What do place names mean? Whenever I’m walking around a town or city I look at the names of streets and spaces and assume that they are clues to the history of said town or city but what if these names mean nothing? What if they are just slapped on there to give an impression, rather than as a form of remembrance—and honor? Taking its cue from our long-serving Mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, Salem’s municipal government sees itself and sells itself as progressive, and loses no opportunity to broadcast that message, often in reference to “history”. Actually, this public relations policy predates Mayor’s Driscoll’s reign: Salem had to become a City of “toleration” to compensate for its famous Witch Hunts and enable those who profit from that tragedy to do so with a clear conscience. It seems to me that the virtue-signaling has been switched on to hyperdrive more recently, however. The Trump era afforded Mayor Driscoll many opportunities to expound upon the lessons of real witch hunts as the Mayor of Salem, a tolerant (and hip, never forget hip) city which nevertheless showcases a statue of a fictional television witch in the midst of its most historic square, Town House Square. Two relatively new Salem parks have been named after prominent African-American residents of Salem, even though their locations bear no relation to their namesakes. To my knowledge, Remond Park, on the outskirts of town far from where that family lived and worked, has been the scene of no commemoration or education apart from a sign bearing incorrect information since its naming a few years ago. The name represents the extent of the City’s commitment to the Remonds’ memory. Charlotte Forten Park, once a muddy vacant lot bordering the South River along Derby Street, was created in 2019 and named for Forten (Grimké), the African-American abolitionist, poet and educator who came to Salem in 1854 to live with the Remonds while receiving her education in the city’s recently-segregated public schools and later Salem Normal School, the founding institution of Salem State University. Forten became Salem’s first African-American teacher upon her graduation, and went on to live an active life of advocacy, instruction, and reflection. Salem residents had a rare moment of enfranchisement in that they were actually able to VOTE on the name of the park upon its completion, and Sarah won by a mile, I think! It was a rather rigged election with only a few choices and I can’t even remember what the other names were, but still, it was a somewhat public process, a rarity for Salem. I will share my guilty secret that I didn’t vote for Charlotte (I think I wrote in Luis Emilio). It’s not that I don’t admire her, or believe that she deserved such recognition: it’s rather that I thought that the finished space, which was more modern concrete than timeless green, did not reflect her interests or her character in design or location. You just have to read a few snippets of Charlotte’s Journals to discern her love for nature, and calmness: she was always ready to engage with the world but she needed respites from it as well. The new park, with its limited green space and its mission to be a happening place with a plaza for programs and performances and built-in percussion features, seemed rather disconnected to Charlotte for me, but the City pledged to pay tribute to her life and legacy with more than a name.
Charlotte Forten Park in Salem, shortly after it opened in 2019 in two pictures from my post from that year and a photograph from the City’s facebook page (tables and chairs; the photographer wasn’t identified, sorry! It’s a great photo: this space always looks nicer at night); An excerpt from Charlotte’s Journal: she loved to walk in Harmony Grove Cemetery, which is very close to the house of Caroline Remond Putnam, with whom Charlotte lived for a while.
There’s been talk of a statue of Charlotte for the park: not sure what the status is of that project. I think that would be great, but as of this weekend, I really don’t see how this space can be crafted into anything evocative of Charlotte, because “her” park has been plundered by PIRATES! Real Pirates. The Real Pirates Museum (as opposed to the New England Pirate Museum, just across Derby Street) has opened up adjacent to the park, with a broad walkway carved out of the park and an entryway into and out of the park. This new business advertises its location as “on Charlotte Forten Park” and paintings of pirates embellish its walls, thus framing the park. Charlotte Forten Park appears to have been transformed into Real Pirates Park. And so I guess the answer to my opening question what do place names mean is “not much” in reference to this poor park, even nothing. Perhaps it could be relocated to a more meaningful space with room for remembrance and reflection: that section of Mack Park across from Harmony Grove Cemetery?
