“Where is Cambridge From?”: Tackling Historic Research, Interpretation, and Programming for the Cambridge Historical Society

By Taylor Finch

In the summer of 2017, as a new programs intern, I caught the Cambridge Historical Society in the midst of a great institutional transition. With few resources and a staff of four, the CHS has spent the past few years struggling against its reputation as an antiquated institution. As such, planning for future programs takes all hands on deck, and my role as a programs intern soon evolved from the architect of a single event to one where I wore multiple hats as a researcher, community development representative, historical interpreter, and program creator.

Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, home of the Cambridge Historical Society. Courtesy of Cambridge Historical Society.

The Cambridge Historical Society (CHS) has been a community institution since 1905. The Society focuses on preserving, researching, and educating residents about Cambridge’s history. The Society has sought to diversify and expand to meet the changing roles of historic houses and their search for new audiences in the twenty-first century. Through their programs,  CHS seeks to focus on community partnership, shed light on the historical background of contemporary issues, and share the historical narrative of Cambridge with its community members.

To meet these goals, the CHS designates a ‘theme’ for each year’s slate of programs. I helped define, develop, and plan programs for their 2018 season– “Where is Cambridge From?” This theme offers opportunities to broaden Cambridge’s historical narrative to include often overlooked communities, cultures, and stories.  Our first task as an institution was to explore the meaning of the 2018 theme. What were we trying to find out? What historical stories were we hoping to share? How could we uncover those histories? Defining “Where is Cambridge From?” occurred across several staff meetings. Eventually, we found it helpful to outline some discussion questions on the subject that could steer the research and program selection process. We narrowed the focus down to: (1) Where do Cambridge residents come from? (2) Who considers themselves Cantabrigian? (3) What does it mean to be Cantabrigian? and, (4) What do these answers mean for the future development of Cambridge?

While wrestling with these questions about definition, we also needed to think about the practical goals of our small historical institution. The CHS needed programs that appealed to its current membership base, but could also attract new populations that the Society had previously ignored. We also needed to consider our limitations as a small venue and as a staff made up solely of white, middle-class, educated women.

We identified program goals that were in line with the institution’s new mission. Every program would link to Cambridge’s past, present, and future.  Each selected topic was designed specifically to challenge the institution’s authority over Cambridge’s history and the process of interpreting it. We quickly decided to seek out any community group, committee, or club that could provide voices from populations across Cambridge. Any community members willing to participate became part of our “Advisory Board.” Today, the board’ continues to grow, guide the society’s efforts, and share authority in creating Cambridge’s narrative.

One community group we quickly identified was the Caribbean-American population of Cambridge. The CHS decided to expand the narrative of Caribbean-Americans in Cambridge into a walking tour of the Port, one of the city’s historic neighborhoods. My task as the tour’s advisor was to condense the Caribbean community’s general narrative and supplement it with historical resources and materials. As I am neither a Caribbean-American or a resident of the Port,  I quickly recognized the importance of first-person narratives as a foundation for the tour. I relied heavily on community members and oral histories compiled in the book We Are the Port: Stories of Place, Preservation and Pride in the Port/Area 4, by Sarah Boyer. The book is made up of oral histories gathered by hundreds of Port residents. These oral histories offer first person accounts of Port residents’ experiences in the neighborhood and the Port’s meaning to them.

A map of “The Port”, or “Area 4,” in 1901. The map features several landmarks chosen for the walking tour, including the Boardman School. Courtesy of Harvard Libraries.

In order to establish an authentic narrative, community voices were paramount to our project. I set about establishing partnerships with members of the Port’s community. One of these individuals was Andrew Sharpe, a Jamaican-American whom I met at a Dorchester Historical Society/UMass event. Andrew’s organization, the Authentic Caribbean Foundation, focuses on celebrating Caribbean culture and history and interpreting them in contemporary issues. With the help of Andrew, Marian Darlington-Hope, and several members of the Caribbean community, we were able to bring together a committee who will oversee the “Stories from the Port” walking tour and discuss the continuing challenges the Caribbean community faces at a 2018 History Café.

The goal of CHS and our community partners was to provide a working narrative that showed inaccuracies and ignorances in the larger narrative of Cambridge and the United States in general. In our meetings, these Caribbean-Cantabrigians discussed how they don’t find their history in the popular historic narrative of Cambridge, New England, or even America. Their large population of residents and vast contributions are generally ignored by the western, colonial-centered narrative perpetuated in Cambridge – largely by the tourist industry.

Neighborhood children on Clark Street in 1901. Courtesy of Cambridge Historical Commission.

According to the Cambridge Historical Commission (an institution that has worked with the Caribbean community in the past)  some of the earliest Barbadians came to Cambridge against their will as slaves in the eighteenth century.  Though their freedoms and identities were stripped, these early Caribbean-Americans brought their culture and values to Cambridge. A century later, in the mid-nineteenth century, Caribbean immigrants to Boston and Cambridge brought with them education and skilled trades, but they faced discrimination in employment and educational opportunities. Still, they built lives for themselves, and raised children who became second, third, and fourth-generation Caribbean-Americans with dual identities. The role for the Cambridge Historical Society in this project, then, was to present an authentic history of Caribbean-Americans in Cambridge, recognize how they shaped Cambridge’s neighborhood, and serve as a platform for Caribbean-Americans to share their stories and discuss what they think it means to be Cantabrigian.

The objective for our tour was to capture ordinary, day-to-day life as a Caribbean-American in the Port and to rely as heavily on the recollections of community members as possible. As such, it was to be heavily informed by first-person narrative. We wanted “Stories from the Port” to show how a collection of individual experiences shaped the neighborhood and life in Cambridge. As such, each location was carefully selected for its historic value and practicality. I relied heavily on schools, places of business, and churches – the centers of day-to-day life. Each stop provided historical context for individuals’ stories, but mainly relied on quotations from the Port residents. To supplement these experiences, I found historic images and maps at the Cambridge Historical Society and Cambridge Historical Commission. These resources not only proved invaluable to the research, but also supplement the tour by adding visuals for its audiences. The end result was a blend of historic research and cultural interpretation that captured early life in the Port.

The Cambridge Historical Society provided me with an opportunity to be in the room where it happens. I was part of creating a shared historical and cultural narrative, which will go on to inform community members in Cambridge. Above all, my time as a programs intern showed me exactly how much effort, research, and careful planning goes into each and every initiative at a historic house. Sometimes it takes several months of brainstorming sessions, wide research, missed and made connections, and even the occasional shot in the dark to turn a question, such as “Where is Cambridge From?” into a platform for community development and discovery.

Taylor workshopping a walking tour of North Cambridge with CHS interns Joe Galusha (left) and Katherine Hobart (center). Courtesy of Lynn Waskelis.
Please follow and like us:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *