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Old North Church is shining a light on its connections to slavery

"If they leave understanding that history is a little bit more complicated than they first thought, we feel like that’s a win." 

The Old North Church stands behind a statue of Paul Revere in the North End of Boston. Steven Senne / AP Photo

The Old North Church — a historic site as well as an Episcopal church that still offers weekly worship in Boston’s North End — is known for being the place where the church sexton and vestryman climbed the steeple and held up two lanterns, a signal from Paul Revere that the British were coming by sea and not by land. This “one if by land, and two if by sea” signal ignited the American Revolution. 

Nearly a decade ago, the church opened a Colonial-themed chocolate shop where re-enactors in traditional costumes ground cacao by hand and told tourists about the chocolate trade and its relevance to Boston. The store was called Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop, named for Captain Newark Jackson, who they believed to be a key figure in both the historic church and Boston’s 18th century chocolate trade with the British.

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But in 2016, historian, author, and professor of history at Western Washington University Jared Hardesty gave a talk at Old North Church. Old North employees told him about their chocolate shop and asked some questions about Jackson, since they didn’t know much about him at the time. That’s when Hardesty began doing some deeper research. 

“It was in the fall of 2018 we came across this inventory of the ship, in which it listed enslaved people having been on the ship,” Hardesty explained to Boston.com. “As we were doing the research, it increasingly became clear that this was happening.”

This research eventually turned into “Mutiny on the Rising Sun: A Tragic Tale of Slavery, Smuggling, and Chocolate,” a book Hardesty released in the fall of 2021. The book exposed Jackson as not only being a cacao trader, but a human trafficker and a slave holder — he transported, owned, and traded enslaved people. It also illuminates an international chocolate smuggling ring and uncovers the connections between Old North Church, chocolate, and chattel slavery. 

From there, everything changed for Old North Church. 

The true history of Jackson

“The board made the decision to take Captain Jackson’s name off of the shop and off of the program, but there was a strong desire to still tell the story, just in an honest and comprehensive way,” said Nikki Stewart, executive director of Old North Illuminated, the organization that works to preserve and share the church’s story.

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Maddy Rodriguez, the chair of the board of Old North Illuminated, said finding out about the true history of Jackson was a “shock.” 

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“I think it was really jarring because of the fact that up to that point, the chocolate program had been super successful. It was a unique opportunity for guests, especially families, to engage with the history of Old North,” Rodriguez told Boston.com. “To hear that the person that we had decided to name the exhibit after was involved in smuggling human beings in the slave trade was just completely opposite to that intent, that mission, that previous feeling that we had had.” 

So they pivoted, re-envisioning how to tell the story of chocolate and trade and enslavement. 

“In our view, it was really important that we not hide the story of Captain Jackson or of the church’s connections to slavery more broadly. And certainly not that we give him the pedestal or the reverence that we did,”  Rodriguez said. 

Old North Illuminated shifted its exhibition inside the church and now offers a comprehensive educational curriculum for educators to use with students of all stripes. “History Mystery” is for grades 3-8; “Behind the Scenes Tour “is for grades 5-12; “Chocolate as a Lens to the Past” is for grade 5; B”ell Ringer’s Agreement” is for grades 4-8; and “Cacao and Colonial Chocolate” is for grades 9-12.

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That curriculum for high school students begins with the origin of chocolate in the Maya, through the slave trade and colonial Boston, to the connection today’s chocolate industry has with child labor.

The materials are available for free to teachers across the country, said Stewart. In the 2021-22 school year, they reached about 4,000 students in 24 different states.

Elizabeth Pilla, a member of the Education Committee of Old North Illuminated, collaborated with the organization to create a unit for her junior class at Fontbonne Academy, a private, Catholic, college preparatory school for girls in Milton. She used a lot of the videos and lessons that Old North offered, writing a curriculum around those that she focused a little more on social justice.

The unit included a field trip to Old North Church. She piloted it this fall to her students with great success.

“They felt it was really important to learn about the real people involved in history — and not only the achievements, but also the cost,” Pilla said. “And when we went on the field trip, they said it became really real to them then, when they actually sat in the church pews of the people they had been studying. I think it’s been a very engaging, eye-opening experience for them.” 

Pilla noted that it even inspired a petition to the head of school at Fontbonne to ask that they don’t sell anything but fair trade chocolate in school. 

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“I think whenever you can give students an experience that allows them to really step back in time and empathize with people and then bring it to the current day, they learn a lot and they benefit from that,” said Pilla. 

‘People really do have an appetite for an expanded narrative’

Evidently, Old North’s reckoning with its history has already made a great impact. Stewart said they are using those impacts to continue to improve things. 

“In the summer of 2021, we did an audience research study, where we surveyed 800 visitors and learned about their demographics, their expectations for the site, and their opinions on the vision — what we learned from that is that people really do have an appetite for an expanded narrative from us,” said Stewart.

They found that people wanted more stories about Black and indigenous congregants and about enslavement as it relates to the Church and to colonial Boston, which she said encouraged them that they are on the right track with these changes and the development of these exhibits and curricula. 

In the first half of 2022, they did an interpretative plan, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is a common tool museums use as a blueprint for how different stories and different themes that they want to tell on the site can be told in a cohesive, balanced, and honest way. 

“That has been pivotal for helping us define the type of impact we want to have on our visitors, and what we want them to take away. We know that the average visitor might only be with us for about 15 minutes, and that we can’t change someone’s life, or probably even their mind, in 15 minutes,” said Stewart. “But if they leave understanding that history is a little bit more complicated than they first thought, we feel like that’s a win.” 

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Ultimately, it’s important to Old North Illuminated that they do justice to visitors of all kinds and ensure that they feel respected and welcomed, said Rodriguez, and ensuring that is the case is an ongoing process.

“Our visitor population comes from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences and it certainly includes people — and we want it to include people — who have been directly harmed by the slave trade in this country and continue to feel the effects of that,” Rodriguez said. “It would really be a slap in the face to continue to proceed as we had without acknowledging those harms to that community.”

But the work is not over yet. Old North Illuminated is in the midst of developing two programs to help achieve this mission, and Stewart underscored that this process is one that will continue to evolve.

The first is a 40-minute audio guide that will tell the core story of the lantern signals and Revere’s ride, along with providing greater context on the 300-year history of the church: how the church was connected to colonialism and what the experiences were like for Black and indigenous congregants.

The second is a complete redesign of the exhibit and signings inside the church, both to broaden the lens of how they’re telling their history and to incorporate the technology of principles of universal design to make it accessible to all visitors. Both are expected to launch next summer.

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