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Marita Rivero: That ability we have to reach across often barriers I think allows us to bring a richer dialog forward, to write different kinds of opinion into the circle, and to reach many more people.
Anita Walker: Hello. I’m Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Marita Rivero. She is the executive director of the Museum of African-American History. Welcome to our program.
Marita Rivero: Thank you.
Anita Walker: You have taken on a powerful and iconic organization here in Massachusetts. You’ve been there a yearish?
Marita Rivero: A year and two months and three weeks, that kind of thing. <laughs>
Anita Walker: But who’s counting. Right? But you’ve taken the reins of an organization that has so much meaning and such an important story to tell in our state and in our country, quite frankly. Talk a little bit about where this institution is going now.
Marita Rivero: Well, this is a 50-year-old institution, which is amazing to us, but 50 years ago, a private citizen discovered that an old building on Beacon Hill was actually the Africa meetinghouse, so-called then, built in 1806 in the middle of a thriving African-American community that lived on the north slope of Beacon Hill and that that community was part of that last wave of evolution that ended slavery. And she thought, my goodness, we can’t let this building fall into disrepair. So to move forward to today, yes, a 501(c)(3) exists. We own that building now. We have restored the building. We own– we operate the building right next door, the first public school– one of the first public schools for blacks in Boston, the Abiel Smith School, and we’ve extended to Nantucket, <laughs> where– we all talk about the black whaling captain, but this is his parents’ home, built in 1774, another African meetinghouse. So these– this organization really represents a history of really dramatic activism and we like to remember that because we’re always speaking to the 21st century. It’s the whole point, to learn from history and move forward. So that’s what I think we’re championing. There is no building like any– there are no buildings like this in the country. They’ve simply fallen apart, torn down. Boston has a unique piece of American history and our job is to really learn from it, to export the messages and the information about it as broadly as possible, and to encourage people to think about how they apply any of this to what we’re talking about now.
Anita Walker: So when you see so many school groups and young children walk through the doors or the threshold into this amazing institution, what do you see today? What are the questions? What are the- what’s the knowledge base of the fifth grader who comes to the African-American–
Marita Rivero: The knowledge base.
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Marita Rivero: I don’t remember– I don’t know what your school was like, but we fled slavery in my history classes. We just didn’t talk about slavery. I think Civil War, slavery, I think maybe we had a paragraph and we very quickly passed that, very quickly passed anything else, reconstruction. Next thing I knew, we were talking about League of Nations, maybe Woodrow Wilson <chuckles> or Franklin Roosevelt. So the base knowledge here actually doesn’t exist. People don’t want to talk about slavery. They don’t want to think about it. Some people have said they were afraid to come in the door of the museum because they didn’t know what they’d see. It was going to be about slavery. And we say no. It’s really about American democracy. It’s the moment at which a group of people came together, changed a bad law, and ushered in modern American democracy. And we talk about that. We talk about the civics lesson. We talk about empowerment, civic empowerment. So children who come through and come through our program, people say, “What did you do to them?” We say, well, they’re feeling– they find a place in the story, whether they’re black children or white children or brown children, yellow children, et cetera. We find a place those young people who are introduced to a group of people who worked across race, they worked across class, and they changed a bad law. They ended slavery. And the question to them is, really, how do you see yourself in American and how do you want to take up issues of your time? So they just leave feeling empowered. I think along the way, yes, <laughs> we try to pick them up wherever they are, children or adults, and enlarge knowledge because we have great stories. We can make movies out of these stories. They’re fun stories. They’re dramatic stories. They–
Anita Walker: What’s your favorite story? What’s the story that people just–
Marita Rivero: I like Lewis Hayden myself. <laughs>
Anita Walker: Tell the story.
