Ribbon cutting marks milestone for abolitionist Fitchburg Park
FITCHBURG – The city of Fitchburg has many strong ties to the 19th century movement to end slavery in the United States.
That legacy is preserved in Fitchburg Abolitionist Park at 42-50 Snow St., where a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday, June 18 marked the completion of Phases 1 and 2 of the park’s three-phase development.
The ceremony was held the day before June 19, which commemorates the arrival of approximately 2,000 Union soldiers at Galveston Bay, Texas on June 19, 1865, to announce that the Civil War was over and more than 250,000 enslaved blacks in Texas were free.
Fitchburg Abolitionist Park currently features seating, a brick walkway, three perennial flower gardens, a sign explaining the town’s importance in the abolitionist movement, and a flagpole. Highlights of Phase 3 will be a mural and an interactive bulletin board which, combined with people’s cell phones, will provide additional information.
Twin Towns work to end slavery
Fitchburg’s history with the abolitionist movement began in the 1830s. Several homes in Fitchburg and nearby Leominster were stops on the Underground Railroad, including the home of Benjamin Farwell Snow Jr. at Day and Waverly in Fitchburg and the home of Jonathan and Frances Drake on Franklin Street in Leominster.
Snow also hosted several prominent abolitionists in Fitchburg from the 1840s through the 1860s, including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, and Massachusetts native Lucy Stone.
More than 50 Fitchburg abolitionists boarded a train in 1855 and moved to Kansas to ensure it entered the Union as a free state. A former Fitchburg resident, Dr. Charles Robinson, became Kansas’ first governor in 1861.
“Even though we often refer to ourselves as the greatest democracy in the world – and we are – it takes us decades in this country to recognize that we wouldn’t be the greatest democracy in the world without the people who are historically stood up in the face of injustice and thereby enacted change, continually forcing our elected officials to do the right thing,” said David Thibault-Munoz, academic advisor at Mount Wachusett Community College and co-chair of the Fitchburg Abolitionist Park Board.” The abolitionists, who were black and white, male and female, from the South and the North, who risked their lives and livelihoods for the anti-slavery cause, were in fact the greatest of these patriots in our history.”
The plays spread the message
Part of this history was brought to life at the ribbon-cutting ceremony through a three-act play performed and written by fifth year pupils from Frances Drake Primary School in Leominster and sixth year pupils from the school Intermediate Longsjo in Fitchburg, with input and assistance from The Forge Theater Lab. in Fitchburg.
The students played time travelers who returned to the abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement, meeting the likes of Drake, Douglass, the Grimkes, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
“The fight for black freedom has not been easy,” Thibault-Munoz said, “and in fact continues. Over the years, politicians have portrayed black activism as subversive and extreme in order to justify the criminalization of black voices and repression of black activists From the 246 years that slavery was legal on this earth, from 1619 to June 19, 1865, through the black freedom struggles of the 20th century until today today, with the Black Lives Matter movement, the work of black activists [is] most often dismissed as irrelevant or extreme, ignored, sometimes violently suppressed.
Danette Day, associate professor of education at Fitchburg State University and co-chair of the Fitchburg Abolitionist Park Board, said anti-slavery plays (also called pageants) were performed between 1911 and 1932 as part of the program of Fitchburg Normal School, which would become Fitchburg State.
The plays, Day said, “are another historic example of Fitchburg’s anti-slavery activism and educators’ commitment not only to keeping the knowledge of history alive, but also to ensuring that freedom and equality are ideals taught in schools”.
She later added, “As educators, while working daily to engage our students, we are reminded that freedom is not the end. It is a practice. We must all continue to work for social justice and teach honest and more inclusive history to achieve a truly diverse democracy.
Idea of the students
The idea for a park to honor the abolitionists who lived in and visited Fitchburg originated in August 2017 from an idea of Mount Wachusett Community College students led by Thibault-Munoz. Over 100 students and local residents will eventually become involved in the project.
In October 2018, Fitchburg State University donated three parcels of land it owns at 42-50 Snow St. for the park.
In 2019, Friends of Fitchburg Abolitionist Park was formed. Between 2019 and 2021, the group worked on plans for the park, cleaning up overgrown patches and securing grants from local and national organizations.
“Abolitionist Park is here because people in our community have stepped up … and said this is important,” said State Sen. John Cronin (D-Lunenburg). “We have such a rich history in Fitchburg and Leominster, the Twin Cities, during the most shameful time in American history. When America enslaved millions, Fitchburg’s rulers were on the right side of history and in danger to themselves and their livelihoods, they stepped up.
“We are here to celebrate today that we were on the right side of history,” Cronin added. “And that’s a legacy that we should celebrate. But… Juneteenth is also a time for us to take charge and take stock of where we are, and the work that remains. And there is so much work left.
For more information on Fitchburg’s Abolitionist Park, visit abolitionistpark.org.