One of 16 historical spots on Boston’s Freedom Trail, the Old North Church is best known — as legions of schoolchildren have been taught — as the site where two lanterns signaled in 1775 that the British were coming by sea. Some 250,000 people, by church estimates, visit the North End church every year to tour the site so important to American Revolutionary history. But there’s more to the church’s story than Paul Revere.
Old North Illuminated, the nonprofit that works on “interpreting and preserving” the church’s history, is trying to uncover untold stories from its past.
Leading up to the church’s 300-year anniversary on Dec. 29, the nonprofit brought Jaimie Crumley, an assistant professor of gender studies at the University of Utah, on board to uncover more stories of Black parishioners in the church’s early history. Crumley began her research by looking at past church members, financial contributors and those who received contributions from the church, and people who participated in its rituals. As part of her work so far, Crumley has found records of Indigenous parishioners being baptized and getting married.
When people think of Old North Church, they “tend to think of the Paul Revere story,” Crumley said. “That’s a story we’re really proud of, and there’s more to our story,” she said.
“Being defined by a single night is really a small way to understand 300 years of history.”
“We’re trying to tell some of the maybe forgotten or maybe submerged stories in the historical archives,” she said.
Crumley created a series on YouTube called “Illuminating the Unseen” to share her findings with the public. “While English families contributed financially to the early church, often using profits from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the displacement of Indigenous peoples, Black African and Indigenous peoples have contributed just as much to the church’s history,” she says in the series’ first video.
As a professor, Crumley knows that her students find a lot of the historical information they consume on social media platforms. Historians must adapt to the changing virtual world, she said, to share their findings. “Illuminating the Unseen,” a free series, also caters to the many people who cannot access historical information because it is hidden behind a paywall, she said.
For on-site visitors, Crumley is working on a 40-minute audio tour that will allow them to learn more about the church’s history, including stories of Black and Indigenous people. She will be studying Old North Church, or Christ Church as it’s officially known, through June.
One of her favorite stories from her research is that of Beulah Speene (spelled in historic documents both with and without the last “e”). Speene was listed in church records as mixed-race.
But through her research of archival documents, Crumley learned Speene was an Indigenous woman from Natick, then known as a “praying town” where Native Americans could practice Christian worship.
“I discovered that she was part of the Speene family of Natick,” said Crumley. “They were some of the earliest proprietors of Natick, and they are Natick Indians. They are part of the Nipmuc tribe.”
Crumley later found Speene listed in one of Boston’s “warning out” books, which registered people who were told by their white neighbors to leave town. The registered, Crumley said, were mostly people of color, poor people, and people with disabilities.
These communities often lived in almshouses — charitable housing — and on the streets, and people didn’t want to financially support them, Crumley said. Anyone who refused to leave could be beaten, and people who left, but later returned faced confinement or incarceration, she said.
Speene was listed in the book as Black, showing that people’s perceptions of her identity continued to change throughout her life.
Crumley’s discoveries are also posted on Old North Church Illuminated’s website in blog form for those who would rather read about her work and look at the documents.
Crumley’s work will also be reflected in a redesign of the permanent exhibition in the church’s sanctuary that will launch in late summer, said Nikki Stewart, Old North Illuminated’s executive director. Visitors and parishioners will learn “a much more comprehensive story” of the church.
“The exhibit will explore the lantern signals and Old North’s role launching the American Revolution alongside greater context such as colonialism, enslavement, and stories of notable congregants,” Stewart said.
Recent funding from the Yawkey Foundation allowed for the redesign. The exhibition will be accessible as well, with translations available in different languages, color contrast and font choices for readability, and the ability to play audio of the text.
“Our vision as an organization is a future in which all Americans see their stories, struggles, and hopes reflected in a place of prominence and a shared American history,” said Stewart.
She said the Old North Church is depicted as a symbol of “freedom and liberty,” but it also has “deep ties to colonialism and slavery.” Through Crumley’s research and the nonprofit’s distribution of classroom materials about slavery and colonialism in Boston, Old North Illuminated dives into the complexities of history, acknowledges that history is negative and positive, and explores both sides, said Stewart.
“When people leave us, we want them to leave understanding that history is almost always more complicated than we think,” said Stewart.
The Old North Church is closed to touring during the winter months, but open through Feb. 26 for school vacation week. It reopens to the public for the season on March 1.
Maddie Browning can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.