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Local Government in Lowell: 1826 to 2022

Lowell’s political history begins with the grant of its town charter by the Massachusetts State Legislature in 1826. The charter brought a standard town-type government with selectmen and town meetings. But the city’s explosive growth as a center of textile manufacturing demanded a more activist system of government and so in 1836 the state legislature granted Lowell a city charter. This brought a more complex governmental structure consisting of a mayor and two legislative branches: a six-member Board of Aldermen (elected citywide by plurality vote) and a 24-member Common Council (with four elected from each of six wards).

A charter amendment in 1875 increased the number of aldermen from six to eight and mandated at least six wards but no more than twelve and allowed not less than two nor more than four common councilors per ward. The mayor, aldermen and councilors were all elected to terms of just one year.

The rapid turnover of elected officials due to short terms and frequent elections deprived city government of continuity. There were other structural problems with the system. While the mayor was the chief executive officer of the city, he shared executive powers with the six aldermen who operated much like a board of selectmen would in a town. To enact something, the mayor, the aldermen and the common councilors would all have to support the measure, so each body had a veto on the acts of the other. This often led to stalemates in city government.

Partly in response to this situation, Lowell voters passed a referendum in the 1896 election that made major changes in how power was allocated within city government. Under the new system (set out in Chapter 415 of the Acts of 1896), executive power was exclusively granted to the mayor although the council still had to approve all expenditures.

The structure of government was not the sole challenge facing Lowell’s elected officials at this time. A bigger issue was the cost of government which kept rising due to major investments in school and sewer construction. Certainly there were patronage hires both real and imagined but their actual impact on the city’s budget was surpassed by the major infrastructure improvements undertaken as Lowell and America transitioned to the modern era.

In 1910, a group of Lowell residents began pushing for a change in the city’s charter to the commission form of government. This system had originated in Texas ten years earlier and, by the time Lowell was considering it, had been adopted by more than 500 cities in the United States.

As proposed for Lowell, this new system would retain an elected mayor but would replace the larger city council with four elected commissioners who would exercise direct control over the functions of government. Early proponents wanted the commissioners to be appointed by the governor, but the plan quickly evolved to allow direct election of commissioners by the city’s voters. The business community, the local Chamber of Commerce, and leading figures in the Progressive movement all supported the measure. In a referendum on the November 7, 1911, state election ballot, Lowell residents voted 6,856 to 5,563 to adopt the commission form of government.

Although it was proposed and enacted as a reform measure, the commission form of government in Lowell had its own flaws. Individual commissioners were protective of their own departments and personality disputes made compromise elusive. Because the commissioners (including the mayor) ran their departments on a day-to-day basis, there was an impression that much of the commission’s activities were done in secret rather than in open meetings.

Also, during the first ten years of the commission government, only twelve different individuals held office either as mayor or as one of the four elected commissioners. Many residents saw this as undemocratic and those who were interested in holding office themselves felt excluded.

This rising discontent led to the creation of a 15-member commission to explore possible changes to the charter. This commission recommended that city residents change the form of government to one consisting of a mayor with full executive power (including the power to hire and remove all department heads and board members) and a 15-member city council with six councilors elected at large and nine councilors elected from the city’s wards (one councilor elected per ward). A special election was held on October 18, 1921, with the sole item on the ballot being the referendum question about changing the city’s charter. With turnout just over 50 percent, the new charter passed by 631 votes with 8,534 voting to change and 7,903 voting to retain the commission system. An election for the new offices would be held that December and the new government would take office in January 1922. Because the commission that proposed this new structure was led by former Mayor James B. Casey, the new system became known as the “Casey Charter.”

Not everyone accepted the change. Immediately after the first election under this new mayoral system, a group of residents began a drive for yet another charter change . This one would adopt Plan B, a system of government from the menu of city government options established by the state legislature in its 1916 “Act to Simplify City Charters.” Plan B was very similar to the new “Casey Charter” that had just gone into effect, however, it granted the mayor greater power over appointments to city jobs, boards and commissions, and made the mayor a member of the school committee.

