When we read about the birthplace of America, Boston is in bold print. The Old North Church is seen as an iconic landmark. But while many of us have heard one piece of its history, there are many other stories to be told.
What most of us know is that high atop the steeple in 1775, a signal sparked the American Revolution. Henry Longfellow’s poem immortalized about Paul Revere’s dramatic ride, with the single phrase: “One if by land. Two if by sea.”
“The church is turning 300 this year, but it is most known for literally one moment in that history,” said Nikki Stewart, executive director of Old North Illuminated. “You know, the lantern signals were a secret signal. They didn't hang all night. They hung for one minute, maybe even less.” But Stewart said Boston’s oldest church has a new mission, to give light to the complicated history between those who sat in the box pews, who were the wealthy white parishioners, and the people who worshipped from the rafters, who were Black.
Historian Dr. Jaimie Crumley has been spending hours at the Massachusetts Historical Society looking through centuries-old documents.
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“This is the first volume. This starts in 1724, so this is pretty old. These are basically church meeting notes,” Dr. Crumley explained.
Old North Church Records Reveal U
In those delicate, yellowing pages, she’s learning about the very beginnings of the Old North Church. And within the cursive words, Crumley finds the untold stories, reading, “the sexton shall keep rails at the altar clear from boys and negroes sitting there.”
"It's one sentence and it's telling us a lot of what we need to know. We literally see that here, that they aren't allowed to fully participate in the life of the church, but they're supposed to be at church."
Crumley said the Old North’s rector, Timothy Cutler, “was really passionate about making sure that Black and indigenous peoples got baptized in the church, but he didn't think that baptism meant that they were free from enslavement.”
Since last June, Crumley has gone through 52 boxes of research material, finding names, cross-referencing with newspaper articles, and other records. She’s been able to find small signs of people’s lives.
“So this is Saul Rodgers, who we were talking about earlier. And there's Beulah. They got married March 13th, 1767.” It’s a date marking their existence.
“People of color become legible on these records, because otherwise they're completely illegible. They don't show up at all otherwise.”
Crumley’s year-long fellowship wraps up this summer and her research will soon bring to life so many of our earliest, yet unknown Americans.
“The story of Paul Revere and his historic ride is one story of this place. We don't just have to tell one story. We can tell multiple stories and all of them belong here,” Crumley said.