Beacon Hill Site Report

Beacon Hill Site Report

This is a “site report” of the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, for the “Digital Space and Place” course I took in the Spring of 2020. The purpose was to become familiar with the area as we mapped its historic identity as the African-American hub of Boston in the nineteenth century.

When I intended to visit Beacon Hill on Wednesday, February 5, 2020, I at first walked in the opposite direction. I went down School Street, where the historic King’s Chapel is located, only to realize that I fell outside the actual boundaries of Beacon Hill. I inadvertently assumed that a historic church down the street from the State House would reside in the confines of my site visit, but in fact it sat on the border of Beacon Hill. Though I’m from Massachusetts, Beacon Hill existed more in my mind as an ill-defined place than as a geographically obvious space. I went back up the street, took a right behind the State House, and fortunately found a building that had “Beacon Hill” in the very name of a business.

The moment I knew I arrived in Beacon Hill: when it was in my face.

It felt good walking through an area that had history (as every place does, yet the history that feels monumental). But the clanging construction, the honking cars, and the heavy exhaust fumes weighed on my ability to concentrate and take in the scenery. Still I made some observations and walked primarily down Joy Street (pictured below in the map).

This map centered me in a part of Boston where I rarely walked.

I was meandering around Beacon Hill as if the past would fall into my hands, and it kind of did when I reached Joy Street. I found the place markers representing where important figures of black history lived, such as David Walker (the abolitionist who wrote the “Appeal”) and Maria Stewart (the abolitionist who wrote “The Limits of True Womanhood”). Coincidentally, they both lived in the same house, at different moments, on Joy Street (then Belknap Street). David and his wife Eliza Walker relocated to Bridge Street before Maria Stewart and her husband James moved in (Source: NPS).

The plaques above were designed by The Heritage Guild, Inc., founded by Dr. Adelaide Cromwell and fourteen other black women in 1975. Their objective was to raise awareness of African-American history in Boston where attention to it was lacking. Dr. Cromwell was given a Historic Preservation Award from the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 2015, in recognition of this contribution to the space of Boston.

I wonder how many people walk up and down this street and pay attention to the plaques in the same way that I did. I had no knowledge of The Heritage Guild prior to my visit, and my aim was only to walk around attentively, not to seek out official markers. Consequently, these plaques were a goldmine for the sense of place that I could appreciate from Beacon Hill. The neighborhood is profoundly different today (older, whiter, and richer), and the history of how that condition sits with us – today – needs to be unearthed.

On my way out of the neighborhood and back to Boston Common, I saw a monument that contrasted significantly with the plaques I was reading. It was the “Founders’ Memorial,” which romanticized the Pilgrims’ arrival and founding of Boston in 1630, with Native Americans as pacified onlookers. It was jarring that Boston had a monument to the founding of a “free government” when David Walker and Maria Stewart were still fighting for freedom two centuries later.

First Draft on Big Flame

First Draft on Big Flame

Build the Party “First” or “Second”? How Big Flame Diverged from Trotskyist Groups in Seventies Britain

In “What Is A Big Flame Group?” (1975), the East London Big Flame chapter said, “We have recognized that the “communist movement” is not to be equated with the activities of the left groups, but is to be identified in the daily struggles of the working class against capital’s rule”[1] Setting aside the humility in this statement, both workers and left-wing militants were fundamental to socialist and communist movements worldwide. From 1971 until 1984, Big Flame (BF), a socialist-feminist organization founded by workers and ex-students in Liverpool, England, belonged to a panoply of “left groups” in Britain that organized outside of, and frequently against, the Labour Party and British Communist Party. The name “Big Flame” originates from the title of a 1969 television play, directed by Ken Loach and aired by BBC, about a dock workers’ strike in Liverpool.[2] Big Flame distinguished itself from “British Trotskyist” groups with the same anti-capitalist principles in three ways: rejecting the Leninist ‘vanguard party’ in favor of mass action, refusing sectarian approaches to recruitment, and centering women’s independent, feminist politics. This paper argues that Big Flame’s strategic decisions logically followed from each of these three stances.   

