically, the site consists of the Black Heritage Trail, an extension of Boston’s famed Freedom Trail. It marks residences, offices, organizations and schools important to the Abolitionist Movement. This is important stuff, indeed. As I’ve said over and over again in this blog so far, black history is American history, and it’s impossible to understand the latter without including the former. Unfortunately, the Black Heritage Trail is simply not the place to do it.

About the only thing the Black Heritage Trail shows is gentrification, that process by which rich, white folks renovate a urban, lower class neighborhood. It’s a very controversial term, the subject of great emotion. Is gentrification good because it cleans up neighborhoods and increases property values? Or is it bad because it displaces poor residents who cannot afford to find better housing? At this time, I’m unprepared to argue one way or another.

What I am prepared to argue is the effect gentrification has had on the Black Heritage Trail. Basically, this trail is valueless. I’m not saying that these sites used to house people, businesses, and organizations vital to the abolitionist movement. I am saying that these sites no longer have that relevancy. They’re all private (white) residences, or other buildings that no longer have anything to do with black history, all in a beautiful, peaceful, serene neighborhood, that, although visually historic & preserved, no longer has any of the character of the times the trail is trying to portray. As such, I call the Boston African American National Historic Site a sham.

The only building that is open to the public, and still relevant, is the last stop on the trail, the African Meeting House. It contains a small museum without much of a permanent collection, but it does host some fascinating rotating displays. When I was there, they had a collection of movie posters from independent black cinema from the 40’s to the 70’s. I love old movie posters, and these were amazing. Unfortunately, photography wasn’t permitted, so no pictures 😦 .

I might get some harsh criticism for this bad review of Boston African American NHS. I think the NPS is correct in trying to capture Boston’s importance in abolition, but with the Black Heritage Trail, it fails.

African Meeting House — © 2008 America In Context

[I am trying to make a point by only having one pic on this post….]

Links:

Boston African American National Historic Site

POV’s Essays on Gentrification

The Neighbors Project

Google Map to BAA NHS

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Synergy & History

I love Boston, I really do. Yeah, being from Massachusetts, I’m heavily biased. But Boston is a place that really speaks to me. If I had to live in a city, Boston would be my first choice. I just love the feel of the place.

Col. Prescott — © 2008 America In ContextOne of the things I find endearing about Boston is the clear and present link between the city and American history. It is one of the oldest cities in America (founded in 1630), and was obviously the center of many pivotal events in the American Revolution, including the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s Ride, and the battle of Bunker Hill (really more about Breeds Hill than Bunker, but hey, what’s in a name). Boston also housed some of the greatest patriotic oratory of the age, great speakers such as James Otis, cousins Samuel and John Adams, and John Hancock wove their verbal tapestries from the smallest pub to the halls of the State House. These voices would find resonance with others, North and South, that would eventually become a symphony of vision that led to American Independence.

But I think most of you know all that. So let me talk about the other clear and present link between Boston and history. This is a city that not only understands, but completely embraces, it’s historical importance. Actually, Bostonians revel in their history. They absolutely love it, and it shows nearly everywhere you turn, even in those parts not on the famed Freedom Trail. The surrounding towns, in fact nearly every city and town in Massachusetts, embraces this history. I’d love to see real survey data, but I’d wager historical literacy in Massachusetts is higher than in any other state of the Union. It’s because history is in the blood of the Bay Stater. I know it’s in mine.

Burial Ground — © 2008 America In Context

I’ve been in a lot of cities in this country during my travels. Most old cities don’t really embrace their history. They have token historic districts, small spots in the city with a few important landmarks and strict building codes. Usually they’re smack in the middle of business “dead zones” (where you can’t even find a good spot for lunch), or surrounded by inner city slums (where you’re afraid to park your car). Best case they’re well-maintained, but only to keep property values high. The goal of these cynical districts isn’t to provide educational opportunities or spark interest in history, but to keep smarmy, uptight residents happily self-righteous, and to keep undesirables out. I suppose its beter than paving historical buildings over, a fate which has befallen many over time.

Constitution — © 2008 America In ContextThe problem is most people simply don’t understand the significance of history, nor do they appreciate the incredible chain of events that led to, well, everything. History is that chain of events that, when taken in context, explains why we are where we are at this exact moment in time. Something happened, then something happened, then something else happened, and you end up having some craptastic pasta dish at Applebee’s with people you don’t like. Everything happens for a reason, it happens because a certain sequence of events led to it happening. It’s not fate, it’s historical inertia. Understand that, and you can understand what comes next. It’s why I love the subject so much.

But most people don’t. Most people hate it, because a slew of lousy teachers did a terrible job teaching it. Those who don’t hate it outright see it only as a way to add smugness into their lives. How many antique collectors even understand what it is they own? They just hoard all that junk because it makes them look smart or it goes with their decor. Same with most cities and their historic districts. How many such communities even understand what they have? Very few, I’ll wager, although I’m sure they know exactly what it does for property tax collections.

Boston is an imperfect place. It’s muder to get around, and it’s expensive to park. But it is one of those rarity of American cities: it is a place that fully understands and embraces its place in history, and its citizens are all the better for it.

Old State House — © 2008 America In Context

[All pictures on this post are mine. I have surprisingly few pictures of Boston, I’ve been there so many times, pictures seem moot. However, you’re welcome to see all that I have here].

Links:

Boston Hational Historical Park

National Trust for Historic Preservation

Google Map to Boston NHP

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My Kind of Guy

Forget Ben Franklin. Forget Thomas Jefferson. Forget George Washington. John Adams is my favorite patriot.

