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The Old North Church, a Boston landmark, reckons with its role in slavery

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Boston's Old North Church is part of the story of the American Revolution. It was said to be used as a signal tower for American rebels. Now it's one of the historic landmarks along Boston's Freedom Trail, and historians are adding some complexity to its history. The revolution prompted Massachusetts and some other states to ban slavery, but slavery was legal there before the war, and some members of the church practiced it. From GBH News in Boston, Meg Woolhouse has more.

MEG WOOLHOUSE, BYLINE: The austere white steeple at Old North Church summons up images of American liberty, but the church is also home to some ugly truths about Boston's colonial history.

MATTHEW CADWELL: It's complicated at Old North because Old North is such a symbol of freedom.

WOOLHOUSE: That's Old North's vicar, Matthew Cadwell, who leads the modern-day congregation.

CADWELL: New England in general has done an excellent job of whitewashing our history. It touched every area of Boston, including the church.

WOOLHOUSE: Old North Church has embarked on efforts to share its fuller story, one where battle cries for freedom are entwined with enslavement and subjugation. As the church reckons with its past, it's not hiding those grim details and even inviting students and tourists to consider the paradox it represents. That includes ugly revelations by historian Jared Ross Hardesty about a vaunted member of its early congregation, Captain Newark Jackson.

JARED ROSS HARDESTY: Yes, he was trafficking humans.

WOOLHOUSE: Hardesty says it was fairly common for families to own slaves in 1700s Boston. But he learned that Jackson was a smuggler who traded enslaved adults and children for cacao, the bean that's a key component of chocolate.

HARDESTY: We found an entire smuggling ring that was smuggling cacao out of Suriname, and one of the products that they were exchanging for cacao were enslaved people, captives from Africa.

WOOLHOUSE: That shocked the foundation that runs the church as a tourism destination. Old North Illuminated had operated a popular tour spot called Captain Jackson's Chocolate Shop for a decade. The foundation's Nikki Stewart says after the revelations, it closed the shop down.

NIKKI STEWART: We just didn't want to continue glorifying this person that we had kind of plucked from obscurity who it turned out didn't deserve the pedestal.

WOOLHOUSE: Other changes have followed as Old North prepares to celebrate its 300th birthday next year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

WOOLHOUSE: The gilded pipe organ on the balcony still plays, but high school students on field trips also learn about the poor and enslaved who sat in the cold reaches of the church for services, far from the prominent white church members. And the people who were grinding the cacao? They were often slaves. Imari Paris Jeffries, director of Embrace Boston, a nonprofit dedicated to building equity in Boston, says the steps Old North has taken help foster empathy in a city and nation that needs it.

IMARI PARIS JEFFRIES: It helps other folks who are not of color understand how the plight of people of color has been intergenerationally charged in our country.

WOOLHOUSE: In a few weeks, the group will unveil a new monument dedicated to civil rights leaders along the Freedom Trail. On a recent afternoon, a stream of all-white tourists visiting Old North pass by Captain Jackson's Chocolate Shop, now a gift shop. Even learning the slave history, New Yorker Christine Postilli says she's still deeply inspired by the church's freedom story, while acknowledging the, quote, "sins of the past."

CHRISTINE POSTILLI: It's a very, very happy thing. It's great when people come together and fight for something together, right?

WOOLHOUSE: And it's in that spirit that Cadwell, Old North's vicar, says there's still work to be done. The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts recently approved a reparations fund related to slavery.

For NPR News, I'm Meg Woolhouse in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Woolhouse