In the November 7, 1922, election, a majority voted to adopt the Plan B Charter with 11,504 in favor and 9,854 opposed. Just six weeks later, on December 19, 1922, voters returned to the polls for the first election under Plan B. On the ballot were the office of mayor for a two-year term; six councilors-at-large for two year terms; and nine ward councilor seats, each for a term of one year. There were also six school committee seats, two for one year, two for two years, and two for three years.

Plan B remained in place for 20 years until Lowell voters again opted to change the city’s form of government. In the state election held on November 4, 1942, Lowell residents by a vote of 16,477 in favor to 14,135 against chose the Plan E charter which granted full executive authority to a city manager elected by nine city councilors who were elected citywide by proportional representation. Councilors would also elect a mayor from amongst themselves by majority vote. The mayor would be chair of the council, would be a member of and chair of the school committee, and would also be the ceremonial head of the city.

Under the proportional representation method (similar to what is today called “ranked choice voting”), voters would number their preferred candidates 1 through 9. When counting the votes, each ballot was allocated to the candidate marked number 1 by the voter. At the start of the count, election officials would establish a “quota” number which was calculated by dividing the total number of ballots cast by the number of seats to be filled in the election and then adding the number 1 to the result.

As soon as a candidate reached that quota in the number 1 votes cast for him or her, that candidate was deemed elected and no further ballots were attributed to that candidate. Any additional ballots on which that candidate had been marked number 1 were deemed excess and were distributed to whomever the voter had marked as number 2.

Once those excess ballots were distributed, the candidate with the least number of ballots on which he was ranked number 1 was eliminated and that candidate’s ballots were redistributed in accordance with the number 2 candidates marked on each of those ballots. That process continued until there were only nine candidates left. At that point, those nine were deemed elected.

On November 2, 1943, the city held its first election under Plan E. More than 29,000 residents voted. There were 100 candidates for city council. Because counting the votes in a proportional representation system was a lengthy process in the pre-computer age, the outcome of the November 2 election was not known until November 11, 1943 (and it was only then that the 200 city election workers who had been toiling at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium began counting the school committee votes).

Lowell saw ten years of relative stability in city government but that was shattered by a contested finish in the 1953 election that was ultimately decided by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court six months after the election. With that turmoil as a backdrop, Lowell voters wanted change in the next election. The target became not Plan E, but proportional representation. A referendum appeared on the November 8, 1955, city election ballot proposing that “plurality voting” replace proportional representation as the method of electing city councilors and school committee members. Under plurality voting, the nine city councilors would all be elected at large with each voter able to vote for nine candidates. The top nine vote getters would be elected to the council.

Proportional representation lost overwhelmingly with 21,498 voting to get rid of it and 13,989 voting to keep it. However, proponents of proportional representation challenged the legality of the referendum. State law required that a copy of the question be mailed to all voters before the election. The city had failed to do that so on March 12, 1957, a Superior Court invalidated the referendum vote.

The “out with proportional representation” forces did not give up. Over that summer, they collected sufficient signatures to get the same question on the 1957 ballot. On November 5, 1957, the voters of Lowell once again rejected proportional representation with 21,214 voting to replace it with plurality voting and 12,881 voting to retain it.

In the November 1959 city election, voters elected nine councilors at large from across the city. That system remained in place until 2021 when the current hybrid system of eleven councilors with three elected at large and eight elected from districts took effect.

Brad Buitenhuys on Lowell Litter Krewe

Photo courtesy of Not Just “K” Photography

Tomorrow there will be more of us

An interview with Brad Buitenhuys
about the Lowell Litter Krewe

By Babz Clough

Tell me about yourself.

I grew up not far from Lowell, and realized I could graduate high school a semester early, but I needed to have a plan. I applied for AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) for 10 months of national service. While waiting to join, I worked with a carpenter in Reading and he put me in the basement of an old Victorian house. He told me to pull out all the concrete and then dig out six inches of dirt, and then they were going to repour the concrete. It took me months but that was the beginning of my construction experience.

