Dreaming of Freedom

By Michelle McDonagh, Contributor
December / January 2001

A new exhibit in Boston traces the city’s history as a gateway to the United States and freedom.

A state-of-the-art multimedia exhibition honoring Boston’s diverse mix of immigrants has opened to the public at the city’s new $3 million Dreams of Freedom Center.

Located at One Milk Street, the birth site of Benjamin Franklin Dreams of Freedom invites visitors to take a virtual journey through time as they explore the way Boston has changed over the past 350 years.

After New York, Boston is the second largest port of entry for more than 60 million immigrants that have come to the U.S. Today, one in four people living in Boston claim immigration ancestry, from the Irish, the Italians and Africans to the more recent arrivals from countries like Bosnia, Vietnam and Somalia.

The museum and exhibitions were developed by the International Institute of Boston (IIB), a nonprofit human services and cultural agency that provides services to refugees and immigrants ranging from English and literacy classes and job placement to housing assistance, legal aid and social services.

Many prominent Bostonians whose families immigrated here, including former Governor Michael Dukakis, were instrumental in raising funds for the museum, IIB executive director Westy Egmont explained, “The history of immigration is a significant part of the history of Boston. Dreams of Freedom will bring a sense of understanding to the immigrant experience and how that experience continues to shape this country.”

A main attraction of the exhibition is a multimedia presentation that retraces the epic immigration to Boston from the Puritans through the Irish Famine to modern times, and tells the story of Irish immigration through the eyes of Patrick Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy clan.

The Dreams of Freedom experience begins when visitors are handed a passport as they prepare for a virtual journey across the sea to Boston. A hands-on computer program gives people the chance to experience the changing gateway of regulations, paperwork and immigration law which has controlled the entry of immigrants over the years.

One of the first features of the exhibition is a virtual immigrant – a mannequin with a computerized face – who tells the story of Irish immigration and how the 340,000 Irish who landed in Boston between 1900 and 1910 alone nearly doubled the city’s population.

Visitors learn about the coffin ships sailing from Ireland during the Famine and how in 1849, four shiploads of Irish immigrants sank when a wall of ice unexpectedly loomed out of the mist.

The exhibition also describes how Irish regiments were among the most renowned of the U.S. forces during the American Civil War, and tells of the immense contribution the Irish made to the Industrial Revolution after the war, working in construction, factories and sweatshops. Considered the poorest immigrants ever to come to the U.S., many of the Irish did not have the money to leave Boston and go and look for better jobs elsewhere. Instead, they slowly worked their way out of the dingy tenements and over time rose to take their place in Boston society and politics.

IIB director of marketing Lisa O’Conell points out, “The Irish have done more than any other foreign group to shape Boston. They came from being the poorer immigrants to the builders of the new Boston. They became politicians, business people and mayors and still have a very strong political hold on the city.

“One of the things I would like people to walk away from this exhibition with is more tolerance of immigrants, no matter what their nationality,” she added. “Some people are really angry that the U.S. has such open borders. They feel that the immigrants are taking their jobs or going on welfare, but we help people learn English, get their kids into school and get them jobs. They are good people who pay their taxes and become productive citizens.” The Dreams of Freedom Center is open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $7.50 for adults and $3.50 for youths between the ages of 6 and 16. ♦

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