Boston’s African-American History Comes Alive Via Twitter

140 characters: just enough room to spew a witty joke, start a debate between Kanye and literally anybody, and bring American history to life.

In the past week, the Boston African-American National Historic Site’s (BAANHS) Twitter account has released a number of sequential tweets detailing the trial of an escaped Virginia slave, Shadrach Minkins.

The site sought to make history come to life by retelling it in a format both familiar for young audiences and one commonly used as a news outlet today.

News of the past became accessible by transmitting it through modern methods.

Shawn Quigley, an official park guide for the site, described his inspiration for the Twitter campaign.

“I wanted to tell [Minkins’] story without lecturing or just linking an article explaining what happened,” he said. “I started thinking about sensationalized trials, such as Whitey Bulger, and how reporters used Twitter as a medium to let people know what was happening essentially in real time.”

Shadrach Minkins, originally enslaved in Virginia, escaped to Boston where he took up residence and began work at a local coffee shop.

He was working when federal marshals arrived and took him into custody.

When Minkins was brought to a hearing, he could not testify for himself because under the Fugitive Slave Law, the U. S. government denied him citizenship.

As the hearing proceeded, hundreds of black and white Bostonians crowded into the courtroom, overcoming the armed guards.

Eventually, black abolitionists freed Minkins from the marshals and hid him inside a Beacon Hill home.

A day later, Minkins headed to Canada by way of the Underground Railroad, where he finally reached Montreal.

Quigley, in one of his later tweets, wrote, “Breaking news: Our sources have informed us that Shadrach has made it to Canada and is now free!”

Using social media for the campaign had dual intentionality. Quigley attributed this duality to BAANHS’s desire to increase its online visibility.

The Twitter campaign fits into that mold. But increasing its presence is not their only goal.

“It’s important to show that history is more than dates or lectures from a professor,” Quigley said.

The BAANHS has more dates and presentations, too.

The site displays permanent and rotating exhibits on local African-American history in an 1834 schoolhouse, runs special tours and outreach talks, and gives daily talks at its partner site, the Museum of African American History.

The Black Heritage Trail, a 90-minute, mile-long walking tour through the north slope of Beacon Hill, however, remains its most popular program for visitors.

“When most people think of national parks they think of Yosemite or Yellowstone—not downtown Boston,” Quigley said. “But we are unique in the sense that instead of protecting a natural resource, we protect a cultural resource.”

That cultural resource is the free African-American community on Beacon Hill that existed in antebellum Boston.

And though a story of abolitionist success, both Minkins’ story and the site remain mostly unknown by Bostonians and visitors alike, in stark contrast to the common knowledge of many of Boston’s surrounding historic sites.

Making the BAANHS more visible in the historic and popular communities relies on the ability to get the word out.

Using the most accessible form of media, the BAANHS sought to bring more attention to the site, its history, and beyond—to the national parks as a whole.

As the fall approaches, the National Park Service is celebrating the centennial of the creation of the National Park Service.

The park is also targeting the younger generation, especially those who are more technologically oriented, to increase both awareness and involvement in park service as a part of its “Find Your Park” campaign. By showing how the story would have been reported, it sparked renewed interest in the historic building.

Featured Image by BAANHS