By Kristina Benham, Ph.D. Candidate at Baylor University
With the 250th celebration of American Independence coming up in just a couple of years, scholars and teachers are thinking about how to contribute to reflection on the U.S. national origin story. In this spirit, the Massachusetts Historical Society hosted a joint conference in July 2022 on underrepresented voices in the American Revolution.
The Revolution is no small topic in historical scholarship past and present, nor in the collections of archives, especially in New England. This conference, however, revisited what historians started at the 200th Independence celebration: examining the American origin story as a multitude of stories. The specific focus on continuing to uncover underrepresented voices from the era also lent a timely conviction on current American society. As a junior scholar in the field, seeing a range from graduate students to long-established historians discussing these topics was truly a delight and inspiration. The K-12 Teachers Workshop in connection with the conference was equally rewarding, as all levels of education contribute to our understanding of this celebration.
The first day of the conference took place in the MHS building. The opening panel demonstrated how archives are involved in obscuring underrepresented voices from the past. Then, the keynote panel—featuring Colin Calloway, Kathleen DuVal, and Chernoh Sesay—set the tone for the conference, reflecting on the state of the field of the American Revolution and its implications for teaching, public history, and American society.
The second full day of panels, held on the campus of Suffolk University, presented an array of topics: loyalists in a new light, animals, gendered dynamics, borderlands, southern Black involvement in the Revolution, religion in the era for Jews and African Americans, Native American perspectives, and untold stories in the much-studied New England. Of course, I could only attend some of these opportunities.
The panel on loyalists was of particular interest to me, and I was not disappointed. This is a topic within the American Revolution that my students at Baylor University find surprising and intriguing. Panelists Alexi Garrett, Patrick O’Brien, and MaryKate Smolenski made compelling arguments for continued need for this research. Whether it was the fate of enslaved people and white, loyalist women making property claims (Garrett), the obscured life story of a slave returned to free Massachusetts through a loyalist family (O’Brien), or the hints of a loyalist woman’s life left behind in material culture and merchants’ papers (Smolenski), these presentations showed how complex the terms Loyalism and slavery could be.
The panel on British Imperial borderlands also led to discussion on defining or redefining the edges of the Revolution. Panelists Kristin Lee, Darcy Stevens, and Jaqueline Reynoso challenged assumptions about what is important to history of the Revolution. Lee’s presentation on Captain James Willing’s raid on western British forts with the cooperation of Spanish authorities and his seizure of enslaved people challenged assumptions about the story of the American Revolution as being Anglo-American and always involving full agency. Stevens’s presentation on the fluidity of allegiances in the far northeast raised questions about the binary assumptions of Loyalist vs. Patriot. And Reynoso’s presentation on resistance to local martial law in Quebec demonstrated that parallels to the center of the Revolution, so to speak, are important to the story as well.
I was glad and honored to also attend the workshop for K-12 teachers held in conjunction with the scholarly conference. A couple of scholars remained for this portion, including a presentation by Churnoh Sesay on Prince Hall in Boston. The MHS planned this conjunction of events in order to bring together scholars and teachers on how to engage students of various ages with primary sources from the MHS holdings. Since I have had the great opportunity to teach for the last few years at the college level while finishing my PhD, I found it refreshing to hear about the challenges and creative approaches of teachers at work in regional school systems. Small group discussion over lesson planning brought a much-needed practicality to the examination of underrepresented voices at the conference.
This event was a great personal and professional experience for me. I could not list all the names of the contacts I met who each showed professional generosity and shared enthusiasm for the era of the Revolution. I made my own foray into a topic related to my overall project: Protestantism and the English-speaking Black Atlantic. And the advice and feedback I received was invaluable and representative of the general, kind encouragement at the conference to pursue these topics further. I am grateful the MHS hosted this conference and workshop together, and I look forward to the continued discussion and teaching to come as we approach the celebrations in 2025 and 2026.