Column: A Celebration’s Postscript: Boston 1854 and 2021

What’s that sound. It had been a late night prior, and the heavy brocade curtains in our room at Boston’s Parker House effectively muffled the outside world. But as I shook off sleep, I thought I heard… drums?

Omigod! Drums! “Dave! Wake up! The parade’s starting!”

It was 9:30 a.m., the morning of the Fourth of July, and the Declaration of Independence would be read at 10 from the balcony of the Old State House as it was to Bostonians 245 years ago. One of our reasons for this visit to Boston was to be present for that reading.

Small children were lifted to parents’ shoulders as people poured in from surrounding streets.

We scurried about our seventh floor room, donning jeans and jackets, and grabbing raincoats and umbrellas, then dashed to the elevator. The doors opened to reveal a couple in full red, white, and blue regalia: beads, hats, and T-shirts. Our lack of visible patriotism was ever more evident when we left the hotel and joined a similarly bedecked throng heading to the square, the trill and thump of fife and drum coaxing our footfalls into a rhythmic march. Thankfully, a city employee was distributing small flags, which we gratefully accepted.

After days of rain, the heavens were kind, gray and churning, but so far, dry. With a boom of muskets and pounding of drums, the various bands and corps dressed in colonial garb assembled in the square beneath the east side balcony of the 300-year-old brick building. Small children were lifted to parents’ shoulders as people poured in from surrounding streets. Strangers smiled at strangers and inched aside to allow others to pass as everyone pressed closer to get a good view.

After this year of Covid, mask-contention, insurrection, shootings, and racial strife, it seemed hopeful and fitting to merge with the multitude for greetings from Boston’s Black mayor, Kim Janey, and Black baritone Dana Whiteside’s magnificent rendition of “God Bless America.” Still, as we jostled cheerfully below the balcony, I couldn’t escape troubling images of other happy celebrants — at a concert in Las Vegas or a night club in Orlando — and headlines, crosshairs, and targets.

While no shots rang out, this year’s reading seemed to hold added weight, as I pondered recent events and the country’s opposing factions. How might their interpretations differ in listening to the Declaration’s justifications for separation from a government seen as grievously flawed?

Strangers smiled at strangers and inched aside to allow others to pass as everyone pressed closer to get a good view.

In the Founders’ list of accusations against King George, I heard reflected Trump’s disregard for American traditions, laws, and public health: to me, grounds for impeachment, conviction, and removal. Conversely, those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, claiming the revolutionary fervor of 1776, might point to some of the same statements as validation for their assault.

The pandemic and January’s uprising were awakenings: We are not immune to the plagues and issues that challenged our ancestors. They are ever-emerging, and ours to address. Never have the people of the past seemed more real.

During a 2019 visit to Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Dave and I participated in a reenactment of a debate over the Fugitive Slave Law and 1854 arrest of Anthony Burns. Burns had escaped slavery and lived in Boston as a free man for two years, but a probate judge bowed to the federal law and Burns was returned to his owner in Virginia. Bostonians erupted at this outcome, and one Amos Adams Lawrence remarked, “[W]e went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.”

For the reenactment, index cards bearing the names and assertions of those who’d attended the 1854 meeting were distributed to people who wished to take part. Slavery was abolished in 1865, but the injustices and discrimination of recent years infused the readings of the men, women, and children of all ages and colors who volunteered with an outrage as urgent in 2019 — and 2021 — as when Andrew Burns was led away in chains. The fury we gave those borrowed words was driven also by a sense of responsibility to those confined to the balcony in 1854. At that time, most of us would have been silenced: only white, male property owners had the right to speak.

Truth is objective, but the reporting of history is not. It has depended on who held the pen, who knew how to write, who was allowed an education, and whose opinions and input were given credence. How many know the story of Anthony Burns? Or the names of suffragists Lisa Stone and Carrie Chapman Catt? Until recently, the horror of the Tulsa Massacre was largely suppressed, and the current uproar over Critical Race Theory demonstrates the resistance that remains to teaching America’s failings as well as our achievements.

On Sunday, we gathered, jubilant in celebrating 245 years of democracy and progress as clouds of confetti shot skyward in a celebratory whirl. Those once silenced now can speak. Tragedy and activism have spurred wider awareness; and in teaching the whole story, we move forward together.

Epilogue:

After the 1854 decision, Anthony Burns spent four months in jail in Richmond, Va. and was then sold to David McDaniel of North Carolina. Fortuitously, Boston abolitionists learned of Burns’ whereabouts and raised $1,300 to buy and free him. Burns went on to be educated at Oberlin College and became a Baptist preacher in Ontario, Canada. In 1862, he died of tuberculosis at the age of 28.

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