Joining AmeriCorps accelerated the construction thing. By the end of 10 months, I had worked on 100 homes and built playgrounds mostly in the Gulf Coast area. Volunteering became something that made me happier than anything. I joined AmeriCorps to travel and to try and find a home but I didn’t know where it was going to be. I traveled—New Orleans, Sacramento, Phoenix, Biloxi and a few other places along the way and the came home and enrolled at U Mass Lowell. Since then I’ve been a construction manager, surveyor, civil engineer and a carpenter. Lowell’s been home for 13 years and I don’t see that changing soon.

Having been here this long, why now for the Lowell Litter Krewe?

The idea came from the Lowell Canalwaters Cleaners. I’d been volunteering with them pretty regularly as they clean waterways throughout the city. I loved doing it and I loved hanging out with them. But I knew there had to be more people interested in volunteering and I wanted to share the passion and love that I have for it.

So I just thought: “I’ll add one more event each month.” Every two weeks seemed doable, and everyone would come clean up on one other Saturday. But way more people showed up and we did so much more than I thought, and everyone said “What are we doing tomorrow?”

And that’s how it started.

How did you initiate the group?

I started with Facebook. On EforAll Merrimack Valley there was a post on a Lowell Live Feed Forum about the little triangle of grass behind a local business. One person posted, “It looks terrible, I need help, it’s too much for me to do alone.” So we set up a meeting and posted it on Facebook. 35 people showed up. We cleaned there, and then down to the Connector, some of the backroads and neighborhoods, and just kept going. We had a blast and it looked so much better. And we had a giant pile of trash.

It’s more fun picking up trash with other people—I don’t like to pick up trash alone. Turns out there are lots of people who have more fun with other people—there are lots of people who are picking up trash on their own. It helped that there were some elected officials at the very first clean up so we received a lot of support from the city.

Do you think part of the interest was your timing because you started in March 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, and people wanted to just get outside?

Yes, we did one event in the fall of 2020. Then we started every Saturday beginning on March 13, 2021. We did almost every Saturday in 2021 until it got so cold it was miserable. We tried in November, an hour at the YMCA, getting rained on, almost freezing and yet 20 people showed up. We had 70 events the first year. We were coming out of the pandemic, coming out of winter, people wanted an opportunity to rekindle community, our city didn’t look good.

Do you ever find yourself getting discouraged when you have to clean the same area repeatedly? Or are you seeing less to clean up?

I have gotten better about not taking it personally, but I also believe it’s happening less and less. There are always places that don’t keep themselves as clean as you’d like. That little triangle we did: took all day the first time. In the summer, 3 people spent 30 minutes, and it took me 15 minutes in the fall. Now I could do it in 5 minutes. If we keep somewhere clean, it stays clean for longer. It’s 100% the broken window effect. The neighbors are taking the hint and fewer people are throwing things on the ground.

How do you get connected with other organizations? 

People reach out to us. Hosting huge, fun events that people keep coming back. People that are in networks of other groups.

So attraction rather than promotion?

Yes, with community groups, nobody should be forced to volunteer. There are 600 devoted volunteers who have come out and picked up trash. That’s 600 unique volunteers. We keep track of people who come to the events, and who’s a new volunteer. We’ve over 1000 followers on FB and similar on Instagram.

There are two phrases you use which always make me smile. Tomorrow there will be more of us is emblazoned on the vests and seems a self-fulfilling prophecy, but what about the second one.

We can have nice things: It’s the broken window effect. What’s under all this trash? That’s why I got the giant speakers for the truck, so people notice us. You can’t have nice things if you’re going to break them. I love this city and I want people to love it as much as me.

What’s the draw of Lowell for you?

Big food guy. Love being able to eat all the great nationalities and cultures from around the world. I’m happier out here in my cut-off shirt and shorts with holes in them. I’d rather be able to go without shoes but can’t do that. In college, I lived in Fox Tower. I walked across the front lawn in fresh snow in my bare feet one winter. And then it iced and stayed cold and frozen. You could see my frozen foot prints for weeks. Everyone knew it was me.

Where do you maybe see Lowell Litter Krewe going in the future?

Our mission is to support volunteer opportunities and create more volunteers. Our focus is on redevelopment of underutilized open space. We want to find willing investors into public land so we can develop our parks, make them more attractive and a place where people are safe and want to spend their time.

