J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Perceptions Matter, and Perceptions Linger

I recently read She Would Not Be Moved, by Herbert Kohl, which discusses how elementary-school textbooks, reading books, and lesson plans discuss Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56. Kohl naturally takes issue with school presentations that show blacks and whites both protesting against segregated buses, or a quick ending to the confrontation. But he’s also upset by how many books continue portray Parks as a tired seamstress.

Calling Parks a seamstress is accurate—she worked in the tailoring department of a department store. But it’s not complete. Parks was also a trained political organizer, secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for over ten years. She had participated in discussions of the bus segregation problem and helped prepare the African-American community to boycott the bus lines. That full story has now been well told in recent histories of the civil rights movement.

However, that story was not publicized at the time. On 23 Feb 1956, the New York Times ran a front-page article about the boycott, with a photograph of Parks being arrested for helping to organize it, and on 22 March referred to her in an update on the protest. Both times the paper called her a “seamstress.” Although the Times mentioned N.A.A.C.P. leaders involved in the bus boycott, it didn’t note that Parks was active in the organization. I suspect that other non-segregationist newspapers reported much the same, and I suspect that’s how Parks and her colleagues wanted it. They made her story more universal by presenting her as a tired working woman, not a well prepared political activist.

Even within African-American families, the story of Parks as a tired seamstress dominated for years. In an article for Time magazine in 1999, Rita Dove wrote of hearing that simple version from early childhood, and only later learning the complexities. It is, after all, a good story with a clear moral and a happy ending. Kohl’s book says nothing about the press coverage of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 and how that probably affected later descriptions of events to kids, so I think it misses a crucial part of the historiography. Perceptions do matter, and they can last a long time.

This situation came back to me this week when I took notes on the diary of Joseph Secomb, published in 1921 in the Danvers Historical Society Collections. Secomb started his report on 19 Apr 1775 by transcribing an account of the Battle of Lexington from the Essex Gazette; it placed all the blame on the British soldiers, saying they attacked the locals without provocation. Secomb then wrote:

After halting awhile they retreated again and kept on firing upon our men, Pillaging almost every house they Passed by breaking and destroying Doors, Windows, Glasses, &c. and carrying off clothing and other valuable Effects: Burnt some houses. It appeared to be their Design to burn & destroy all before them and nothing but our vigorous Pursuit (under Providence) prevented their infernal Purposes from being put in execution.

But the savage Barbarity exercised upon the Bodies of our unfortunate Brethren who fell, is almost incredible. Not content with shooting down the unarmed aged and infirm they disregarded the cries of the wounded, killing them without mercy and mangling their Bodies in the most shocking manner as they Retreated back to Charlestown.

We had seven men belonging to Danvers killed & a number belonging to other Towns but ye number of the Regulars was far greater. We have the Pleasure to say that notwithstanding the highest Provocation given by the Enemy not one Instance of Cruelty that we have hard of, was committed by our victorious Militia; but listening to the Merciful Dictates of the Christian Religion they breathed higher Sentiments of Humanity.
Of course, the British soldiers at Lexington and Concord had a very different view of events. They had seen and heard American militiamen gathering before the confrontation at Lexington, a detail that Patriot newspapers left out. Most British soldiers believed that an American had fired first. The companies at the North Bridge in Concord had seen a large body of provincials march toward them before they opened fire.

Furthermore, the best documented case of “Barbarity exercised upon the Bodies” on 19 Apr 1775 was committed by a Concord youth, Ammi White, on a wounded regular. He struck the man in the head with his hatchet, finishing him off. Other British soldiers who then saw that corpse came to believe it had been scalped.

With over two hundred years of perspective, most historians now agree it’s unclear who fired the first shot at Lexington. They describe the outbreak of fighting at the North Bridge as the culmination of growing aggression and fears from both sides. It took several decades for the story of Ammi White to get into American history books, but writers now acknowledge that unsavory wrinkle of a complex story.

But Joseph Secomb didn’t know those things in 1775. He relied on his newspaper, reports from his neighbors, and his understanding of the royal government’s actions over the preceding several months. So did thousands of other Americans of 1776, which helps to explain how the fighting on 19 April united so many British colonists against the Crown. Even after New Englanders began to acknowledge their preparation for military action, it took decades before American writers abandoned the story of an unprovoked British attack in Lexington and barbarous behavior in the retreat from Concord.

It will also take some years before all elementary-school books stop emphasizing Rosa Parks’s job as a seamstress and also discuss her work as a political organizer. Both are significant, but one got into the historical record ahead of the other.

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