I guess it goes back to my youth. I was in elementary school during the American Bicentennial in 1976. That was a huge time for patriotism and flag-waving, and interest in our Founding Fathers was at an all-time high.

One of our field trips actually took us to the movies – for a showing of the film version of the musical 1776. It’s an odd sort of thing, but seeing that film sparked, in me, an interest in American history that would smolder, unnoticed, until college fed it enough oxygen. Anyway, I digress…

There’s one terrific line in 1776 that I’ll never forget. Jefferson, Franklin, and others are trying to convince Adams to pen the Declaration of Independence. His retort? “Mr. Jefferson, I think that you should write it. I am obnoxious and ignored, you know it’s true!”

Even at 11 years old, I knew that described me as well: obnoxious and ignored. A kinship was forged.

John Adams — public domain photo courtesy of WikipediaAdams was not only obnoxious and ignored, he was also a rarity: a brilliant ideologue. I’m not overly fond of ideologues. Generally, I find them horribly lacking in any real insight or knowledge, they hide behind their ideology like a shield, avoiding true understanding (because that’s too hard). I prefer pragmatism and practicality. How do we solve problems? That question sparks brilliance, not some high-minded ideal of how the world should work.

But, certainly, there are issues that require staunch and unwavering ideology, dogmatic certainty, and tremendous zeal. At that time, American independence was one of those issues. The abolishment of slavery would be another, I’ll get to that later. As far as John Adams is concerned, he was the right zealot at absolutely the right time, and was the single patriot who pushed for independence more than any other. He absolutely aggravated and aggrieved his contemporaries, but still his point was made, and the Continental Congress moved in his direction.

The great thing about Adams the Zealot was he was also a man of tremendous personal integrity and wisdom. A great husband, a great writer, a great lawyer, a great patriot, unfortunately he was an ineffectual President. But he held fast to his convictions throughout all his life. Some of his quotes still resonate strongly today, and a few are still ominous in their warnings. I think that, after 200 years, and with our current political climate, we can still learn a lot from John Adams:

“There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.”

“Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.”

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.”

“Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.”

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

That last one sends a chill down my spine, not only for its morose tone, but for the sneaky suspicion it’s accurate.

The First Emancipator

John Quincy Adams was, up until recently, a rarity: a son who followed his father into the Presidency. He was a rarity, up until recently, in another way: he did not win by popular vote, but won through that great Constitutional technicality, the Electoral College. He was a decent enough President but, like his father, he only served one term. And also like his father, it was his actions outside the Presidency that made him so invaluable to America.

John Q. Adams — public domain photo courtesy of WikipediaAs a diplomat, he oversaw the acquisition of Florida (so we’d have a place to dump our elderly), and fabricated the Monroe Doctrine, which drew a line in the sand to European colonization in the Americas. To Adams, this was a moral obligation of the United States. Europe must not further muck around in the affairs of the Americas. He didn’t advocate imperialism of our own, his idea was to allow the Americas to evolve into nations of their own, without outside interference. He was right, absolutely right. To this day, we are still dealing with the problems of long-terminated European colonization in Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. The problems of America are our problems, fomented internally, which is much better than problems foisted upon you by outsiders. Sadly, the Monroe Doctrine would later be used to justify invasions and actions on our own (like the Spanish-American War, a topic for a later time).

More importantly, John Q. Adams inherited his father’s zealous ideology in opposition to great injustice. In this case, I am referring to slavery. He not only famously argued the case of the schooner Amistad before the Supreme Court, he was a staunch and vocal opponent of slavery in the halls of Congress, battling that institution at every opportunity. In the decades before the Civil War, Congress managed to pass the Gag Order, prohibiting any discussion of slavery before Congress. This infuriated Adams, who set about trying to fight it at every turn. “I hold the resolution to be a direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, the rules of this House, and the rights of my constituents,” he bellowed across the House chamber.

Eventually, he would even make a grandiose declaration:

“From the instant that your slave-holding states become the theatre of war — civil, servile, or foreign — from that instant the war powers of the Constitution extend to interference with the institution of slavery in every way in which it can be interfered with.”

That’s right: John Quincy Adams set forth the principle that Abraham Lincoln would later use to write his famous Emancipation Proclamation. This is one of those brilliant chains in history: events lead to ideas which lead to ideas which lead to events. Uncovering these chains has been one of the great joys of my tours through the National Park System and American history.

Ideology – Well Preserved

The Adams family houses preserved by the National Park Service are wonderful. They have the two houses where the Adams’ were raised (an amazing feat considering decades of development in greater Boston), as well as the Adams manse “Peacefield”. This expanse is an absolute rarity among historic sites in America: all of the furnishings and contents of these houses is original to the original owners, including the vast collection of John Q. Adams’ books in a beautiful stone library (to protect Adams’ greatest possessions from fire – who says ideologues can’t also be practical?).

Normally (and recently, it would seem) ideologues ruin more than they create. The simplicity of their arguments usually belies the underlying realities of the times and does their constituency a great disservice. However, in at least two cases, this nation had serious issues requiring the intervention by serious ideologues. In both cases, we’re lucky we had the Adamses.

Peacefield — © 2008 America In Context

[Pictures of the Presidents are in the public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia. All other photos in this entry are originals by the blog owner.]

See all America In Context original photos of Adams NHP

Links:

Adams National Historical Park

Exploring Amistad
Amistad America
Google map to Adams’ NHP

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