By: Madison Vlass and Adam Derington
On a quintessential fall day this past October, the UMass Boston Labor Resource Center held a memorial lecture in honor of the late Dr. James Green. Dr. Green, the celebrated historian, author, and activist, was a beloved member of the UMass Boston faculty and the Boston labor community. The event featured Professor Patricia Reeve of Suffolk University, who spoke to an enthusiastic audience about the contemporary labor landscape in Boston and Jim’s legacy in the field. As first-year public history MA students, we responded to the Labor Resource Center’s call for volunteers to lead a labor history walking tour in downtown Boston. This was also an opportunity for us to learn about Jim Green’s work and legacies as a movement historian.
As a scholar of new labor history, Jim brought together scholarship and his commitments as a public historian. He brought a people’s history lens to Boston’s historical landscape in 2001, when he planned and wrote the “Working Peoples’ Heritage Trail,” a driving tour of Boston’s labor history sites from colonial times right up to the present. In 2017, a recent Harvard PhD, Cristina V. Groeger, revised and updated the tour. Her project resulted in digital access to the sites, facilitated by an easy to follow google map, both of which can be found here. Groeger spoke briefly at the memorial event about the creation of the website and then handed the microphone over to us to introduce our tours.
We were a bit intimidated, as neither of us are labor historians or active in the labor movement. We knew we would be talking to experts in the field, leaders in the community, and people connected to Jim’s legacy. But as aspiring public historians, we enthusiastically embraced the challenge. In planning our tours, we divided up the sites, so we offered the participants two different experiences. Adam (having only lived in Boston for a grand total of a two months) kept his group focused around the Common. This part of the tour brought the group to well-known Boston landmarks, but interpreted them through a labor lens. Heading in the opposite direction, Madison took her group down through the theater district, Chinatown, and the old Garment District. Her tour had very few extant buildings, but brought people to lesser known sites and illuminated their hidden histories.
Despite the anxiety of keeping groups together through construction sites, yelling over jack hammers, and illustrations blowing away in the wind, both tours were successful and rewarding. Our groups were engaged in the information we presented, and excited to see Boston through a new lens. Madison’s audience loved hearing about the time that Amelia Earhart, a short-term employee of Denison House, a social settlement on Tyler Street, flew over Boston scattering leaflets about a Denison House event. They were also very curious about the development of Chinatown as a center of labor, and the community’s efforts to preserve their unique culture. Many of the participants were involved in the labor movement themselves, so when we were not able to answer specific questions, we deferred it to the group at large. This encouraged dialogue and critical thinking, and generally led to rich group discussion.
Adam’s group enjoyed finding the exact place of the famous photo, “Soiling of Old Glory” in Government Center. They discussed the
ways in which Boston’s busing crisis is remembered, or not, as the case may be, through public displays and in our collective consciousness. We also considered the complicated history of African American struggles and contributions to Boston’s historical landscape. These conversations with our tour participants reflected their deep interest in thinking about how to complicate our narratives and tell hard truths.
We are pleased that the Labor Resource Center has offered us the opportunity to lead tours again in July 2018. We are delighted that our continued participation in this project gives us the opportunity to continue developing our skills as public historians while keeping Jim’s legacy alive.
In his many writings, Dr. Green called for scholars to be stewards of historical knowledge and make history accessible in causes for social justice. We have taken those ideas to heart. It was a distinct pleasure to learn about his perspective on history and to experience the challenges to personal and popular narratives of history, posed by a people’s history tour. The entire experience provided a lesson on how each individual and community shapes their own histories, and the importance of the contributions and agency of those relatively invisible in the historical record as the true agents of important historical moments. As historians, we play a role in shaping these narratives, and Jim’s work reminds and challenges us to live up to our responsibilities to and the promise of collaborating with our communities.