Monday, June 24, 2024

History Cambridge program manager Beth Folsom speaks to middle school students on a tour of Cambridge Common. (Photo: David Rabkin)

History Cambridge has been fortunate to partner this year with several school groups and youth programs to share the stories of our city’s past and foster a greater understanding of its present. Through guided tours, historical advising and resource sharing, we have engaged with students, teachers and community members working with youth to provide context for their classroom learning and outside projects, and have helped to make connections to local history and the stories of people and communities in Cambridge’s past.

In March, History Cambridge worked with a group of students and their teachers at the Community Arts Center to advise them on the research process and techniques for conducting interviews as part of their oral history project on residents of The Port neighborhood. This project, part of a Mass Humanities Expand Massachusetts Stories Grant, gave local students the opportunity to speak with members of their community who have lived, worked and gone to school in The Port, and to document and share their experiences with the wider community through a documentary film, which will be released in partnership with Cambridge Community Television. The class also came to our headquarters at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House on Brattle Street to view our temporary art installation, “Forgotten Souls: Remembering the Enslaved People of Brattle Street,” and to learn about conducting archival research.

In May, we welcomed a group of sixth-grade students from the Shady Hill School for a tour of Brattle Street that focused on its ties to the plantation system in the Caribbean and the experiences of the enslaved people who lived and worked in Cambridge and on the large plantations owned by and enriching the white residents of Tory Row. Students viewed the “Forgotten Souls” installation and discussed the connections between enslavement in the Caribbean and the wealth that flowed into Cambridge in the 17th and 18th centuries, including the endowments that funded colleges, houses of worship and public institutions. We also discussed the experiences of enslaved and free Black Cantabrigians as they lived and worked in this area, and the community they created for themselves in the absence of formal economic, political and social status.

In June, History Cambridge partnered with fourth-grade and fifth-grade students at the Tobin Montessori School in their Art and Science in One Program. As part of this program, the students and their adult partners explored Squirrel Brand Park, observing and taking notes on the natural and built environments. In a presentation to students on the history of Squirrel Brand and the neighborhood surrounding the former factory building, we discussed the role of candy as a major Cambridge industry, its connections to enslavement and the sugar economy of the Caribbean, and changing immigration patterns that influenced the makeup of the workforce in the 20th century. We also explored ideas about what makes a neighborhood; how living, working, shopping and worshiping in a small space – typical a century ago, not so typical today – affects one’s experiences; and the ways in which the former Squirrel Brand buildings and land have been transformed and are being used today.

This summer, we worked with playwright Betsy Bard, director Allison MacLaury and members of the Mayor’s Youth Summer Employment Program as they wrote and performed an original play at The Foundry in August based on the story of a 1911 police raid at the Blake & Knowles Steam Pump Factory at that site. Spurred by reports that women workers – most of them recent Polish immigrants – were working for long hours under grueling conditions, at times semi-clothed because of the extreme heat, this raid led to the implementation of a minimum-wage law for women and children in Massachusetts, the first in the nation. But what was framed at the time as a protective measure for these “vulnerable” workers had a downside, as factory overseers and owners moved to hire men instead of women to save money and maximize their profits. History Cambridge met with the class to share newspaper articles, images and other primary sources to help place the women’s stories in historical context, and the students and mentors brought these stories to life in a vibrant theater production.

History Cambridge is privileged to engage with the youth community of the city, their schools and other institutions, and their teachers and mentors to help bring local history to life. As part of our mission statement, we believe that each person is an expert in their piece of Cambridge history, and we are committed to working with Cantabrigians from all walks of life to help empower them to weave their stories into the vibrant tapestry of Cambridge history.

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About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at historycambridge.org.

History Cambridge is a nonprofit organization. Our activities rely on your financial support. If you value articles like this one, give today.


Beth Folsom is programs manager for History Cambridge.