People complain “the kids aren’t going outside enough.” If we can find some inspirational, connective aspects for our public spaces and parks, bolster our playgrounds, and enhance our river walks, we all benefit. The city is making huge strides in these areas, but as a separate group, we can take on passion projects rather than “have to” projects.

We can make little wonderlands in all our neighborhoods.

Because the city has to focus on the big projects, there just isn’t the support for all the little projects. But kids live all over the city, and every kid wants to play on a cool playground.

Is there a plan to adopt a neighborhood program or adopt a park program?

Routine maintenance is something we try to avoid. Adoption and stewardship are critical for the long-term success of the city. We offer to come in and do the first round of cleaning, but then we hope people will just adopt streets and parks. Look at Vanna Howard’s Adopt a Street program downtown – she has 35 volunteers on all of our streets downtown. We want to replicate that in other neighborhoods. We’re trying to source funding so anyone who wants to adopt a street in another neighborhood can get a picker and bucket. It shouldn’t cost money to volunteer.

What do you want people to know who’ve never heard of LLK to know?

The spelling of Krewe is an homage to the second line Indians of Mardi Gras. The krewes are Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. We try to inspire our little trash band. It’s easy exercise and people can come out and meet neighbors who care about their city. There’s no category that we all fit in, other than that we care about this place. It’s not young/old, liberal/conservative, rich/poor. We just want there not to be trash on the ground.

Anything else?

We’re super excited to be starting our work with significant funding from the state delegation via the ARPA fund on the Centralville River Path. Our first major construction project will be at Gold Star Park. Thanks to the community outreach by DIY Lowell, part of Coalition for a Better Acre, we will be doing as much as we can to construct the collective vision of the community for this place. This is not just one person’s dream, but a community’s. We envision grading the trailhead to ADA so it stops eroding every year and it’s safe for people to use. We want to make the park more open and welcoming with a better view to the river so people feel safe. We’re going to add a pergola and some seating and start connecting the other side of VFW to the river.

Who else do you want to give a shoutout to?

Coalition for a Better Acre, Lowell Canalwaters Cleaners, Lowell Dept. Public Works, EforAll Merrimack Valley, and of course, the Lowell Litter Krewe Board: Karonika Pholy, Ami Hughes, Adam Roscoe, Tara Hong

How can someone get more info?

If you know an area that needs a good cleaning, give us a shout!

Brad Buitenhuys, 617-201-9916

Litter Krewe lowelllitterkrewe@gmail.com

https://www.lowelllitterkrewe.org/

And follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

Stats:

2021

  • 112,600 pounds of trash
  • 4,174 hours
  • 71 events

2022

  • 48,600 pounds of trash
  • 1,426 volunteer hours
  • 43 events – and it’s not yet summer!

The “Friday Night Lights of Hockey”

The “Friday Night Lights of Hockey”:
Jay Atkinson’s Tale at Twenty

By David Daniel

“Hockey gets in the blood—you develop an intense passion for the game, and either you leave it—too many early mornings, bus rides, urine-smelling rinks—or you just love it.”

Jay Atkinson is author of eight books, including the bestselling Legends of Winter Hill and the prize-winning Massacre on the Merrimack: Hannah Duston’s Captivity and Revenge in Colonial America. A new collection of stories, The Tree Stand, will be published in October by Livingtson Press. I sat down with Atkinson recently to talk about his book Ice Time: A Tale of Fathers, Sons, and Hometown Heroes, newly reissued in a 20th anniversary edition, and his friendship with his mentor and writing teacher, Harry Crews.

David Daniel: In his foreword to the new edition of Ice Time, Peter Fornatale, remembering first seeing it, as a junior editor at Crown, writes, “I was immediately transfixed by Jay Atkinson’s clean, muscular prose, and I could tell from skimming the first pages that his blue-collar, hockey-obsessed New England town was going to be an exciting storytelling milieu.”