Marita Rivero: Well, Lewis Hayden’s house is still on our Black Heritage Trail, which you can take, by the way. And he was a businessman. He created– had a small store and had kind of worked his way up. He was a very powerful leader and therefore was very involved in making sure that people who were still enslaved in the South who came north could find jobs and housing and so forth. When the United States decided to really bear down on a fugitive slave law, which meant that you could cross the Mason-Dixon line, you could come into a free state like Massachusetts, you could find Marita Rivero and say, wait, Marita belongs to me and therefore, I’m taking her back to wherever. And that fugitive slave law got a lot of power all of a sudden. It’s kind of like immigration in a way. <laughs> We’re taking you back. And so, they approached Lewis Hayden’s home. They’d understood that two people were hiding in his home and they were coming to get them. So Lewis Hayden appeared on the– this is twilight headed into dark. Appeared on his front stoop with a torch and announced to the crowd gathering that he had wired dynamite under his stairs and under his house and they were either going to go up together or they were going to go away alone. That’s what he’s <laughs> saying. In essence, that’s what he said. And they left. So I love that story and I like the fact that we can tell a little more about it. The people hiding in his house were a couple, Ellen Craft and her husband, two black people, who came north because she dressed as a man. They saved clothes. They built costumes. They put together– they bought– he– her husband was used to buying tickets, train tickets, for their owner. So he went and bought train tickets for them. And she appeared as a young man. She put her hand in a sling so she wouldn’t have to sign anything. He came along as her manservant. They bought the train tickets, got on the train, and took the train north to Boston as a young man traveling with his manservant. So when they reached Boston, they were hidden in Lewes Hayden’s house till they could find a place to– eventually, they had to move past here and move north. So that’s one of those stories that has layers and layers and I could tell you other layers. But you– this is the point. It’s– these are real people in a real community and living as we live now with comments to make about what we’re thinking about, what we’re doing, and I think that’s part of our role. We’re in the education business.
Anita Walker: So how do you think about really engaging the community broadly? The school field trips, thank goodness a new generation of young people are hopefully going to be a little more knowledgeable than people who grew up when I did back in the fifties and had maybe one sentence in the history book to build their worldview on. But how are you thinking about new and innovative ways to bring the rest of the community on board?
Marita Rivero: One area we all have is technology. So we were part of that Google Cultural Institute. They asked us to identify 150 objects and put them online, which we did and evidently, it was successful enough for them to come back and say, “Can’t you give us some more?” They’re not much on giving you any actual metrics or analysis that you can work from, unfortunately, but it’s really whetted our appetite to do far more than we’ve been doing online in ways that help us build curriculum points that anybody can use. So we have a cohort of teachers who have been working with us for a little over a year to really test ideas, play back against curriculum, et cetera, and our goal is to use the– that process of putting some of our items, maybe 2,500 items. They’re not all buildings, online, but tell the stories around them in ways that teachers can use as modules in their classroom. So that’s one way. We’re thinking about technology as an important point. The second thing really has to do with having a little fun. <laughs> You know, we’re thinking about just some big events we can do. They could be– we’re doing a thing about Nantucket this summer, Martha’s Vineyard, but we also think our own courtyard on Beacon Hill, the space between our two buildings, is a courtyard. And so, last summer, we bought some trees and lights and– it’s wired. So this summer, we’re going to do more to bring artists to that space, performance artists. We’ve got a couple lined up and we’re going to build around them and do some work with maybe some community activists or community leaders who might lead some small panels. These are small things we can do that invite the community to come in on a regular basis rather than thinking of it as my one tour, but provide a way for us to be in constant contact with particularly people with young families.
Anita Walker: To come and come back.
Marita Rivero: To come and come back. And finally, I just say we’re looking for strategic partnerships. What are some partnerships we can imagine that could go deeply and long-term and provide us a kind of rhythm that can proceed over years. And I think there are different kinds of partnerships that do that. We work successfully with universities and the question is how do we kind of bear down on the partnerships we’ve had in that sort of way?
Marita Rivero: I’m very interested in what other people are doing within this– and let’s say Madison Park Development Corporation has been a real partner to the arts in the Dudley area. Are there other development corporations, other kind of business ventures like that interested in urban planning who could form partnerships with us and other artist organizations to begin to think integrally how we integrally develop parts of the city in ways that build what we do, right, and educational opportunities and connections with arts and artists right into the work as we redevelop. There must be– how many cranes are there in Boston right? <laughs> Can we think about those kinds of strategic partnerships that– and the third thing is I’m open to any kind of partner. You know what I mean? So I’m also thinking about people outside Boston. The– we have a whole string of historic places, New Bedford; Portland, Maine– from Portland, Maine; New Hampshire, Peterborough. We have all kinds of ways of connecting, but we just don’t do it.
