One of the Independent’s contributors whose work is especially enlightening is Amy Whorf McGuiggan, who writes the Graveyard Shift column. She never fails to come up with a good story based on solid research.
I feel sure that one of the reasons we won a prize this month for our July 23, 2020 Arts & Minds section was that it included Amy’s piece “Remembering Rosilla,” about the freak accident that killed the Widow Bangs on Bradford Street in 1910.
Last month’s Graveyard Shift was about the Rev. Samuel Treat, who served the young town of Eastham as its pastor for 45 years, from 1672 to his death in 1717. The conventional view of Treat was that he was a devoted and beloved minister who cared for his flock with constancy and compassion, and that he demonstrated uncommon virtue by his interest in the indigenous Nauset people of the Outer Cape, many of whom he converted to Christianity by learning their language and teaching them Scripture.
McGuiggan places Treat’s story carefully in the context of his times, and the prevailing Puritan theology and system of beliefs, which looked at the world as a cosmic struggle between God and Satan. The Nauset people, in this worldview, were to be feared as hostile agents of the Devil, she writes. Looking at the actions of historical figures in context, McGuiggan demonstrates, makes it hard to judge them. What standard do we use?
Last Saturday, the New York Times published an essay that raised the same question. It was by the president of Planned Parenthood, repudiating that organization’s founder, Margaret Sanger — another illustrious historical figure with an ambiguous legacy and an Outer Cape connection. (She had a summer house on the banks of the Pamet River and loved this place so much she named her dog Truro.) Sanger’s accomplishments on behalf of women’s reproductive rights have long been celebrated, but her support for the racist pseudoscience of eugenics strikes modern minds as abhorrent.
Sanger once addressed the women’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan about birth control. One could try to understand the context. Sanger’s own journal about that experience suggests she was deeply troubled by it. Still, Planned Parenthood has decided to face her bad ideas and reject them unequivocally.
And since we’ve brought up the Klan, let’s note that Provincetown had an active chapter less than 100 years ago, as did Chatham and Hyannis. In January 1926, a cross was burned outside St. Peter the Apostle Church here.
We think history belongs in the news, not to pass judgment on those who are no longer among us but to help us judge our own ideas and works against the lessons of the past.