Jay Atkinson: He came to Methuen in 2000 for the original book party for Ice Time. It was at the American Legion hall (laughs, remembering)—my rugby friends came, a lot of the teachers and coaches from high school came.  Pete came up from New York. That was the first time we met in person, other than when I went to NY when he bought the book. He was a young New York guy, grew up on Long Island, and he was taken with the northern Massachusetts rough-around-the-edges humor, the Boston-esque accent and sardonic humor. “No wonder you write about this,” he said. I told him I don’t know anything else.  A lot of my stories are set in the Merrimack Valley. I need to anchor the work in my home ground, which is something I learned from Harry Crews. The ground that you sweated and bled into is the ground you should write about. In this case, the hockey rinks you bled onto. (Laughs.) Which I have.

At that time, the late 90s, I was doing features for the Globe, outdoor stories, literary stuff, writing for magazines. I had a new novel I wanted to shop. I’d sent a copy of my first published novel, Caveman Politics, to the Michael V. Carlisle Agency and they liked what they saw and asked one of their  agents to reach out. So, I got a call from Neil Bascomb—probably their youngest agent. We’ re talking on the phone—our first time—and he asks what I’m working on. I told him I have this idea for a magazine story,  said I’d like to do the “Friday Night Lights” of hockey. This is twenty years after I’d played on the first team ever from Methuen High School, and I explained I’d go imbed myself—and before I even finished the second sentence, he said, “That’s a book. That’s what you should do next.”  Not the novel I was trying to get them to represent. “If you could get total access…” Which I could. I knew everybody in town. I wrote up a proposal and it happened. Next thing you know I’m going to NYC and having all these meetings, talking to editors. Several publishers were interested and the advance offers were all in the same ballpark but Pete Fornatale at Crown was the guy I wanted to work with.

DD: That was twenty years after you’d played, and the book came out twenty-five years after. Now fast forward twenty years since the book’s publication, and you’ve got a 20th anniversary edition.  That has to feel good.

JA: Pete Fornatale made it happen. He was like the angel investor. He said this book deserves another life. He got the rights from Crown. Got the electronic file. I played for the team in 1975, so, yeah, forty-five years. Pete reached out of the blue. He’s long gone from Crown. Said he was going to start this company PTF Press and publish only books he really likes and said, “What do you think?” He’s a one-man operation . . . and there ended up being a lot more work. But it’s out now.

DD: You speak often about Harry Crews—who, by the way, was featured in a recent New Yorker piece. He’s been an important figure in your life . . .

JA: Yeah. After I graduated from college in Nova Scotia, I enrolled at University of Florida. It’s funny, in years since, I’ve met people who went there specifically because of Harry Crews. I didn’t even know of him back then. It was an accident I got to know him. He’s a definitive authority on narrative structure, voice, character development, use of dialogue. Other than my father, he’s had the most influence on me of any man I’ve ever met. On a lot of levels, we had very little in common—he’s a Southerner, I’m a New Englander. We had a brusque first meeting. He’s a man with his emotions on his sleeve, a bit of a loose cannon. The first meeting in class I had just come from rugby practice, I had a black eye and it was my first week of playing rugby for the U of F team that ended up being a big part of my life. He spoke with a deep Georgia accent that was hard for me to understand, so I asked him to repeat something, and he must’ve taken it wrong. My first time in his creative writing seminar and he challenged me to a fist fight. I’m thinking, like what kind of a fucking college is this? Because at Acadia it’s guys from England and Wales and Scotland, they’re all super-genteel guys in tweed jackets. So, Harry says, “I don’t fuckin’ like your accent, let’s go out and settle this.” I said, “Okay. Let’s go.” He liked that.

He outweighed me by fifty pounds. But he was heavyset, a drinker, I figured I could just wear him down, like rope-a-dope. Everyone in class was shocked. As we start walking out, a classmate—a quiet-spoken Army Vietnam vet named Costello who I’d spoken to only a couple times and who knew Harry—says, “Harry what are you doing? The guy’s new to the class. He didn’t understand what you were saying.” Harry had been a Marine.  “Yeah, well I don’t fuckin’ much like his accent, either. What do you think of his accent?” Costello looks him in the eye and says, “It’s memorable. Just like yours.” Perfect. Harry backed off, and commenced the class. He asked if anyone had brought a story to read. No one spoke up. I said I have one.

DD: And you read it?

