While visiting the recent Salem witch trials exhibition at PEM, Fara Wolfson said she found herself particularly moved by the sight of the furniture and other personal effects that belonged to both the accused and the accusers. “It was this tangible connection to the people that was very powerful,” she said. “I was also struck by the fact it’s this same story that keeps getting repeated: the criminalization of innocent children and adults without any evidence.”
Wolfson is more familiar than most with the story of the mass hysteria that swept up the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 and led to the tragic death of 25 people. She is the Co-Chair of the Salem-based Voices Against Injustice (VAI), the all-volunteer organization responsible for the stewardship of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial on Liberty Street. Each year the nonprofit remembers and honors the legacy and lessons of the witch trials by presenting the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice to a person or organization actively fighting discrimination and confronting fear and injustice through courageous action.
This year’s award recipient is Cosecha Massachusetts, an immigrant-led movement fighting for permanent protection for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. PEM and VAI will co-host the virtual awards ceremony on Tuesday, May 25, at 7 pm, and the public is welcome to attend. The event will be the first bilingual celebration for VAI. Siddhartha V. Shah, PEM’s Director of Education and Civic Engagement, and Dan Lipcan, The Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library, are both VAI board members and will be among the evening’s speakers.
Left: Cosecha Massachusetts members march to advocate for passage of legislation that would allow undocumented workers to get driver’s licenses. Right: Members of the national Movimiento Cosecha, including members of the statewide chapter and their allies, marched in Washington, D.C. this month to bring attention to unfair treatment of undocumented immigrants. Courtesy photos.
Wolfson said VAI board members were impressed and inspired by the group’s mutual aid efforts to support immigrant communities who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic by providing financial assistance and food. Cosecha Massachusetts, part of the larger Movimiento Cosecha organization, has also been active in advocating for the passage of the Work and Family Mobility Act, which among other measures would enable undocumented workers to obtain their state driver’s licenses. Their grassroots efforts included a hunger strike, local marches and a 13-day, COVID-safe encampment at the Statehouse last July.
“Cosecha is a really powerful organization in terms of the courage, the heart and the authenticity of its members, all who are working tirelessly to protect human rights and fight for systemic change,” says Wolfson. In addition to the recognition, Cosecha receives a $10,000 cash award from VAI to support its ongoing efforts.
“This award is a really nice way to connect the past to the present and keep the lessons of the witch trials relevant,” Wolfson continued. “We are honoring Cosecha for their important work, but we are also seeking to inspire people to recognize their own power and channel it to stand up and advocate for justice. There are many ways to get involved and support organizations in the spirit of the Salem Award.”
For more than 300 years, the complex drama of the Salem witch trials and the themes of injustice have captivated worldwide attention. Even amid the pandemic and with occupancy limits in place, The Salem Witch Trials 1692 exhibition at PEM drew nearly 17,000 people during its run from September 26, 2020, through April 4, 2021.
The museum, which holds the largest collection of surviving Salem witch trial documents and related materials, plans to present a new exhibition on the witch trials this September. Next month, a new welcome center will open in the museum’s Samuel Pickman House on Charter Street as part of a partnership with the city of Salem. The center will be open year-round to provide visitors with information about the Charter Street Cemetery, established in 1627, and the adjacent Salem Witch Trials Memorial.
A view of PEM’s Samuel Pickman House on Charter Street and The Salem Witch Trials Memorial on Liberty Street. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Dan Lipcan, co-curator of PEM’s witch trials exhibition, said he’s excited about the opportunity to reach new audiences. The welcome center will make it possible to share interpretive information about the Witch Trials Memorial, a powerful tribute to the victims that was dedicated in 1992 to coincide with the 300-year anniversary of the witch trials.
Lipcan said he was honored to be invited to join the VAI board this past January. “My work on the witch trials exhibition and the many conversations we had about issues of social justice and tolerance and persecution has led me to seek greater involvement,” he says. “The events of the last year certainly got me thinking that I need to do more and I need to do my part to help us move society forward in a way that is productive and equitable and just.”
The Salem Witch Trials 1692 exhibition recognized the work of Voices Against Injustice and invited people to visit the nearby Salem Witch Trials Memorial. A new exhibition related to the witch trials opens at PEM in September. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
TOP IMAGE: Tompkins Harrison Matteson, Trial of George Jacobs, Sr. for Witchcraft (detail), 1855. Gift of R. W. Ropes, 1859, 1246. Photo by Mark Sexton and Jeffrey Dykes/PEM.