Debate Competitions Improve Political Discourse (Opinion)

Debate Competitions Improve Political Discourse (Opinion)

I recently read Jonathan Ellis and Francesca Hovagimian’s op-ed (October 12, 2019), where they argued that debate competitions hurt the quality of American political discourse. They recycled the familiar point that competitive debaters are trained in an adversarial style of argument that opposes compromise and deliberation. I participated in nine years-worth of high school and college debate competitions, and I presently coach high school debaters while pursuing a history PhD at Northeastern University.

From this perspective, I struggle to believe that competitive debate competitions are to blame for polarized politics. The political world has always been polarized, for certain. Ellis and Hovagimian gave a “who’s who” of liberal and conservative figures, but each of them would have adopted their positions despite their debate experience. Steve Bannon would be the kind of white man to adopt the warped worldview of the alt-right, and Ted Cruz would have inevitably become Ted Cruz. Senator Warren, originally a Republican, became more progressive after witnessing injustices in bankruptcy courts; this happened when she was a law professor, long after being a debater.

People who have commented about debate—from outside or within—have offered contradictory criticisms of the activity. Recall the old point that competitive debating makes you a sophist, a contrarian with no convictions. And yet Ellis and Hovagimian are convinced that debating actually produces fundamentalists who do have convictions, extreme to the point of being uncontestable. Both of these cannot be true, or have some universal effect that debate has on every participant. My only qualm with debate was that the demands of preparing large quantities of evidence (which I very much enjoyed) left me little time for close reading, which I celebrate now as a PhD student. Debate competitions today are more the effect, rather than the cause, of changes in academia and our wider world. Both sophism and fundamentalism are problems with human nature that can be tackled with moral education and a dose of empathy, neither of which debate competitions can provide on their own.

I have two points which more precisely explain why debate competitions can improve our political discourse. The first is that televised presidential “debates” hardly live up to the name; they are more like press conferences. Many people, especially debaters, are dumbfounded that a candidate only has thirty seconds to respond to an opposing candidate’s take on a detailed policy question. During my junior year at Wake Forest University, we spent an entire season debating the merits and drawbacks of single-payer healthcare systems, and I cringe at the lack of depth that candidates bring to the healthcare “debates” on television. Even the Climate Town Hall on CNN, which I very much appreciated, could have benefited from a structured debate, where candidates (or scientists/economists agreeing to defend a candidate’s proposal) could go back-and-forth on different proposals. I have enough faith in the Town Hall viewers to believe they may have enjoyed an in-depth debate that inquired, for instance, whether a carbon tax would succeed. With more than 30 seconds to address an opposing viewpoint, the participants could employ international comparisons, economic studies, the best climate science, or historical anecdotes to support a well-reasoned position. This is what debates are meant to be, because debate is not a clash of soundbites.

My second and final point is that competitive debate does teach you to realize when you are wrong. Ellis and Hovagimian uphold Ethics Bowl as an ideal activity, but they overlook the benefits of technical, “flow-based” (rebutting every argument with much detail) competitions in Policy Debate and Lincoln-Douglas. In both activities, debate coaches tell their students to understand when they should openly concede that they are losing an argument they originally made, in order to tell the judge why they have won their side nonetheless. This process is actually more open-minded than a spirited discussion where people usually say “let’s agree to disagree” instead of admitting “this one point I made was nonsense, but my argument still stands.” Because our final speeches run less, sometimes much less, than ten minutes long, debaters know it is a losing battle to hold onto every argument until you die.

Imagine if political figures could admit that they were wrong, and refine their positions in an iterative process that makes our original convictions stronger for their logic, not for their intensity. Maybe our candidates and pundits, if they had debate experience, should come back to the competitions.