It was about a fistfight I’d been in college in Nova Scotia. A guy picked it with me. I ended up getting the better of him. It made a big change in my life. All of a sudden, I was universally accepted by everybody in the athletic community there. You know, ‘He’s the guy that beat up that guy.’

Harry listened, head down the whole time, occasionally nodding. When I finished, he leaned across the conference table. He’s six feet, long arms. I’m seated, he extends his hand. (Imitating gruff voice) “My name’s Harry crews. We’re gonna get along just fine, Slick, just fine.” And we did. I spent six semesters in the writing workshop, and on Friday afternoons, when he was in his office I go and see him. I tell my students (at BU), if you want to learn storytelling, you should come hang around my office. I went by Harry’s over the course of a year-and-a-half—maybe twenty times—where it was one on one. He knew I respected the craft.  After I left the program, we’d be in touch intermittently. And I saw him one more time in person, two years before he died. Visited him in Gainesville. That was the last time I ever talked to him. So, yeah, I talk about him because he taught me a lot.

DD: You were a collegiate two-sport athlete. Talk about the Skate & Read youth hockey program you founded in your hometown.

JA: One of the things I realized is that I’m in a different world athletically than I used to be. I’m not playing full contact hockey and rugby anymore, but I’m mountain biking, open-water swimming, hiking, some trail running. I went rock climbing recently for a story I’m writing for a magazine. So, I still have an athletic career going at my age, but when I think back, the two great loves of my life were rugby and hockey. Once I couldn’t play competitively anymore—after I left Canada, where I’d played at a certain level, I just played men’s leagues. Hockey gets in the blood—you develop an intense passion for the game, and either you leave it—too many early mornings, bus rides, urine-smelling rinks—or you just love it. Writing the version of Ice Time that was published in 2001, I loved skating with the kids every day, I’d be on the ice every day,  gym class and everything. I wanted to be able to keep doing this, so I thought I’ll just start my own youth hockey program.

My son is autistic and has a disability. The youth hockey coaches were ignoring him because he wasn’t going to be a big star in high school; but I knew he could learn to skate well enough to play the game. I said, screw these guys, I’m going to form my own program. In 2001 I didn’t realize any of this. I figured I was  just creating Skate & Read as a way of keeping my connection with the high school, that I was getting a chance to be nostalgic about the year I played in high school. But now, writing the epilogue to the new edition of Ice Time, I realize that the book is a paean to my love of the game, and how I share that love of the game with people through Skate & Read. The goal is to perpetuate the love of the game in our town. I’m paying my respect for how much I got out of the game, staring when I was thirteen— being a goalie and playing with twenty-year-olds. That was an experience I wrote about when I was in Harry’s class. It was the only story I ever wrote that he ever liked.

So, Pete coming around with this offer to republish Ice Time had given me the perspective, and I can now contemplate why it’s important to me that the book is rereleased, why I’m still doing the fun league twenty years on. The book taught me that reason. A chance to mentor players to coach and, in turn, mentor the kids below them, the five and ten-year-olds. To respect the game and play for the love of it. And this ties in with my passion for writing. It all comes full circle.

Juneteenth Walk in Lowell

As part of yesterday’s Juneteenth Festival, the Lowell National Historical Park hosted a Lowell Walk on Black History in Lowell. It was led by Maritza Grooms and Bob Forrant and was attended by nearly 50 people. Here are some photos and a summary of what was said at each stop:

Stop 1 – Lowell Manufacturing Company

The mill buildings that house the National Park visitor center were constructed in the 1830s as the Lowell Manufacturing Company, one of a half dozen of large mill complexes in the city. On the eve of the Civil War, the mills of Lowell in the manufacturing process consumed 400 tons of cotton each week. The cotton economy and system of slavery that propelled it were growing, not recessing, so slavery was not going to go away gradually. Also of note, the mills of Lowell made cotton cloth of all grades and qualities. The Lowell Manufacturing Company made inexpensive, rough but durable cotton cloth which was mostly shipped back to the south where it was made into clothing for enslaved people picking cotton.

