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Local groups are shining a light on the past, and not just the pretty parts

There are still slave quarters attached to the historic Isaac Royall House in Medford.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/file

Brookline residents take pride in their town’s progressive politics and its distinction as the birthplace of President John F. Kennedy.

But a little-known walking tour by the Hidden Brookline Committee focuses on other parts of its legacy: the natives early settlers forced off their land, and the nearly 90 people enslaved by Brookline families whose names will be familiar to anyone who’s read a street map: Aspinwall, Boylston, Heath, Devotion, Winchester.

It’s part of a more complicated local history long eclipsed by a less critical focus on the Boston area as a center of religious and political freedom.

“The layer we publicly remember and prominently memorialize is the Freedom Trail, the revolutionary history, the Puritans, and abolitionism,” said Andrew Robichaud, a Boston University historian who teaches a class on Boston history.


In fact, there are still slave quarters attached to the historic Isaac Royall House in Medford, where slaves toiled until Royall — a British loyalist who used his wealth to help establish Harvard Law School — fled at the onset of the Revolutionary War.

Native Americans were confined, and about 500 died of exposure, on Deer Island during King Philip’s War; later the island was the site of a hospital for arriving immigrants, most of them Irish refugees, some 800 of whom died. Though they themselves had come to escape religious persecution, the Puritans refused to grant Jews full citizenship until 1821 or allow them to be buried in the state until 1844.

Some of these stories have started getting more attention.

The Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, for instance, has a new permanent exhibit about what it calls “the complicated relationship” between the native Wampanoags and the Pilgrims, one of whose first acts in the new world — the Thanksgiving story notwithstanding — was to steal the natives’ food.


Boston By Foot gives women’s history, immigrant, and LGBTQ tours, a tour of Chinatown and a tour centered around Phyllis Wheatley, who went from being enslaved to publishing the first book of poetry by a Black American. The National Park Service offers guided and self-guided tours of Boston’s Black Heritage Trail and the Cambridge African American Heritage Alliance has a self-guided tour of Black history sites there.

“Folks have really pushed hard to have unremembered history remembered,” said Robichaud, who assigns his students to find less-celebrated aspects of local history.

“It’s richer, to understand the complexity — that history isn’t just a single layer.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at