WINDING THEIR WAY along the red brick and red painted Freedom Trail, Boston tourists eventually find themselves in front of the Old North Church. Their eyes may seek out the bell tower where lanterns famously beamed out – one if by land, and two if by sea – a warning of arriving British troops.
But if it’s a children’s story about Paul Revere’s epic solo ride they’re looking for, the historians at Boston’s oldest church are eager to complicate the narrative.
“Revere’s poem is not a history lesson,” Nikki Stewart, executive director of Old North Illuminated, said on the Codcast. “It’s kind of political propaganda, or,” more generously, “art.”
Stewart helms the non-profit that maintains, programs, and interprets the 300-year-old historical site, which includes not just the active Episcopal church building but a busy half-acre campus in the North End. On top of the gallery, the bell ringing chamber, and the crypt, the site also features an early 20th century chapel originally built for Italian Protestants and the 1715 Clough House, which houses the colonial reproduction printing office of Edes & Gill.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow stretched quite a few facts in “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which are probably familiar to a casual history buff and a main draw to the Old North site. Revere was part of “a network of patriots” throughout New England, rather than a lone actor, and, as a minor point, “the lantern signals were not a signal to Paul Revere as the poem suggests, they were a signal from Paul Revere,” about the location of British forces, Stewart notes.
The lanterns were to act as a signal to other patriots in case Revere was unable to leave Boston, according to Old North Illuminated. Revere did take off on a ride with fellow Son of Liberty William Dawes, but while he was detained in Lexington after warning John Hancock and Samuel Adams, it was Samuel Prescott who went on to alert the militia in Concord.
The historic site is going further than correcting just the Paul Revere record these days. It’s been designated as a “site of conscience,” and at Old North Church that means digging into the messy history of the Revolutionary War and the church’s relationship to the slave trade.
“Slavery is a part of Old North’s history, really from the beginning,” Stewart said. Research over the past year revealed details about the church’s first rector, Rev. Dr. Timothy Cutler, who owned at least one slave and worked to integrate the congregation in an effort to spread Christianity to indigenous and African people in colonial New England.
“We’re very careful to say that the church was integrated, and perhaps more so than a lot of other churches in Boston, but it was not a place of equality,” Stewart said. “It was still a place of deep segregation.”
The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience defines the sites as any memorial, museum, historic site, memory initiative, or non-governmental organization that commits to interpreting history through engaging the public in programs that stimulate dialogue on pressing social issues, sharing opportunities for public involvement and positive action on the issues raised at the site, and promoting justice and universal cultures of human rights.
This summer featured several efforts to recontextualize some famous Boston landmarks. Notably, a two-floor “Slavery in Boston” exhibit went in at Faneuil Hall, which has become flash point in the city’s fraught relationship with the slave trade. The city’s archeology department acknowledges that Faneuil Hall might be known as the “Cradle of Liberty,” but the building was made possible from a fortune Peter Faneuil built, in part, by buying and selling enslaved people.
Stewart notes other historic organizations across the region that are digging into the difficult conversations – sometimes a risky move with a historic tourism industry that relies on travelers who basically want to follow a fellow in a tricorne hat around, be inspired by Revolutionary-era trivia and architecture, and then grab a cannoli.
“I think we have a long way to go because I think we are up against misconceptions that Boston has always been just a welcoming and inclusive and educated enclave,” she said. “And it’s really not that now, nor has it ever been. So we have a lot to do. We have a lot on the record to correct.”