Bringing Mass Moments to Life

In late August, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities received word that it has been awarded $73,710 in funding from “We The People,” the National Endowment for the Humanities' American history initiative.

In celebration of our 30th anniversary, we are using the WTP money to produce a radio and Internet “almanac” on Massachusetts history. Beginning on January 1, 2005, AM and FM stations around the Commonwealth will begin broadcasting a one-minute Massachusetts Moment at least once a day every day of the year. Each of the 365 spots tells the story of a person, place, or event from the state's history.

Listeners who want to know more are invited to go to the website ( that we are developing with the help of webmaster Mark Roessler. In addition to streaming audio and a transcript of the script, there will be a background essay, a primary source, an image, and links for every story. A timeline and map will provide historical and geographic context. The site will be searchable by date, topic, region, and time period.

The hunt for Mass Moments has engaged—in some cases, obsessed— the Foundation's staff for the past year. We've found them everywhere: in the sports section of the Boston Globe (“Pittsfield celebrates link to game's origin,” July 22, 2004), in places we've visited (Walden Pond), in books we've read (A Perfect Storm) and movies we've seen (Good Will Hunting). Some of the best stories have come from humanities projects we've funded—“Lifting the Veil: Remembering the Burning of the Ursuline Convent,” “The Trial of Anthony Burns,” “The Moby Dick Marathon”—and films such as Murder at Harvard and Tupperware!

We asked local historical societies around the state to help. That effort brought us Lowell's Bucky Lew, the first African American to play on an integrated basketball team; Amesbury's George McNeill, “the father of the eight-hour day”; and Newton's Charles Redding, an African-American sailor who was serving on the USS Kearsarge when it sank the CSS Alabama in June 1864.

We've discovered that interesting things have a way of happening on the same day of the year—for example, February 20. In 1815, the Boston-built USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship in the Navy, captured two British men-of-war in an encounter off Madeira. On February 20, 1834, female mill workers in Lowell “turned out” to protest a wage cut in one of the first demonstrations of women's willingness to strike. And on February 20, 1874, Worcester tax collectors put up for public auction the home of reformers Abby Kelley and Stephen Foster because the couple had refused to pay taxes to protest the fact that women suffered from “taxation without representation.” Other days seem woefully under-populated by noteworthy events. So far, the only story for June 25 comes from 1630, when Governor John Winthrop introduced the fork to American dining.

Heard occasionally or every day, discovered by web surfers or regular e-mail subscribers, Mass Moments will fire the historical imagination of listeners and remind them of what we at the Foundation deeply believe and what most young children already know: that history is not boring when told as stories about real people and places.

Note: If you know of a good story from the history of your city or town, please send a brief description, including one or more specific dates to
[October 2007 Note: now contact Pleun Bouricius at 413-584-8440 or]

©2004 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2004