By SUSAN DOUCET
When Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty asked for a student volunteer to step up to the microphone in front of the Dorchester Heights monument Thursday morning, Thomas Germain’s hand shot in the air. His explanation of what Evacuation Day means was succinct.
In one sentence, the third grade student at St. Peter’s Academy triumphantly announced that it was when the British left Boston, soliciting cheers from the elected officials, community members and students gathered for the historic Evacuation Day exercises.
“This is a special day in the city of Boston and Suffolk County,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said. “It is important for us to remember it every single year and continue to come back here”
In most communities, March 17 is celebrated as St. Patrick’s Day – and South Boston is no exception to this. But the community also remembers Evacuation Day – March 17, 1776 – a day that holds much significance locally. Overlooking the city of Boston from Dorchester Heights Thursday morning, elected officials and community members – most of whom were dressed in at least one article of green clothing – cordially honored the historic day, remarked on the current political climate, and looked ahead to Sunday’s parade.
March 17, 1776
The smell of gunpowder lingered in the air Thursday morning, following a ceremonial shooting of guns by a group of reenactors assembled next to the Dorchester Heights monument.
“The story of what happened here in 1776 is one of most outstanding tales of the American Revolution,” said Michael Creasey, National Parks Service superintendent of Boston. “This city resonates with stories like this.”
The wall along Thomas Park shares with visitors a brief synopsis of the location’s history: “As a final act of an eleven month siege, the continental army occupied these heights and forced the evacuation of British troops from Boston on March 17, 1776 – General George Washington’s first victory in the American Revolution.”
The occupying British forces evacuated Boston 240 years ago, after “colonial militia and local volunteers stealthily fortified the summit of Dorchester Heights,” as the U.S. National Park Service recognizes the historic events.
Evacuation Day, a historic event familiar to Bostonians, is not a widely celebrated date – though it was in the past, officials said Thursday. Evacuation Day is observed in Suffolk County and is often overlooked by people observing St. Patrick’s Day each March 17.
“There’s no other place in the world that was the beginning of the true idea of America,” said state Rep. Nick Collins. “It all began right here.”
St. Patrick’s Day parade
The morning was primarily dedicated to Evacuation Day, but St. Patrick’s Day was also recognized by many of the speakers.
“I’m as excited about our Evacuation Day this year as I am about St. Patrick’s Day,” Collins said. “They both speak to the opportunity that Americans and immigrants have to speak up for themselves and fight against tyranny, like the shortening of parades.”
The local state representative’s comment drew cheers and laughs from the crowd, as he also praised Walsh’s efforts to keep Evacuation Day as a recognized holiday.
The parade, which is organized by the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council and celebrates St. Patrick’s Day and Evacuation Day, passes by Dorchester Heights with its traditional route. However, that came very close to not happening this year. Less than a month ago, the city denied the organization’s permit for the traditional three-mile route. According to the permit for the shortened route issued in February, the route was changed to “mitigate public safety and congestion concerns.”
Community members and the parade organizers fought this decision. At the start of the week, parade organizers filed a lawsuit to be able to use the traditional route. On Tuesday, a judge ruled in favor of the parade organizers, allowing the parade to process as planned on Sunday.
Walsh touched about the parade route issue Thursday morning, a topic that has been highly contentious in South Boston.
“Right now our country seems to be divided, especially when it comes to politics. It’s a mistake to let elections polarize us,” he said. “We need to come together as a city and as a nation to move forward and to honor the sacrifice our heroes have made to protect our nation and principles.”
“There’s no doubt though that Bostonians 240 years ago had differences of opinions, whether it was politics or parade routes, they didn’t let their differences get in the way of them working together,” Walsh said.
Sunday, about 150 units will process from Broadway Station, through South Boston, and end at Andrew Square – the route as usual. One of those marching will be the city’s mayor.
“I will see you on the parade route, whether it’s on Broadway or Andrew Square on Sunday,” Walsh said, closing his remarks.
The South Boston Citizens’ Association – which is celebrating its 136th year – oversaw the 240th annual Evacuation Day events. Thursday morning, organizers – including SBCA President Tom McGrath, past president Bernie O’Donnell, and numerous others – celebrated the community, the March 17 holiday, and local students.
The winners of the citizen association’s annual essay and poster contest were honored during the ceremony. The contest winners – students at South Boston Catholic Academy, Boston Latin School, Boston Collegiate Charter School, Boston Latin Academy and St. Peter Academy – either illustrated historic South Boston or wrote about Henry Knox and general George Washington’s historical significance to Dorchester Heights.
Boston City Councilor Bill Linehan recalled participating in Evacuation Day events as a student and recognized the efforts of those, particularly the citizen’s association, who help preserve local history.
“We truly respect all the people who fight for the traditions,” Linehan said. “South Boston has always been a place rich in tradition.”