Because I’m still focusing on my microfilm projects, I haven’t had much of an opportunity to explore a new database – not that I mind, of course. This week, my assignments were researching the placement of the plaque outside the Seamen’s Bethel, and the construction of the original Tiferes (now Tifereth) Synagogue. Growing up in such a historic area, monuments or buildings such as these often go by the wayside. But when I took the time to research them, my perspective of New Bedford and its people changed greatly.
For example, while looking into the construction of the Tiferes Synagogue, I found myself learning a lot more than about the construction of a synagogue. I studied the three waves of Jewish immigration (Spanish/Portuguese, German, Eastern Europe), their struggles to establish houses of worship, and the movement of the Jewish community within the city itself. One of the outside sources I used provided a “Historical Tour of Jewish New Bedford” – highlighting not just the synagogues, but cemeteries, memorials, stores, and theatres. The Jewish community created not just a religious presence in the area, but cultural and economic presences as well.
All of this contributes immensely to the purpose of the study at hand – a greater understanding of New Bedford. People (and by people, I include myself) have a tendency to forget that history is a collaborative effort, consisting of multiple ethnicities and communities. Just because we don’t recognize the important contributions of various groups today doesn’t downplay their importance. It only shows how we have chosen to have our past remembered.
When we don’t take into account everyone involved, we begin to erase the importance of their participation. For example, Professor Miller told me the story of “The Whalemen” statue outside of the New Bedford Public Library. Initially, when the sculptor requested a model, a Cape de Verde man was sent to him. However, in order to represent the “early Yankee courage” of New Bedford, they instead sent over a white man.
Stories like this one are important – they give us insight into the ways we have rewritten history before. It is a historian’s job to interpret and present the past to each other and to the public – and therefore, it is part of my job to consider these revisions in line with the actual truth. As all historians must do (and as this project is attempting to present,) we must realize that there is always more to the story than what the past initially presents. History is such a major topic, and while it seems like a macroscopic subject, we should take “lenses” – religious, cultural, economic, feminist – in order to see microscopic views of times in history. We can’t overlook the contributions of these minority populations, because that’s only looking at a portion of the story. A better historian (and a wiser person) makes the effort not to fall in the trap of the past, and give us a fresher (perhaps clearer) perspective.