For more than two hundred years, March 5 has been known as the anniversary of the Boston Massacre in the City of Boston.
But on Sunday, the city marked the day as Crispus Attucks Commemoration Day in honor of the man who is historically regarded as the first person killed by British shots on March 5, 1770. It’s a move that comes as the city aims to grapple with its own past and give a better picture of who Attucks was.
At an event on Thursday announcing the official commemoration, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu remarked that the narratives of the day often portrayed Attucks as white, erasing his mixed African and Native American heritage.
“Erasing the fact that a formerly enslaved man faced down British muskets for our nation’s freedom,” she said. “And erasing the historical fact that it was the courage of a person of color that stoked the flames of this revolution.”
Wu said that the acknowledgement of March 5 as Crispus Attucks Commemoration Day is in the spirit of the city’s new reparations task force, saying that that work must begin with a “recognition of the full truth of our history, the kind of truth on which meaningful healing and repair can finally be built.”
The move was applauded by Haroon Rashid with the Friends of Crispus Attucks Association, who said at Thursday’s event that many historians have recognized Attucks’ contributions.
“However, in the 21st century, few political leaders have publicly stated the importance of knowing that a man of African and American Indigenous descent became popularly known as the first to defy and the first to die for American independence,” he said. “And his name was Crispus Attucks.”
On Sunday, at the Old State House, one program focused on the impact of the many forms of political violence from the state. Nathaniel Sheidley, president and CEO of Revolutionary Spaces, said that while they didn’t know that Crispus Attucks Commemoration Day would coincide with that programming when they were planning it, they have been trying to center Attucks in their telling of the Boston Massacre for a while now.
He said that the commemoration is important not just for Attucks’ legacy, but for Boston.
“I think that one of the challenges that we face as a city is to tell the story of our city’s role in the nation’s founding in a way that allows all of our residents to see themselves reflected in that story and to feel a sense of pride in it,” he said. “And Attucks is a really critical figure. He reminds us that Boston has always been a diverse place. And that people at all levels of our society have been contributors to our journey together across 250 years.”
Sheidley also pointed out that while the city is officially recognizing a day to honor Attucks, the idea of a Crispus Attucks Day goes back all the way to the 1850s, when Black abolitionists chose to the use the anniversary of the Boston Massacre to make a statement about slavery. In the 20th century, the Boston Equal Rights League used the day to talk about the contributions of Black Bostonians and Americans.
“And I think it’s important that we recognize that this moment of inflection, kind of official blessing of the idea of Crispus Attucks Day, is thanks to many who have been advocating for this for a long time,” he said.
One of the speakers at the Old State House on Sunday was Charlot Lucien, founder of the Haitian Artists Assembly of Massachusetts. He said that there are a couple of reasons why recognizing Attucks is important.
First, he said there is the imperative to acknowledge the contributions of Black people to the American Revolution.
“So, had we erased Crispus Attucks in such a way that his name wasn’t known, his face wasn’t known, it would have been a missed opportunity for history and for the U.S. to embrace the richness of what happened in the U.S.,” he said.
He also tied the violence inflicted upon Attucks to violence that has historically been inflicted upon Black people across the world.
“And we need to relate a massacre in Boston to massacres that took place in other places and countries and states where Boston residents migrated from,” he said. “So, this interconnectedness that can be promoted through this should not be underestimated. It has value for Boston, it has value for Boston communities and for any other state or country that at some point relates to Boston through either migration, immigration or through history.”