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African-American Teenagers Share South Boston's History With Visitors - 2004-02-21


Few American cities exhibit the kind of pride about their past that the city of Boston does. Founded by English Puritans nearly 400 years ago, Boston is considered to have been the cradle of the American Revolution. But the city didn't just stop making history once the United States won its independence from Great Britain in 1783. Nor did Boston's population remain as ethnically and religiously homogeneous as it was when the city was first founded. VOA's Maura Farrelly recently met up with a group of African-American teenagers who've made it their job to uncover some of the lesser-known stories from Boston's past.

As you stand on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston's South End, you see a neighborhood in flux. Victorian-era row houses line the streets. Some are a little run-down. Others have been lovingly restored. This is one of the city's poorer neighborhoods. The South End is also one of the most ethnically diverse, although it's still largely working-class … and black.

Sixteen-year-old Christina Tilghman stands in front of the house Martin Luther King used to call home. She says the civil rights leader got his start as a community activist not in the American South, but here in Boston, when he was a doctoral student at Boston University in the early 1950s.

"He helped lead a march that started from Carter Playground, all the way to the Boston Commons, and he was followed by 22,000 supporters who felt like there needed to be desegregation of schools," said Ms. Tilghman. "And this eventually led to the Desegregation Act in 1965 that was passed here in Boston that said no more than 50 percent of one race could be in one school."

This is just one of the many stories Christiana Tilghman gets paid to discover and share with the thousands of history enthusiasts who come to Boston every year. Miss Tilghman is a tour guide, hired by a group known as "MYTOWN." It stands for "Multicultural Youth Tour of What's Now." All of the MYTOWN guides are teenagers who grew up in the South End. They don't just read about the history of the neighborhood and then feed it back to visitors on a tour. They actually research and write the historical scripts themselves, verifying facts in archives and interviewing people who lived through the historic events they describe.

Sixteen-year-old Alyssa Arzola says it's easier to remember all the information you have to cover on a tour when you're one of the people who wrote the script. "When I first got here, we were making a tour of another neighborhood, Mission Hill, which hadn't been touched yet as far as MYTOWN tours are concerned," she says. "So learning that tour was easy, because I went to all of the interviews that we had, I was there when we did the surveys, anything that was involved with that particular project, I was present there for."

The MYTOWN project is funded largely through donations from philanthropic groups. Students work on the project full-time during the summer, which is the busy tourist season. During the rest of the year, they spend a couple of hours at the end of each school day putting together presentations that will be featured on the next summer's tour. The money the students earn is nice, but there are easier ways for a teenager to earn a little extra income. Christina Tilghman says she works at MYTOWN not because of the money, but because of the sense of ownership she now has over her community.

"I feel more confident in myself knowing that I'm well-educated, and I can go into a room and say, 'This is where I came from, this is what my people did, and I know about it.' Because a lot of people live places and don't know anything about it, feel no connection, and feel no pride. I've been living here for almost 15 years now," she says. "I think I want to say what I know about it and feel good about it."

And that's the main goal of MYTOWN, according to Marinell Rousmaniere, the project's director. She says MYTOWN is certainly interested in sharing south Boston's history with people who aren't from the neighborhood. But Ms. Rousmaniere insists it's the neighborhood residents themselves who benefit most from the project.

"It's hard to quantify, but it's incredibly powerful," she says. "I can tell you that because of the work that these young people have done, to value the people who live in this neighborhood, value the accomplishments of working-class, immigrant, regular folks, there's a sense of connection and civic ownership that you can't capture."

MYTOWN participants are developing a curriculum that they hope community leaders and students in other American cities will be able to use. But Marinell Rousmaniere says the process has been slow, because ultimately, no one wants to lose sight of MYTOWN's primary focus, and that is the city of Boston and the people who have made it what it is.