Charlotte Forten Park (or Real Pirates Plaza?): April 10, 2022.
I was in several New Hampshire towns in the Monadnock region over the past weekend, and in each and every one of them there was a centrally-located History Center or Historical Society, open for business with timely exhibitions on view. These institutions were clearly both engaging and reflecting the collective curiosity of their respective communities, rather than just offering up a commodity or tablets (in whatever media form) of established facts that anyone can look up at any time. And once again I returned to Salem, a city that calls itself “Historic” but yet has no public history museum that is collecting, preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting its history and has experienced the removal of most of its archives by the Peabody Essex Museum, in an exasperated state. It’s not that there aren’t some great historical attractions and experiences in Salem: there are. But for the most part, Salem’s “history” is either siloed or for sale: there is no center, no apparent concern for the public record or the public memory, and an overwhelming emphasis on performance or presentation rather than participation.
Historical markers are everywhere in New Hampshire—and Salem’s Massachusetts Tercentenary markers are still among the missing; a Sunday afternoon exhibit/gathering at Hancock’s Historical Society.
I have two very specific cases in point to illustrate my assertions. We are in the midst of a national commemoration of World War I, inspired by the United States World War One Centennial Commission, of which all five living presidents serve as honorary co-chairs. All around me there are great local exhibitions on the Great War, from Hancock, New Hampshire in the north (see above) to Framingham and Lexington in the west, to Orleans on the Cape (where the only German attack on American soil occurred 100 years ago last week!) What’s happening here in Salem? Two very discreet digital exhibits, so discreet that I doubt very few people know about them. The Salem Public Library has several collections relating to individual Salem residents’ experiences during World War among their “Digital Heritage” items, including lovely silk postcards received by Anna Desjardins from soldiers stationed “somewhere in France”, and the Salem Veterans’ Services Department of the City of Salem actually has a “World War One Centennial Project” on the city website which I found while I was looking for something else entirely! Great resources here, including photographs of the two units in which Salem soldiers fought, individual biographies and obituaries, and newspaper clips, but where’s the engagement, and where’s the press? The introductory text references a collaboration with the Salem Public Library but I don’t see any links there, nor at the Salem Museum, Destination Salem, or anywhere else that keeps track of Salem events and initiatives, but I’m going to put it out there. This welcome but unheralded effort of 2018 contrasts dramatically with the reception the returning soldiers received a century ago when it seems like every parish and ward turned out for ceremonies and financed the monuments that still stand, so “time will not dim the glory of their deeds”. I hate to disagree with a monument, but I do think the glory of past deeds is dimmed if awareness of such deeds is limited to a name on a plaque.
The 101st Field Artillery in France, and just three of Salem’s World War I Memorials.
You can also find Salem’s City Seal on the city website, which is described as: a ship under full sail, approaching a coast designated by the costume of the person standing upon it and by the trees near him, as a portion of the East Indies; beneath the shield, this motto: “Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum,” signifying “To the farthest port of the rich east”; and above the shield, a dove, bearing an olive branch in her mouth. In the circumference encircling the shield, the words “Salem Condita A.D. 1626” “Civitatis Regimine Donata, A.D. 1836. Actually the costume very specifically identifies a native of Banda Aceh, the capital city of the Aceh province of Indonesia, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. Salem’s monopoly of the pepper trade with this region initiated and defined its golden age in the first decades of the nineteenth century, and when the seal was designed in 1836 this connection was not just acknowledged, but sealed. And in the spirit of historical and cultural engagement, the Acehnese dance company Suang Budaya Dance will be performing the traditional “Dance of the Thousand Hands” at the (30th!) annual Salem Maritime Festival this coming weekend—on the very wharf where Salem ships once departed for their native land and returned to discharge “Salem Pepper”. The folks at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site know how to pay tribute to the past by engaging the present and the City of Salem should take a lesson: though perhaps war and trade are simply not hip, funky or witchy enough to attract the attention of City Hall.