From shuttered doors to financial worries to canceled programming, Old North Church has struggled with Boston’s other Revolutionary War sites to weather the pandemic. But the long, stubborn crisis also has meant a fresh start, Old North leaders said, and a chance to reexamine the mission and message of the iconic church.
It’s a reimagined mission, moving beyond a reminder of Paul Revere’s famous ride, that will seek to engage visitors more deeply in questions of what citizenship means today, as well as uncomfortable lessons about how slavery was entwined in the early fabric of Old North, built in 1723.
“We’re just not a historic site focused on what happened 300 years ago, but we’re a symbol of what’s happening today,” said Madeleine Rodriguez, a board member of the Old North Foundation, a nonprofit organization that operates the site.
“We want people to leave here inspired to think about and discuss the things they learned,” said Rodriguez, who will become board chairwoman next month. “I don’t want it to be that they came here, and they checked it off the Freedom Trail, and that’s it.”
To that end, the Old North Foundation has launched plans to incorporate exhibits, discussions, and tours that explore more of the past. Visitors will be told, among other topics, how some influential members of the church either kept Black slaves or engaged in overseas slave trafficking.
Old North’s ties to slavery can be traced to its beginnings. Entombed in a crypt beneath the altar is the Rev. Timothy Cutler, the church’s first rector, who kept a slave named Anne. Two pews were purchased by Major Leonard Vassall, an 18th-century church warden who was born in Jamaica and enslaved more than 100 Black people on his sugar plantations there.
Free and enslaved Black people also were part of Old North’s spiritual mission, although they sat segregated in the upstairs north gallery of the church.
“Every historic site, business, and institution that traces its roots to the 18th century has complexities in its past,” said Nikki Stewart, executive director of the Old North Foundation. “We’re trying to move away from the mythology.”
The church’s role in the Revolution will remain central to the visitor experience, Stewart said. But the tale of how two steeple lanterns launched Revere on his 1775 ride toward Lexington and Concord will not begin and end the narrative. Tours and exhibits will seek to go deeper, place Old North in the social context of its times, and give the past a more complicated texture.
“The board has always had this conversation: ‘How do we continue to be a leader in historic education and research?’ " said Rodriguez, an attorney and partner at Foley Hoag. “That means telling history honestly from a variety of different perspectives that have been marginalized.”
This month, the Old North Foundation is offering programming with real-time relevance that goes beyond the old, familiar images of patriots in tri-cornered hats and Redcoats wielding muskets.
On the evening of Jan. 5, two lanterns were hung from the steeple as a remembrance of the attack on the US Capitol a year ago. The Rev. Matthew Cadwell, the vicar in charge, said then that “the Old North Church lights its sacred lanterns again ... signaling to all that the lights of freedom and democracy continue to shine brightly in our city, commonwealth, and nation.”
On Jan. 26, a virtual public discussion with leading local historians will center on the life of David Walker, a 19th-century Black abolitionist in Boston whose fiery, pioneering calls for emancipation were revolutionary at the time but are largely forgotten today.
On-line tickets are free but donations are requested for the discussion, which will ask what it means to be a citizen in 21st-century America, and how past stories of overlooked communities can be reclaimed in a shared national history. Those kinds of questions go to the heart of what Old North, an Episcopal congregation, seeks to stoke and rekindle as it approaches its 300th anniversary next year.
It’s a concept of “active citizenship,” foundation officials said, that is as important today as it was in Revolutionary times.
In addition, the foundation is offering a virtual exhibit and curriculum about the history of chocolate in colonial Boston and its links to the slave trade. And a virtual “behind the scenes” tour of Old North will focus on the people and labor, both free and enslaved, that built and sustained the church over the years.
Face-to-face ways of engaging the foot traffic that enters Old North — 150,000 visitors a year before COVID — are being developed by the church once it resumes its regular schedule March 12. The site also will be open during school vacation week next month.
“A lot of people are coming in here with a blank slate. I’m hoping to influence them and engage them,” said Julius Hobert, the visitor experience manager. “I don’t think people are very informed about African-American history in Boston. It’s something we look forward to teaching.”
A paid, full-time researcher also is being brought on-board for a year to delve into the church’s archives and study the congregation’s connections to free and enslaved Black people, as well as take a closer look at Old North’s involvement in the abolition movement before the Civil War.
“As educators, our first responsibility is to present an honest and accurate narrative of our site,” said Stewart, the foundation’s executive director.
An extensive visitor survey last summer and fall, she said, showed a receptiveness to learning about the church’s links with slavery and other issues of race and social justice. “It seemed that minds were open to what we had to present,” she said.
Some of that openness could be linked to what Stewart called “the most shocking thing we learned” from the survey.
“Forty percent of folks who had already decided, or were close to deciding to visit the church, did not know why it was famous,” she said with a slight shake of her head.
For Old North, that’s a big opening to engage the curious at a time when the foundation is reexamining its history.
“We are successful,” Stewart said, “if people leave our site in conversation.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.