Blazing the other freedom trail
Parks superintendent’s efforts boost Black Heritage path’s profile
For more than 60 years, the Freedom Trail has told the story of America’s struggle for freedom. About 1.5 million people walk the faded red brick trail each year, visiting such storied sites as Faneuil Hall, Old North Church, and the Paul Revere House.
But there is another Boston-based story of a struggle for freedom, one told by the lesser-known Black Heritage Trail, which explores the history of the African-American community on Beacon Hill in the 1800s and the abolitionist movement that was rooted there.
Now, thanks to a newcomer to Boston who saw this history with fresh eyes and found a way to reinterpret it, the trails have undergone a 21st century rebranding.
Beginning Memorial Day, when the city’s new $7 million visitors’ center opens at Faneuil Hall, the trails will be jointly known as Boston’s Trails to Freedom.
The idea came from Cassius Cash, who moved to Boston two years ago to become superintendent of two of Boston’s national parks - the Boston National Historical Park, which includes some of the sites on the Freedom Trail, and the Boston African American National Historic Site, which includes the Black Heritage Trail. The 1.6-mile walking tour illuminates Boston’s significant connections to the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad.
By Cash’s admission, he was a long shot for the job. He grew up in Memphis and had never been to Boston. He didn’t work for the National Park Service; he was trained as a wildlife biologist and worked for the US Forest Service.
Though he is African-American, until he started the job in Boston he knew nothing about the city’s rich African-American back story: that the African Meeting House was a nexus for abolitionist activity, for example, or that Massachusetts was one of the first states to declare slavery unconstitutional.
“I did not know there was a free black community at the time,’’ said Cash, 43, a compact man in a gray and green National Park Service ranger uniform and flat hat who likes to be called Cash.
“I didn’t know about the various characters and the boldness and courage they had to do the things they did - to take on this institute we now call slavery. The end of slavery started here,’’ said Cash, who two years later still seems energized by the story. “It happened here in the 1800s.’’
Cassius Marcellus Cash came to Boston - with his wife, Vonda, a dental assistant, and two daughters - from a very different world. Born in 1968, he was named for the legendary boxer and activist Cassius Marcellus Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali.
His mother was a cosmetologist, his father a retired police officer. As a city kid, “my life was pretty much lived through the television set, looking at different shows,’’ said Cash. A favorite: “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.’’
In part because of that show, he decided to study premed biology at the University of Arkansas. One day someone told him that the US Forest Service was recruiting on campus. Impulsively, he interviewed for an internship and got it, impressing recruiters with his love of the outdoors.
Other Forest Service positions followed, including district ranger, civil rights officer, and assistant forest wildlife biologist.
In 2004 he became the Nebraska National Forest’s service staff officer, and later deputy forest supervisor in a national forest in Oregon.
When he saw the posting for the Boston job, he applied, even though the only connection he could claim to Boston was a fondness for the Celtics. He easily got the job.
“He was very impressive in the interview,’’ said Dennis Reidenbach, the National Park Service Northeast Region director. “His leadership skills and knowledge of managerial-type issues was very high up, and his passion for excellence. He’s a very outgoing, very easy to talk with, people person.’’
But on his first trip to Boston after being hired, Cash immediately had second thoughts.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ ’’ he said. “I came across my first rotary, and heard those car horns as I tried to find my way under the Big Dig. It really hit me in the mouth.’’
Then there was the learning curve. “I had only heard about the Freedom Trail. I didn’t know anything about the Black Heritage Trail,’’ Cash said.
He became a man on a mission: to elevate the profile of the Black Heritage Trail to give it equal billing with the Freedom Trail. One of his first initiatives was to help secure $4 million in federal funding to complete the restoration of the African Meeting House.
“This is a powerful conjoined story that needs to be understood and celebrated,’’ said Beverly A. Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History.
“It could not have happened without him. It is huge, and very important to have someone who leads the National Park Service in Boston who is such an impressive and earnest leader.’’
Cash coined the phrase “Boston’s Trails to Freedom.’’ The two trails will have parallel signs and literature, and there will be an increase in the number of Black Heritage Trail tours, said National Park spokesman Sean Hennessey.
Significantly, tours of both trails will depart from Faneuil Hall. Previously, the Black Heritage Trail tours started “off the beaten path,’’ Hennessey said, in front of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial across from the State House.
“It was overshadowed by the Freedom Trail,’’ Hennessey said. “You’d almost have to stumble on it or seek it out on your own. Now you are going to have it more in your face.’’
One recent morning, Cash walked part of the Black Heritage Trail to show a reporter some of his favorite sites, including the Abiel Smith School on Joy Street, the first publicly funded schoolhouse in the country for African-American children, and the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House on Phillips Street, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Ever the forest ranger, he walked comfortably in short sleeves despite the 39-degree temperature, and navigated by checking to see where the sun was, a habit he said was left over from his forestry days.
The tour ended at the newly reopened African Meeting House, which was built almost entirely by black craftsmen and was a gathering place for such legendary players in the antislavery movement as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.
Seated in the first row of the understated hall, Cash reflected on its significance. “To me, this place speaks to you,’’ he said. “You feel the importance of what happened here.’’ His voice broke.
“I’ve been blessed to be here, at this time, to meet these people, to make this come together. I can show it to my kids and say, ‘your dad was part of this,’ ’’ said Cash, whose daughters are 16 and 10. “I get emotional just thinking about it.’’
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com.