Stop 2 – Mechanic’s Hall

The cream-colored brick building in the background on Dutton Street near Merrimack was known as Mechanic’s Hall. It was jointly constructed by the mill owners and the (skilled) mill workers to help advance the knowledge and capabilities of the city’s skilled workers. There was a library and an assembly hall where public programs were held. Among those who spoke there was Frederic Douglass who visited Lowell frequently. The first-floor spaces of the building were rented to retailers, one of whom was Nathaniel Booth, a formerly enslaved Black man who had escaped to the north and who operated a barber shop in Mechanic’s Hall. When the Fugitive Slave Act became law in the 1850s, Booth fled to Canada to escape recapture and return to the south. The people of Lowell, led by mill agent Linus Childs raised sufficient money to purchase Childs’ freedom so that he was able to return to Lowell. Mechanic’s Hall became a hotbed of abolitionist activity in Lowell with copies of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator newspaper always available there.

Stop 3 – Huntington Hall

The plaza at the corner of Dutton and Merrimack streets diagonally across from City Hall was the site of Huntington Hall which served as the city’s main train station and as a large public auditorium. It was from her that the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment left Lowell in April 1861 at the start of the war. Across the intersection of Merrimack and Dutton is Monument Square, the small triangle of grass in front of City Hall. The obelisk monument there is called the Ladd and Whitney monument in honor of Luther Ladd and Addison Whitney, two volunteer soldiers of the Sixth Regiment who were killed in a riot in Baltimore on April 19, 1861, as the regiment made its way to Washington. Ladd and Whitney were two of the first soldiers to be killed by hostile fire in the Civil War.

Also at this stop on the tour we heard more recent history of the Black people of Lowell including the story of Birdie Malbory, a Black woman who ran for the city council in the late 1970s, and of the Hale Howard and Central Plaza urban renewal projects that displaced the residents of established Black neighborhoods without regard for where those residents would live after their homes were demolished.

Stop 4 – St. Anne’s Church

Across Merrimack Street from St. Anne’s Church is the headquarters of Enterprise Bank. That building was constructed as Lowell’s first City Hall. The public hall on the second floor was available for non-governmental events. In the 1830s, an abolitionist from England named George Thompson came to Lowell to lecture on the evils of slavery. He drew a large audience including many young women mill workers but also caused a large demonstration of people opposed to the abolitionist movement. On the second night of Thompson’s program, the demonstrators grew more numerous and violent, throwing bricks through the open window of the lecture hall. One brick narrowly missed Thompson’s head and he cut short his talk.

St. Anne’s Church was constructed in 1824, two years before Lowell received its town charter. It was built of “rubble stone” excavated from the canal beds and was modeled on a church in Kirk Boott’s ancestral home in England. The church’s congregation included mill managers and mill workers. Many of the latter were active in the Lowell Antislavery Society which was led by the church’s minister, Rev. Theodore Edson. During the decades before the Civil War the church also was a stop on the Underground Railroad with those fleeing slavery hidden in the unfinished basement of the building.

Stop 5 – Lowell High School

Lowell High School was founded in 1831 and is thought to be the first co-educational and integrated public high school in the United States. Caroline Van Vronker was born in Lowell on August 26, 1830. She was the first Black person to attend Lowell High School. We also heard about the Lew Family which began with Primus Lew of Groton, a former servant who served in the French and Indian War and then became a prominent farmer in Groton. His son, Barzillai, moved to the part of Dracut that is now the Pawtucketville neighborhood of Lowell. He served in the American Revolution and after the war owned a large farm in Pawtucketville. His son, Erastus Lew, owned a house (that still stands) on Mt. Hope Street that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Another descendent, Harry “Bucky” Lew became the first Black professional baseball player in the United States. Still another descendent, Teresa Garland Lew became the first Black person to be a public school teacher in Lowell.

Stop 6/Conclusion – Lucy Larcom Park

In their concluding remarks at Lucy Larcom Park, Bob Forrant praised Martha Mayo, the retired director of the UMass Lowell Center for Lowell History who exhaustively researched and documented the history of Black people in Lowell. Her research provides the content of much that was covered on today’s tour.

Bob also explained that people in Lowell have nominated several sites in the city including Mechanic’s Hall to be officially named sites on the National Park’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

The work continues.

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