A Reflection on Racial Injustice and the Role of Public History from the Paul Revere Memorial Association

The Paul Revere Memorial Association stands for racial justice in America and in Boston.

We believe that education at public history sites has a tremendously important role to play in working towards a just society for all people. In order to better effect change, we must continue to make clear the injustices towards African Americans and all people of color that are interwoven into the centuries of history we share at the Paul Revere House. In doing so, we will continue to listen to and learn from our local Boston and national communities while understanding that the Revere House and similar historic sites are places with difficult and complicated racial legacies.

During our closure to the public and after re-opening, we will continue to bring you content in the Revere Express on Boston’s history of public protest, its racial challenges, and of the trials and travails of the House’s diverse occupants over its existence. With regard to our site’s public presentation, we are engaged in ongoing evaluation of our interpretive themes to provide a balanced interpretation of our historic buildings. We strive to do so in ways that are true to the Revere House’s history and responsive to the social history of the North End and Boston’s racial history.

In 1785, Thomas Wadsworth, a Boston transplant to South Carolina, wrote to Paul Revere and described his new life in the South. Wadsworth boasted that he had “land enough for a very fine Plantation” and aimed to “slave it.” He then girded for the pushback that he expected from Revere to these boasts, complaining that he knew Revere would “ask where it will put my Slaves.” Wadsworth answered that “I have nothing to say on that subject now only they are black and therefore ought of right to be Slaves but don’t ask me any more of those questions.”

Wadsworth ultimately accomplished his aim to own enslaved persons, and to him, once his mind was settled, the matter was closed for discussion with his friend who might oppose the move. With no return letter from Revere extant, we do not know the tone or content of his response. Despite this absence, it is clear that Wadsworth was prepared for Revere’s opposition to the idea of race-based slavery and owning enslaved persons. Wadsworth anticipated Revere’s critiques, but aimed to bury any discussion that might suggest effecting change and upsetting his perceived entitlement to a plantation life with a concrete racial hierarchy.

This exchange is not meant to extol Revere, but rather to highlight in stark terms the ways in which conversations around race and slavery have long been muted or silenced, a situation that continues to the present day. We should call out injustice where it exists and where it has existed. In doing so, we can collectively draw back the curtain on the engrained and systematic injustice and racism towards the Black community that has permeated the nation’s history from its inception. As historians we understand that the past must be viewed both within its own context but also in light of what it reveals about who we are today and who we want to be tomorrow.

We thank you for your continued support, and we look forward to the day when we can continue these conversations in person at the Revere House.

Source: Thomas Wadsworth to Paul Revere, July 28, 1785. “Loose Manuscripts 1746-1801,” reel 1, Revere Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.