What have we learned from General John Glover?

Aaron Berdofe


It is interesting in the current reporting and discussions around the Glover property that General John Glover’s perhaps most important contribution to history — that of putting together the first integrated regiment made up of European colonists, Native Americans, and African Americans — doesn’t get a mention.

Integrating was perhaps the only way he was able to get a regiment of the proper size to do things like row George Washington across the Delaware.

This is an important fact when looking at the role of historic preservation efforts that come into conflict with the building of much-needed housing. We are in the middle of a housing crisis that was in no small part caused by towns intentionally restricting the number of housing units and the kinds of housing units that could be built — in attempts to keep people of color from living in them.

Town governments have historically done this, initially with explicitly racist laws, and then once those were outlawed during the civil rights era, with exclusionary zoning by-laws to say, “Hey, we’re full of people now… sorry. We just happen to all be mostly white.”

Those exclusionary zoning by-laws are still in place today in Salem, Marblehead, and Swampscott. These towns also use “historic preservation” efforts — which are oddly only focused on a single era, and only the European-sourced variety of history — to delay or deny housing.

The source of this conflict between preservation and fulfilling the needs of the current regional population isn’t the Swampscott Historic Commission; it has neither the time nor the funding to evaluate historic value unless an opportunity is actively presented to them, as was the case when this specific housing development was zoned for and proposed.

Could it have been more proactive in the past? Probably. The problem is that this is how the system was designed to work. The laws of our Commonwealth force this conflict, whether intentional or not.

Many fans of history often view these skirmishes as battles to be won, but when they win, as they often do, the neglected victims of these stories are the people who desperately need a place to live and keep getting opportunities struck down by residents who are always eager to mobilize to loudly say, “Not here.”

So before we swell our chests with righteous indignation about the moral obligation of preserving history, we should ask if the leader of the first integrated unit in American history would want to be the cause of keeping segregated communities segregated.

We should also ask why we haven’t sought to preserve the rich Native American history that those during the historical slice we are trying to preserve attempted to erase.

We should absolutely keep connections to our history, but let’s make sure we are connecting to all of it — and that we are also learning from the lessons it can teach us.


Aaron Berdofe is a Swampscott resident.