This Week @ MHS
Welcome back to the Beehive for this week's events update. We have one more quiet week here at the Society in January before the onslaught of activity in February. Join us on Tuesday, 28 January, for "Making a Workforce, Unmaking a Working class: The Development of 'Human Capital' in Houston, 1900-1980." In this Immigration and Urban History Seminar, Bryant Etheridge of Harvard University discusses the emergence of access to quality, job-relevant education and training as a central economic issue among 1960s civil rights activists in Houston. Etheridge's paper takes issue with a central aspect of the Long Civil Rights Movement historiography, which typically labels education desegregation and reform issues of social equality. In fact, African Americans and Mexican Americans fought for them because they believed them to be vital and urgent economic issues. John R. Harris, Boston University, provides comment for the seminar which begins at 5:15PM. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to received advance copies of the seminar papers.
| Published: Sunday, 26 January, 2014, 12:00 PM
Margaret Hall visits the Argonne
By Jim Connolly
From my first days as a part-time transcriber for the Adams Papers to my current work as assistant editor of publications at the MHS, I’ve been lucky enough to work with the writings of strong, smart women--Abigail Adams, Louisa Catherine Adams, Ellen Wayles Coolidge, and Caroline Healey Dall being highlights. In the past few months, I added a fresh name to that list: Margaret Hall.
A Massachusetts native, Margaret Hall traveled to France in 1918 to work with the American Red Cross. She worked in a canteen in Châlons-sur-Marne, near the frontlines where the Great War continued to rage. In letters and journal entries, Hall recorded her experience of World War I, from her general fondness for the poilus (French soldiers) to her complicated responses to scenes of suffering and desolation. But no matter how grim things got, she infused her writing with a refreshing sense of irony and humor. This is to say nothing of the nearly three hundred remarkable photographs she took throughout her journey and pasted into the typescript.
This photograph of a fellow worker illustrates the hectic pace of Hall's canteen work.
When she returned to the United States, Hall produced from those records a narrative titled “Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, 1918–1919,” a typescript of which lives here at the MHS. In July 2014, the Society will publish an edition of her narrative (with selected photographs), edited by Margaret Higonnet, a professor of English at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.
I leave you with a paragraph from the narrative that gives a sense of the adventures Margaret Hall gets up to. Here she writes of her trip to battlefield in the Argonne in the spring of 1919.
“The men threw hand grenades for us, one potato masher caught in a tree, and they screamed to us to drop, which we did in a hurry. Then they tried setting off all sorts of queer smoke things. One they thought was gas, and I must say I was glad when they stopped experimenting. Brought back a little shell with a parachute in it. Hope it is nothing more dangerous than a smoke screen.”
[A “potato masher” is a stick-shaped German grenade used in both World Wars.]
| Published: Friday, 24 January, 2014, 8:00 AM
Charlesgate Park, the Bowker Overpass, and Our Changing Urban Landscape
By Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook
As a transplant to Boston, one of my goals of the past few years has been to develop a better grasp of the topographical history of this tangled, layered city. As the daughter of a cartographer, I was raised to pay attention to the built and wild landscape around me, and also to appreciate how landscapes are ever-evolving. One of the things that fascinates me about Boston as a city is the way in which its landscape is constantly in flux, and yet how every inch of the land and the structures on it contain traces of previous contours, uses, and lives.
“Intersection of Boylston Street and Charlesgate from the West. Photograph by Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, January 2014.”
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) has recently completed a study of the ramps on and off I-90 turnpike in central Boston. One focus of the study is the renovation or removal of the Bowker Overpass, constructed in 1967 over the much-beloved section of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace park system known as Charlesgate Park. Charlesgate Park, completed in the 1880s, connected the Fens and the Commonwealth to the Charles River Esplanade. Boston University student Allan Lasser offers an excellent overview of the history of Charlesgate and the overpass in a 2013 article, “Charlesgate: A Palimpsest of Urban Planning” (New Errands, vol. 1 no. 1).
What, you might ask, does all of this have to do with the Massachusetts Historical Society? Well, we are part of this narrative of landscape too. The current home of the MHS, constructed in the 1890s, stands at the top of Charlesgate East. Our reading room overlooks what once would have been the southern entrance to the Charlesgate Park. In this aerial photograph digitized by MIT libraries, one can see the top of Charlesgate Park and the Fens stretching southwest towards Jamaica Pond; the MHS is just visible in the lower left-hand corner.
In the mid 1890s, Boston artist Sarah Gooll Putnam pasted this photograph of Charlesgate Park into her diary:
“Charlesgate Park. Photograph by unknown photographer, circa 1893-1896. Sarah Gooll Putnam Diaries, vol 20, MHS.”
Last week, on my walk to work, I paused with a camera at the top of Charlesgate East and captured some images This is what the southeast corner of Charlesgate Park looks like today. The building that features so prominently in Putnam’s photograph can be seen in the distance beyond the passing school bus.
“Charlesgate Park from the corner of Boylston Street and Charlesgate East. Photograph by Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, January 2014.”
