From serving in the Revolutionary War to fighting to abolish slavery and joining in the modern civil rights movement, Essex County’s Black residents have long played a vital role as advocates for freedom and social justice.
Now that history is the focus of a March 25 public symposium Essex National Heritage Commission is presenting in partnership with Salem State University.
“We want people to realize some of the awful constraints that have been placed against people of color over the centuries and then to be inspired by the amazing ways they fought for change,” said Beth Beringer, director of education for the commission. The nonprofit manages the federally-designated Essex National Heritage Area encompassing Essex County.
“We also want to highlight how people today are continuing the tradition, continuing to fight for changes today,” she added.
“A Community of Changemakers: Exploring the history of Black activism in Essex County” will bring together scholars, educators, staff from museums, student activists, and other community members. The event, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the university’s Marsh Hall, will include speaker panels and break-out discussions.
The symposium is part of a larger Essex Heritage initiative — funded with a $50,000 National Park Service grant — to research and promote public awareness of the Black experience in the Essex National Heritage Area.
In a first phase, Essex Heritage last year expanded the Black history portions of an Essex County history website it maintains as a resource to area K-12 teachers.
In addition to expanded historical material, the updated site includes recorded presentations by scholars and educators on how to teach the subject of Black history, and in particular how to talk to students about historic racial injustice in the US. Essex Heritage also hosted a virtual teacher workshop last May featuring those same experts.
“We knew teachers need help to try to approach some of these topics, which can be difficult,” Beringer said.
The symposium also builds on “African Americans in Essex County: An Annotated Guide” published online last year by the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. The guide was compiled by Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello, chair and professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Salem State, and Kabria Baumgartner, dean’s associate professor of History and Africana Studies at Northeastern University.
Beringer said the symposium can help educate people about the extensive tradition of Black activism — broadly defined — in Essex County.
“You see many examples of people running away from enslaved situations, people suing for their freedom, people going to great lengths to bring their families together,” she said. “And then there are the people who later fought for civil rights.”
Beringer said another goal is to spread awareness of existing resources about the Black experience in Essex County available at area museums, historic sites, and other places, and to spur collaboration among the institutions involved.
She said those resources include the “Untold Stories: A History of Black People in Lynn,” exhibit that Lynn Museum/Lynn Arts presented in a 2021-22 exhibit and is returning in revised form; Peabody Essex Museum exhibit, “Let None Be Excluded: The Origins of Equal School Rights in Salem,” and Historic Beverly’s exhibit, “Set at Liberty: Stories of the Enslaved in a New England Town.”
The symposium will also show how modern day Black activists, including young people, are carrying on the tradition.
Among the symposium speakers is Salem State senior Michael Corley. A past president of the Student Government Association, Corley has also led several student campaigns, including a successful effort in support of a plan to rename a university building after 19th century abolitionist Charlotte Forten, Salem State’s first Black graduate.
Corley said he welcomes the symposium because “It’s important to tell these untold stories,” about past Black activists like Forten. In his own presentation, he plans to emphasize the need to support more civic education and experiential learning for Black students, who he said typically are offered much less of it than white students.
“To promote the next generation of Black activists, it’s important to look at how we are preparing them to take on that work,” he said.
Registration is filled for attendance at the March 25 symposium, but Essex Heritage plans to post videotaped highlights at a later date on its website, essexheritage.org.