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Part three in a series on the development of the Plymouth 400 anniversary.
PLYMOUTH – Deserving or not, events planned for Plymouth’s 400th birthday are being looked at by some with a jaundiced eye, and that’s not surprising. Few events or holidays on the calendar are celebrated with impunity, especially those rooted in history.
Over 400 years the anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival has grown in significance, complexity and controversy, and the organization designing the 400th commemoration – Plymouth 400 Inc. – has had to work hard to be sure all of those elements are honestly reflected in the events and activities they are planning for 2020.
“We want eyeballs on our website, and participants in our events, and tourists visiting our communities, of course, and so we’re working hard to make that happen,” Plymouth 400 Inc. Executive Director Michele Pecoraro recently said. “But the big, hairy goals that we want to make sure are part of everything we do are historical accuracy, cultural inclusivity and the enhancement of the Massachusetts brand.”
Enhancing the brand of Massachusetts may be the easiest part, Pecoraro says. It’s mainly a matter of putting a fresh, new shine on an already glittering gem. On average over 25 million people visit the Bay State every year, nearly 2 million from overseas.
The 400 staff has been working non-stop, traveling around Massachusetts (with the occasional trip to other states and to England) to spread the word about Plymouth’s 400th anniversary and the anniversaries of other Massachusetts communities that will follow in the years after 2020, hoping to convince a significant portion of those millions traveling to Massachusetts to put Plymouth, Provincetown and many other towns on their vacation itinerary.
Plymouth 400 is in constant contact with local experts, historians and native peoples to be sure that they have their facts right.
The big challenge for Plymouth 400, though, and a great deal of its focus, has been on cultural inclusivity, and for Plymouth’s 400 inc. that doesn’t just mean engaging native people, Pecoraro says. It means creating logos, events and activities that somehow sensitively consider the four distinct perspectives that this anniversary encompasses.
“There are at least four different stories here, four different perspectives,” Pecoraro said recently. “There is the perspective of the English and the world that they left behind, and then that of the Dutch who had a profound influence on the Pilgrims, the story of the Wampanoag who were here before the Pilgrims arrived and are still here today, and of course the compelling story of those first 102 Mayflower passengers.”
Pecoraro says that 400 Inc. also thinks of 2020 as a four-nation commemoration: England, America, the Netherlands and the Wampanoag nation. Their focus is on the colony that began in 1620, and its effects on the native people, but the other stories are important, valid and appealing.
“The Dutch perspective is almost more compelling than the English,” Pecoraro said. “They had a profound influence on the Pilgrims, who lived with them for 12 years. The Dutch saw the Pilgrims as refugees, that’s what they called them, ‘The Pilgrim Refugees.’ And not all of the Pilgrims who made it to the Netherlands came to America; many stayed there.”
The present-day Dutch had hardly given the anniversary a thought, Pecoraro says, until the Plymouth 400 Committee invited them to participate, and now, she says, they are eager to play a role in the commemoration.
Participation of the region’s native people, of the Wampanoag nation, has been a major goal of the 400′s efforts from the beginning, and Pecoraro says they are well on their way to achieving that goal.
The Plymouth 400 Inc. logo features a native person silhouetted against the mainsail of the Mayflower.
They have worked with Wampanoag artists and educators to establish several traveling exhibits that tell the often painful story of the Wampanoag’s’ interactions with Europeans.
400 Inc. has a Wampanoag Advisory Committee, Pecoraro noted, and that helps them to understand the native perspective on every aspect of the Pilgrim story.
Plymouth Selectman and 400 Inc. President Ken Tavares remembers a time not too far back when the relationship between the community and native people had deteriorated badly and he believes that the commemoration can help forge new bonds with the Wampanoag people.
“This is the first time that this has happened, that the Native American story will be told in their own voices,” Tavares said. “That’s very important.”
Tavares finds personal relevance in the Pilgrim story as well, and believes it has relevance to the nation.
“This is also a story of immigrants,” Tavares said, “a story that has as much relevance today as it did in 1620 and in 1820, and right now there is a spotlight on that issue. It’s the same story of courage and a desire for a better life. That was the story of my grandparents. I grew up in an immigrant section of Plymouth, went to the Hedge School.”
Tavares is also excited about how the commemoration is making the case for Plymouth’s role in the development of American democracy.
“For the first time in my recollection I see the town of Plymouth characterized as the cornerstone of the nation,” Tavares said. “This is far more than the story of a sailing ship, more than the story of the First Thanksgiving in the fall. It’s the story of Plymouth as America’s Home town.”
Will 400 Inc. be ready to tell the full, complex, and often thorny story?
In England the executive director of Destination Plymouth U.K., Amanda Lumley – the nominal head of their Mayflower 400 project – said she can’t think about the end because she’s too busy getting there.
“We’re heading towards 2020 at a rapid pace, working on many exciting projects,” Lumley said, standing on a cobblestone street in Plymouth, England in May. “We’re delighted to be able to work with all of these communities, especially Plymouth, and I am certain that 2020 will be an amazing year for all of us.”
Pecoraro has a similar attitude about their readiness, which she compares to building a house.
“When I first came on board with the 400 I had a staff meeting and I used a graphic of a house; we are building a house, on step at a time,” Pecoraro said. “At first no one can see what you are doing. You dig a hole for the foundation, you begin to frame it in. Gradually it takes shape and then people say, ‘Oh, that’s what you are building!’”
2020 is a year and a few months away. How does the schedule look?
“We are right where we expected to be,” Pecoraro said, and then added a new note of confidence.
“I say it all the time, but in the end this is going to be something we can all be proud of,” Pecoraro said, “our staff, the residents of Plymouth, all of the participating communities. This is an important story to tell, to tell accurately and honestly, and we are going to do that.”
Follow Frank Mand on Twitter @frankmandOCM.

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