When we take a history class or visit a museum, we expect and hope that the people teaching us will be confident that what they’re saying is fact. After all, history has already happened, right? Everything we need to tell the story is out there, and there’s only so much of it; it’s the historian’s job to just make sure that information is true and pass it along.
But you may have noticed that since you were in school, the story might have changed somewhat. Maybe a legend like George Washington chopping down a cherry tree gets silently removed from your first grade curriculum. Perhaps a cast of once-background characters you didn’t know about before is elevated to be an integral part of the story. Sometimes, even, an educator might admit that we just don’t have a full sense of what happened. This happens to us every day, when we talk about the Battle of Lexington. Despite dozens of eyewitness accounts, we still don’t know who fired that first shot on the Green. Other stories get passed around for decades before a new piece of information comes along that completely contradicts it.
The one thing that I am confident about is that our understanding of history is always evolving. Those who teach history are often called interpreters, and this, I think, is an important term to use. Each person who presents historical information to the public is doing so having picked through countless amounts of information to tell a particular story with a purpose. Each successive generation and individual historian rediscovers the histories written before, and the primary source material, in a new way, based on their own experiences and needs. With this in mind, historians and museums now more than ever are going back through the information they have to uncover the stories of many people who have been left voiceless for so long: women, children, the poor, the enslaved, racial and ethnic minorities, who have been hiding in plain sight in the historical record for centuries.
Right now, we are in the process of compiling all the information we can about slavery in 18th century Lexington as part of an ongoing project to reinterpret the Hancock-Clarke House. It’s a topic that has long been overlooked, partly because of the sense that information about it just doesn’t exist. This couldn’t be further from the truth, however! Our historian, Robert Bellinger of Suffolk University, is carefully poring over records that have never before been looked at with this particular project in mind. Just because the information has been there all along doesn’t mean it’s been properly recognized for its’ importance. Letters, diaries, church records, tax records, account books, probate inventories, receipts, newspapers, and more can blossom with new information if you know where and how to look.
Those of us who work in history are always fans of life-long learning, not only because we enjoy it, but because there is always something new to discover. If you haven’t been to your favorite museum (or one of ours!) in a while, you might want to consider a repeat visit. You never know what new things you might discover!
-Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.