The Contested Meanings of “Shays’ Rebellion Day”: Silvio Conte and Ronald Reagan in 1986

The Contested Meanings of “Shays’ Rebellion Day”: Silvio Conte and Ronald Reagan in 1986

An extended version of this argument will be presented at the Springfield Armory on January 25, 2020. For more information:

“Shays’ Rebellion represents more than a glimmer of our past,” said House Representative Silvio Conte (R-MA), “It represents the spirit of the American way and the struggle of a people to persevere and combat injustice.”[1] Representative Conte’s First Congressional District included Springfield, MA, the site of the armory toward which Daniel Shays marched with fellow indebted farmers and ex-soldiers of the Revolutionary War. Conte proposed House Resolution 10 to request that President Ronald Reagan recognize the week beginning January 19, 1987 as “Shays’ Rebellion Week,” and January 25, 1987 as “Shays’ Rebellion Day.” Conte commemorated Shays’ Rebellion through a language of justice that fit his support for civil rights, and opposition to the Vietnam War, during the 1960s. Reagan’s proclamation of the holiday then downplayed the Rebellion’s legitimacy and reduced it to a precursor of the Federalist model for the Constitution. This presentation argues that the historically proper way to memorialize Shays Rebellion lies with Conte’s words, not Reagan’s.

H.R. 10 passed in October 10, 1986, though Conte spoke about Shays’ Rebellion at earlier moments, including a House session in July 8, 1968. During the nineteen-sixties, Rep. Conte marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama in 1965. In 1968, a year of transnational protest and upheaval, Conte was the first Massachusetts representative to publicly oppose the war in Vietnam.[2] To commemorate the two-hundred-and-twenty-fifth anniversary of the settlement of Pelham, MA, Shays’ hometown, Conte moved beyond the conventional history that rebellion led the Federalists to propose a new Constitution. He said:

Shays’ Rebellion was more than a demonstration of the need for a strong central government; it was a call for justice by strong, honest people whose sacrifices in the Revolutionary War were leading them to debt and to subsequent loss of property under harsh local laws.[3]

The language of fairness was present in Conte’s floor speech on October 10, 1986, and the resolution that passed the same day. H.R. 10 said that Shays’ Rebellion was a response to a state that was “unresponsive,” by landowners who were “dissatisfied,” and ultimately “exposed” the problems of status quo government.[4] Conte’s belief in dissent against injustice, such as discrimination and inhumane wars, meant that he saw Shays’ Rebellion not as a crisis but rather an opportunity for progress.

Reagan’s Proclamation departed from Conte’s interpretation in a number of ways. The president cited Thomas Jefferson’s opinion that the rebels were motivated by “ignorance.” He also asserted that “the majority of the people of Massachusetts had sided with the government,” and that because of Shays we have the Constitution.[5] In a radio address from January 25, 1987, Reagan elaborated on Shays’ Rebellion Day by insisting that the Constitution made possible the “fight against injustice…without having to lead an armed revolution.”[6] Whether one believes today in armed revolution, Reagan’s rhetoric, unlike Conte’s, clearly disempowered radical protest. Activists prior to and following the farmers at Springfield understood, as Conte did, that disobedience was required when the ordinary paths to change were not possible.

[1] Silvio O. Conte, “Legislation to Commemorate Shays’ Rebellion,” Congressional Record–House, January 28, 1985, 1156.

[2] University of Massachusetts Amherst Special Collections, “Background on Silvio O. Conte,” No date,

[3] Silvio O. Conte, “Pelham: 225th Anniversary of a Landmark of Democracy,” Congressional Record–House, July 8, 1968, 20235.

[4] Silvio O. Conte, “Shays’ Rebellion Week and Shays’ Rebellion Day,” Congressional Record–House, October 10, 1986, 30190.

[5] Ronald Reagan, “Proclamation 5598 — Shays’ Rebellion Week and Day, 1987,” January 13, 1987,

[6] Ronald Reagan, “Radio Address to the Nation,” Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Volume 22, Issues 1-15, January 25, 1986, 96.

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