A Bell Cuts Through the Noise

Photograph Source: JiahuiH – CC BY 2.0

Dressed in full-on 18th-century-style tricorn hats and bonnets, Freedom Trail tour guides can look out of place amid Boston’s skyscrapers and bumper-to-bumper traffic. They keep the city’s Revolutionary past alive, but in 21st-century conditions.

The costumes and official stops on the Freedom Trail—from Old North Church to Faneuil Hall—have basically stayed the same since the tours began decades ago. But the way the guides tell the story of the Revolution has changed dramatically.

Reflecting on her 12 years working on the trail, Margaret Ann Brady emphasizes how guides today focus not only on the famous patriots, but also on “giving voice to the voiceless—the untold stories of the vast majority.” She says, “We open the story up to include enslavement and oppression, shifting away from the heroic tale to something more nuanced.”

Portraying actual 18th-century figures—from all-female militia leader Prudence Cummings Wright to enslaved poet prodigy Phillis Wheatley—these guides help bring Revolutionary War-era history to life in a contemporary way, foregrounding the perspectives of historically marginalized groups—in particular women, African Americans, and enslaved populations.

Thus, for example, while guides still bring tours to the Old Granary Burial Ground, the third-oldest settler cemetery in Massachusetts, these days they don’t simply point out the gravestone of John Hancock—Boston’s wealthiest man with the legendary signature—but also “Frank,” Hancock’s slave.

“I don’t know what Frank thought about the Revolution,” Chelsea Ruscio tells her tours, in character as Prudence Wright. “Did he think it was a step forward for freedom? Did he think it wasn’t his fight? Was he pulling for the British, since they were more likely to offer slaves freedom? I don’t know. But clearly John Hancock thought Frank was important.”

Her evidence? Unlike most enslaved people at the time, Frank got a marked grave.

Some guides, however, say the Freedom Trail Foundation—the nonprofit organization that runs the guided tours and employs the guides—isn’t always supportive of how the tours have evolved. Kelli Strong, who plays enslaved poet prodigy Phillis Wheatley on the trail, says, “They seem to want black faces, but not black voices.”

An American Studies graduate student at UMass Boston—where a major academic building is named after Wheatley—Strong is critical of the way guides are surveilled by Freedom Trail management. Strong says she has been ordered not to use terms like “white supremacy” on her tour, despite its historical accuracy. Several black guides also report being demeaned by Freedom Trail management, sometimes in response to complaints from customers who object that guides mentioned race or slavery on their tours.

“When most people think of 18th-century Boston, they don’t think of someone like me,” says Kathy Woods, a 14-year tour veteran who is both African American and a life-long Bostonian. On the trail, Kathy plays a freedwoman who bought herself out of slavery and now works at a tavern in the North End (relaying drunken British gossip to patriots).

“I try not to hammer people,” Woods adds, “but I slip the facts in.”

Voices at work

Freedom Trail guides like Ruscio take pride in how they “give people a genuinely honest account of the history.” But while the historical narrative has improved over the years, tour guides say their working conditions have deteriorated.

“It used to be that you’d have tours of just a handful, and a tour of 20 people was considered big,” Woods explains. “Now a tour of 20 is considered small.”

Tours of over 50 are common, and during busy season, tour groups regularly swell to over a hundred. At the same time, decibel levels in downtown Boston and the North End—where the tours are concentrated—continue to rise due to traffic and construction.

“Imagine speaking in the midst of a throng of angry dock workers,” says Brady, “except each one is also holding a chainsaw.”

Emma Weigand highlights the challenge of addressing large crowds by the Old Statehouse, located at the busy intersection of State and Congress Street, where guides deliver the crucial history of the Boston Massacre: “It’s utter cacophony, virtually impossible for a natural voice to compete with.”

Weigand, who has been giving tours since 2015 as Lydia Milliken, fiancee of Paul Revere’s riding companion, Samuel Prescott, is also pursuing a career as a professional singer. But her voice has been damaged from years of touring. Weigand says she “used to be a very high soprano” but has seen her voice fall to an alto, and these days struggles to hit notes that once came easily.

Weigand isn’t alone. Several tour guides in recent years have developed documented medical problems as a result of this long-term vocal strain. Ruscio was diagnosed with vocal nodes in 2014.

“The doctor told me, ‘You’ve got to stop talking,’” Ruscio recalls. “I said, ‘I can’t. It’s my job.’”

So then, last February, when the tour guides of the Freedom Trail voted overwhelmingly to unionize, affiliating with UNITE HERE Local 26—a union that represents thousands of tourism and hospitality workers across Boston—they were quite literally voting to protect their voices at work.

The unionized guides now refer to themselves as the Bell Ringers Guild, after an 18th-century labor affiliation founded by Freedom Trail favorite Paul Revere.

Why “Bell-Ringers”? As Brady puts it: “A bell cuts through the noise.”

And there is plenty of noise to cut through.

According to Boston University public health post-doctoral fellow Erica Walker, founder of Community Noise Lab, the area where the guides work, known as the “Tourism Corridor,” is one of the loudest in the city.