Anita Walker: Even on the Underground Railroad, there are so many sites that– parts and parcel of the story that you’re telling. You know, one thing that occurs to me as you’re talking is a big part of this story of that meetinghouse was advocacy and political engagement. And we’re at a moment now in our history where people who have maybe not seen themselves as advocates or having anything to advocate about are now kind of waking up to things that are happening around them. Is there sort of a role as a model, as an exemplar, of what it can mean and how it can make a difference that you can do?
Marita Rivero: I really think that’s so important for all of us. You know, serving– our younger people are very much involved in the issues of the day. And as our audience, we all know you change all the time because your environment changes, your audiences are changing all the time, and you’re changing all the time, and we’re seeing more and more younger people who are interested in being engaged with the issues of the day. At a recent retreat, board retreat, we were talking about where we are. We’re conveners. We’re educators. We inspire and our board chairs sit– and don’t forget, we’ve always been a social justice organization. We come out of a group that eliminated slavery. The struggles around that were so profound that they echoed legally and in other ways throughout every other human rights movement that’s come along since then. And we need to capture that and make sure people are thinking about history in that way, <laughs> that we didn’t just start yesterday. So what do we have to learn? What advice? What reflections? What juxtapositions might occur to us? So yes. I really feel that all of us are interested in thinking about social issues, certainly in the arts. You know, we see black artists, Kerry James Marshall. We see we’re using history in their work. Many artists. I was at the open studios, the Roxbury open studios, and the African American artist, AAM, I always get the name wrong, came out of Simmons and Northeastern. You look at those artists. They’re talking about what’s happening right now and they’re talking about what happened in history. So I think you see in many young people an interest, in the artistic community, in making connections. We didn’t just kind of crack the egg yesterday and jump out and <laughs> give no connection to anything else. In fact, we’re part of a real cultural continuum. And the more we explore that and open that up, really the more– the richer our experience and the more power we have, I think, in many areas. And finally, I don’t think any of us imagine ourselves in some kind of little bubble, the arts and humanities bubble, <laughs> sitting over on a shelf somewhere. I don’t– I think very few– I can’t imagine anybody who’s thinking about themselves that way. We are all– and I think we’re all deeply engaged in our time, enlarging our audiences and reach across barriers and reflecting back at people, who we are and what we do. And that ability we have to reach across often barriers I think allows us to bring kind of a richer dialog forward, to invite different kinds of opinion into the circle, and to reach many more people who then can a little differently, perhaps, about where we are in the interest of getting to a place– I think we all want to get to a place of some kind of stasis that’s– values equality and a rich life for everybody and the kinds of educational and economic parity that make for a kind of happy society.
Anita Walker: Our artists and our historians are so good at– they reflect what they challenge and that’s good for all us.
Marita Rivero: I love that. Yeah. They challenge us. I mean, I was looking at– I think I worked at Boston Public Library on a– several Fridays. They had two spoken word artists and a small band working on Shakespeare. So you had to kind of rap– sort of a rap Hamilton-ish <laughs> approach to Shakespeare for an hour that nonetheless tied him right into what was happening yesterday and what could happen tomorrow. Reggie Gibson led that group and it was just wonderful. It was wonderful.
Anita Walker: He’s really great.
Marita Rivero: So when you’re talking about challenge, the challenge can come to us many different ways, including having someone in a hat with a feather in it.
Marita Rivero: At the– at a library talking to you.
Anita Walker: A trip to the Museum of African American History will challenge and reflect our past–
Marita Rivero: I hope so.
Anita Walker: –and engage, I think, people of all ages. Marita Rivero, executive director of the Museum of African American History, another one of our creative minds out loud.
Marita Rivero: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
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