Four hundred years ago, a group of Pilgrims from England first set foot on American soil. Their Plymouth Colony would lay the groundwork for the birth of a new nation. Four months ago, another historic event occurred that would upend the lives of every member of that new nation — including a local organization that has spent 11 long years planning a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in Plymouth. We spoke with Michele Pecoraro, executive director of Plymouth 400, about 2020’s commemoration and how COVID-19 has reshaped it.
Q. First, the obvious. Talk about bad timing. How has the pandemic altered your plans for a year-long celebration?
A. My first thought was, “This isn’t really happening.” The full impact hit about six weeks before our opening ceremony planned for April. That event alone was 2½ years in the making. It was to include people from all over the world, the Honourable Artillery Company of London, former British prime minister John Major, international choral groups. While we won’t be able to re-create it on that scale, we’re planning to do a similar event in November. It may be live or it may be a live-streamed broadcast with our lead media sponsor, NBC-10 Boston, that pulls in friends and partners from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
Q. What other key events have been rescheduled, and what’s still on the calendar?
A. We’ve postponed our largest event, the Maritime Salute, to June of 2021. The festival will run for two, or possibly three, days on the Plymouth waterfront and culminate in a lobster bake. The harbor has been dredged, so we can have a parade of sail with visiting ships. The Wampanoag Ancestors Walk, currently scheduled for Aug. 1, may be moved to May of 2021. Bridgewater State University is working on a native history conference and powwow in October; we hope that will still come together, though we’re waiting to see how. Right now, events during the week before Thanksgiving, including a concert, parade, and festival, are still on the calendar. We will continue our “Illuminate Thanksgiving” campaign, which we have been running every November since 2014. It recognizes young people who have done something wonderful, something that gives back to their community, in the spirit of Governor Bradford’s quote: “Just as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many.”
Q. The anniversary celebration is tagged a “four-nation commemoration,” with one of those nations being Native American. Tell us about the traveling exhibit “Our Story: 400 Years of Wampanoag History.”
A. From the beginning our board of directors insisted that the Wampanoag voice was critical to this celebration. We agreed the Thanksgiving story could not be told the same way it’s been told for centuries; that mythology leaves out a lot of important history. “Our Story” is a traveling exhibit made up of panels and videos that will ultimately represent seven chapters of the Wampanoag experience, from the 1614 capture of 20 native men to be sold as slaves to the significance of the modern powwow. A new chapter has been added each year since 2014, and the final chapter, about the National Day of Mourning, held every year to coincide with Thanksgiving, will be added this November. So far the exhibit has been shown at several locations in New England, including the Boston Flower Show, the Big E, and the Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut. Eventually it will go back on tour, but for now people can see much of the digital content on YouTube.
Q. How can people participate in the anniversary celebration even with the current restrictions?
A. While our Illuminate Thanksgiving campaign runs every November, we’ve created a social media campaign, #Illuminate Now, specifically for our current situation. We encourage people to put white lights on their houses or candles in their windows, then post a photo or video to our Facebook page, Twitter, or Instagram account telling us what they’re thankful for and how they’re giving back in the world of COVID-19. Many of our partner organizations have online resources and projects. Plimoth Plantation, for example, offers live virtual visits with Plimoth educators in their History@Home program, as well as podcasts (plimoth.org/learn). Barnicle and Husk is a children’s book series featuring the adventures of a crafty cat and mouse in the Plymouth Colony. There are free coloring and activity pages on the website (barnicleandhusk.com). And we just published “The Massachusetts Chronicles,” through a partnership with the Plymouth Public Schools, Bridgewater State University, and What on Earth Books. Thanks to the generosity of philanthropists Bruce and Patricia Bartlett, 35 copies of the book — a history of Massachusetts that includes the Native American experience — will be distributed to every public school in the state, hopefully this fall.
Q. I understand you’re creating a time capsule of the anniversary celebration. What will be in it?
The original idea was that visiting dignitaries and groups would bring items for the time capsule, and we still hope people will send artifacts. But it’s obvious that we can’t fill a time capsule without acknowledging this historic event — COVID-19 — and how it has affected our 400th anniversary celebration. Now we’ll be addressing living through history along with commemorating our history.
Interview was condensed and edited. For the most up-to-date information on Plymouth 400 programs and events, visit plymouth400inc.org.