“There’s no place to escape the noise down there,” Walker explains, citing typical decibel readings in excess of 90 dB (the noise level of a food blender), and occasionally over 100 dB (equivalent to a garbage truck).

Amelia Broome, head of voice at Emerson College, agrees: “Voice production in a theater, acoustically built for the human voice, is completely different from what it takes to be heard in an open outside space. No human can sustain that level without danger of vocal injury that can in many cases be irreparable.”

Guides have made repeated requests to have unrestricted access to portable body microphones, but say their pleas have been resisted by Freedom Trail Foundation management.

Meanwhile, as background noise, vocal strain, and crowd sizes grow, tour guide pay has remained essentially flat. Starting base pay is still just $45 for a 12-stop, two-hour tour, plus $1 or $2 for each additional customer over the 10th person.

Guides also report being given demerits and suspensions if they fall ill and can’t find a replacement for their tour. In addition to portable microphones, the Bell Ringers are demanding a raise and a new policy requiring Freedom Trail management to hire paid alternates to fill in for guides who can’t make their shift due to illness.

“Real” work

The right to use a microphone, to have sick-day coverage, and to earn a decent wage are all central Bell-Ringer demands. But the tour guides are also fighting for something less tangible—workplace respect and recognition of their artistic labor. At the heart of the BRG struggle is a fight to have what they do recognized as genuine work that deserves respect and fair compensation.

Guides describe their job as a delicate and strenuous mix: they must be historians, actors, improv comedians, vacation planners, and even unofficial stewards of public safety—protecting large crowds from Boston’s infamous traffic—all at the same time.

“It takes a very specific skill set to do this job,” says Ruscio. “But people don’t see it as knowledge or expertise because it seems effortless when someone does it well.”

“We write our own scripts too,” Woods says, echoing a common refrain. “My tour is essentially a one-woman show.” She would know. Woods is recognized up and down the East Coast for her traveling performances as famed black abolitionist and early feminist Sojourner Truth.

Many members of the BRG have years of training and experience—as actors, singers, educators. They’re passionate about history, about performance, about helping people connect to Boston.

“I live for those moments,” says Milo Stein, who plays French General Lafayette, “when a person comes up to me and says, ‘Wow, that wan’t boring! If you were my teacher I might have been a history major!’”

In a USA where historical consciousness is reportedly on the dramatic decline, such infectious intellectual enthusiasm is a precious thing.

At the same, such love can also be double-edged. As tour guide Tim Hoover points out, “Management weaponizes people’s love and care for what they do against them. It’s happening all over, from healthcare to education.” Hoover, who guides tours as Josiah Quincy, recalls the day a manager looked him up and down in the office, noting his dark suit and tie.

“What,” the manager scoffed, “are you interviewing for a real job or something?”

The remark stung doubly. Tim had dressed up to attend a wake. And for much of the previous decade, giving tours had been Tim’s real job.

The same goes for a lot of the guides: This is their real job. During busy season, many give two, sometimes three tours a day, often working for several weeks straight without a day off. It’s a schedule that is flexible enough to fit with those pursuing artistic careers—acting, music, writing—elsewhere in Boston’s cultural “gig” economy, but it’s demanding nonetheless.

In some cases, people say they wish it could be their full-time job, if only the conditions were better.

“We Take Care of Each Other”

Boston markets itself as a cultural and artistic hub, yet artists here–like in many cities across the country–often struggle to earn a living wage, lack health insurance, and live from gig to gig in a state of anxiety as rents rise faster than compensation. This as guides generate gobs of money for their parent organization, the nonprofit Freedom Trail Foundation, as well as the city of Boston and innumerable retail businesses.

With more than 4 million visitors a year, the FTF’s own website boasts, “the Freedom Trail is a signature Boston experience responsible for generating over $1 billion in annual spending.” (That’s billion, with a B.)

“If I had a dime for every meal or cup of coffee I’ve generated in the North End,” Weigand reflects, “I’d have a boat by now.”

“For some folks, we are the only local contacts they have,” Woods says. “We are the ones who can tell them where they can get a good, affordable family meal. We help them find what they’re looking for.”

Judging by reviews on Trip Advisor, the guides are widely loved by their customers.

But management seems far less appreciative. After seven months of negotiating, the foundation continues to resist the union’s basic, common sense demands. (FTF management declined to comment on specifics regarding the ongoing negotiations.) Still, the guides continue fighting. The increased intensity of their work may fray nerves and strain voices, but it has also pushed them to see their labor, and each other, in a new and empowering light.

“We take care of each other,” is the refrain I hear from guide after guide after guide.

We take care of each other.

Whether it’s dealing with management, organizing support through GoFundMe for a fellow guide who has fallen seriously ill, getting a racist remark removed from TripAdvisor (after managers said it couldn’t be done), or helping each other with cool packs and fluids when the Boston heat index hits 110 degrees—the Bell Ringers have been acting like a union for a long time now.

And in an era when artists are increasingly encouraged to see themselves as competing individual “entrepreneurs,” the Freedom Trail tour guides example of solidarity and collective action rings out loud and clear.

You can learn more about the Bell Ringers Guild here

A version of this piece appeared previously in Dig Boston.