While some urban planners would argue the Bowker Overpass is an essential pressure valve, easing traffic congestion in and out of central Boston, it is easy to see why city residents and nature-lovers abhor the auto-friendly changes to the neighborhood. In The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston (Beacon Press, 2008), natural historian John Hanson Mitchell scathingly refers to the Charlesgate as a “perfect example” of “all that went wrong in Boston in the 1950s, and in some ways all that has gone wrong in the environment since the invention of the internal combustion engine” (120). Agreeing with him, citizen groups Friends of the Charlesgate and The Esplanade Association are lobbying for MassDOT to remove the Overpass and restore the Charlesgate Park as a pedestrian-friendly link from the Fens down to the Esplanade. Whatever happens, the MHS will stand at the corner of Boylston and The Fenway, bearing witness to the changing landscape around us.
| Published: Wednesday, 22 January, 2014, 8:00 AM
This Week @ MHS
After a busy week here at the Society we are slowing things down a bit with a shortened week. The MHS is closed on Monday, 20 January, in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day and will re-open at the normal time on Tuesday, 21 January. Our only scheduled event takes place on Wednesday, 22 January, as the Society welcomes James O'Connell of the National Parks Service for a public author talk. Drawing on his recent book, The Hub's Metropolis: Greater Boston's Development from Railroad Suburbs to Smart Growth, urban historian O'Connell will present an illustrated talk about how metropolitan Boston has been shaped by distinct eras of suburbanization, with each one producing a land use development pattern that is still apparent on the regional landscape. This program is open to the public, reservations requested. Click here to register online or call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM.
"The Cabinetmaker & the Carver: Four centuries of Massachusetts Furniture" is now closed. The next exhibit will feature material from the MHS collections and other institutions. "Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial" is scheduled to open to the public on Friday, 21 February, so be sure to mark your calendar!
| Published: Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 12:00 PM
A Long Winter Walk: The Banishment of Roger Williams
Over the last couple of weeks, we in Massachusetts were reminded of the unpredictability and harshness of the winter in New England. Of course, we are not alone and a significant portion of the rest of the country received an even greater shock. Still, the driving snow, sub-zero temperatures, and bitter winds force us to remember what a coastal winter can be. But if you think your commute was bad, the experience of Roger Williams might make you turn up the heat and clutch your hot chocolate a bit more tightly.
In October of 1635, after various hearings and disputes over intersecting matters of theology and secular power, Massachusetts Bay banished Roger Williams forcing him to leave the colony’s borders. But with winter coming on and Williams falling ill the court allowed him the courtesy of commuting the sentence until spring on the condition that Williams would not speak publicly in the interim. He consented to this term and agreed not to publicly proclaim his views.
This agreement did not prevent Williams from welcoming his friends and followers into his home and holding private discussions. However, the Massachusetts court viewed even this as a breach of his promise and, in January, 1636, sent armed soldiers led by Captain John Underhill to Williams’ home in Salem to arrest him and put him on a ship bound for England.
As a blizzard and accompanying gale blustered out of the northeast, the ailing Williams received a secret message from none other than Governor John Winthrop, alerting him to the approaching soldiers. By the time Underhill and his men arrived, Williams had been gone three days.
Williams escaped with his life, liberty, and little else. Leaving his wife and children behind until he could find a new home, he plunged into the winter woods by himself. "He entered the wilderness ill and alone…Winthrop described that winter as ‘a very bad season.’ The cold was intense, violent; it made all about him crisp and brittle…The cold froze even Narragansett Bay, an extraordinary event, for it is a large ocean bay riven by currents and tidal flows."i
"But the cold may also have saved his life: it made the snow a light powder . . . it lacked the killing weight of heavy moisture-laden snow. The snow also froze rivers and streams which he would otherwise have had to ford."ii A silver lining to the winter clouds is one that we benefited from during our last storm and surely made our shoveling much easier.
That Roger Williams endured his trek from Salem to Narragansett Bay is no doubt a testament to his personal relationships with the native peoples and their willingness to give him shelter. Yet, "There was no comfort in this shelter. For fourteen weeks he did 'not know what Bread or Bed did meane.'"iii
And yet Roger Williams survived this ordeal and soon thrived in his new home of Providence, itself a further attestation to the good relations that Williams shared with the indigenous tribes. While Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies both were formed by English settlers putting roots down in a spot without much thought for the original inhabitants, Williams was able to secure a piece of land with the blessing of the Narragansett sachem Canonicus and his nephew Miantonomi, two men who were otherwise ill-disposed toward the English.
"Canonicus and Miantonomi gave Williams permission to settle there after negotiating what seemed clear boundaries. Williams later declared that Canonicus 'was not I say to be stirred with money to sell his land to let in Foreigners. Tis true he recd presents and Gratuities many of me: but it was not thouhsands nor ten thouhsands of mony could have bought of him and English Entrance into this Bay.' He said the land was 'purchasd by Love.'"iv
Though we grumbled about the cold and snow that we experienced last week, chances are the memories are already fading. Williams' journey, though, had a lasting effect: "Thirty-five years later he would refer to that 'Winter snow wch I feele yet.'"
To find out more about the life of Roger Williams, try these biographies:
- - Barry, John M., Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Chuch, State, and the Birth of Liberty (New York: Viking Penguin, 2012).
- Gaustad, Edwin S., Roger Williams (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
- Winslow, Ola Elizabeth, Master Roger Williams: a biography (New York: Macmillan, 1957).
Also, visit our online catalog, ABIGAIL, and search for Williams, Roger as an author to see what works the MHS holds written by Williams or where he appears in other manuscript collections.
iBarry, John M., Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, state, and the Birth of Liberty (New York: Viking Penguin, 2012) 213.
iiBarry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, 213.
iiiBarry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, 214.
ivBarry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, 217.
| Published: Friday, 17 January, 2014, 11:43 AM