8 June 2020
Dear MHS Community,
The Massachusetts Historical Society has taken time to reflect on and examine the events of the past week even as we grieved and raged. We are heartbroken at the brutal killing of George Floyd and share the outrage of those who took to our streets in protest. George Floyd is the latest in a long line of persons of color who have suffered torture, rape, and death since the beginnings of the United States of America.
The recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor arose from systemic and historical injustice that stretch back through the Jim Crow era of de facto terrorism against Black bodies, back through hundreds of years of bondage, all the way back to colonial life before the formal institution of slavery. This unbroken chain of oppression shows us that the subordination of Black Americans by force is not a new phenomenon or some fringe practice. The American colonies and the new republic that followed were not only founded with these structures in place--they were part of the nation’s lifeblood. This history, however, also shows us that none of this is natural; systemic racism is a construction built by us and so we can change it. The movement asserting itself now embodies anew the demands of the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
The horrific pandemic we find ourselves in has shown us that whole societies and nations can change in a heartbeat. Now is the time when Americans must abolish the systems that support racist oppression, root and branch. We at the MHS believe that history can help to inform and to motivate. The practice of history has always relied on paying attention both to individuals and to the larger cultural contexts. We stand ready to listen to the voices of Black Americans, knowing that each life, each experience, is precious and valuable. As the larger culture examines issues of race and equity, the true meaning of “public safety,” and the value of empathy in everyday life and public policy, the historical community is also ready to add whatever we can to the larger conversation that will lead to a United States that is truly just. As Americans, we have justifiable pride in the ideals set at our nation’s founding and in the people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who worked and fought to expand the promise of those ideals to as many people as possible. The fight is not over. Let those ideals continue to inspire us to action.
We also realize that change begins at home. As I have read the many statements from other institutions, I have been struck by how many are looking to their own houses. As a modern historical society, we strive to promote the understanding of history and further democracy through the collection and communication of primary sources to as many audiences as possible.
As part of the change we want to see in the world, the MHS community commits to asking the uncomfortable questions, to confronting our own history, and to letting no obstacle stop us from making real and meaningful changes at every level of our institution—from hiring practices to collection policies to the ways that we serve our entire community.
The wound caused by the death of George Floyd is still new, still raw. This is the time for grieving and for holding up his family and friends with love as they bury their dead. But when that time is over, change must begin. Black lives matter. They always mattered. Now it is time to listen and pay attention. And then act.
With gratitude and peace,