Sweet Auburn: The Magazine of the Friends of Mount Auburn Lives of the Past Informing the Future - Page 7

sweet auburn | 2019 volume ii For Simmons, “Harriet Jacobs’s first person narrative being read and re-read and shared again and again is a chance to re- write and re/right history,” a corrective to the traditional historical narratives that tended to be one-sided. Few such narratives are told from the African American perspective from that period in history, making it easy for us to misunderstand what life might have been like for black women at that time. As Simmons puts it, “when you get the opportunity to actually read a first-person testimony, it is very exciting.” Simmons adds, “It is easy to be horrified by what we think black lives might have been like or even to romanticize their lives in some way, but truthfully these are just present- day ideas of life that we are applying to the past when we don’t have first-hand accounts to consider. Women endured hardships in the past, but they also laughed and loved, raised children, got married, got things accomplished even during the very hardest points of their lives.” She recalls the African proverb: “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.” In Mount Auburn, Simmons has found a place to discover a myriad of voices from the past. With more than 100,000 people buried or memorialized at the Cemetery, there are countless voices to learn from going forward. “Mount Auburn Cemetery holds history in its hands,” says Simmons. “It is a place where my interest in women’s history and African American history and LBGT history all dovetail together.” On September 29, 2013, Simmons, then Vice Mayor of Cambridge, presided over the dedication of a monument to nineteenth- century cyclist Katherine “Kittie” T. Knox (1874–1900), who is buried in a previously unmarked grave on Vesper Path (photos to left). In her day, Knox challenged perceptions of both race and gender in the cycling community and in society at large by riding an upright “men’s” bicycle and wearing self- tailored pants. Nevertheless, Simmons notes that many remarkable women—like Knox, Jacobs, Lewis, and Mary Walker (1818–1873, Lot 4312 Kalmia Path, who also escaped slavery and whose monument is pictured on page 4)—probably did not think of themselves as trailblazers, but rather just as women, human beings trying to live their lives with the same rights that were given freely to others in their society. “It behooves all of us to learn about other people’s stories and struggles,” says Simmons, “and every time we feel tired or weary with our lives today, to turn the page back and to remember those who have gone before us, those who made hard sacrifices (not always of their own choosing) and thereby made our lives more comfortable today, and whose shoulders we all stand on.” Denise is delighted that the Cambridge City Council recently voted to rename two streets in honor of prominent African American women with ties to Mount Auburn: North Street will be changed to Jacobs Street to honor Harriet Jacobs; and North Point Boulevard will be renamed Morgan Avenue to honor Gertrude Wright Morgan. Morgan was involved in the Niagara Movement and the establishment of the NAACP and is buried with her husband, Clement, in Lot 7503 Mound Avenue at Mount Auburn. In addition to these two streets, Simmons notes, “the Kittie Knox Bike Path is going to make a wonderful connection between East Cambridge and River Street!” Many people see cemeteries as places of death, but Simmons says she sees them as “places of life”: “if we all thought of death as a part of life instead of as the final frontier, then we might not be so traumatized by it. Not one of us is getting out of here alive, so we must embrace that, and prepare ourselves for it!” Simmons suggests writing your own obituary: “Too many women and LGBT people have had their lives sanitized by others, including their families after their death.” As part of her own preparation for the future, she has drafted a epitaph for herself: “Let the work that I have done speak for me.” 5