COURTESY STEWART MARTIN PHOTOGRAPHY
LIVING HISTORY: In the yard at the Rhode Island Historical Society’s John Brown House Museum, walkers listen to the tour guide’s introduction before a walking tour begins.
Even the experts can discover new things in the midst of teaching others.
When local historian and tourism advocate Ray Rickman recently was leading a walking tour centered on the life of Edward Mitchell Bannister, a 19th-century African-Canadian painter who adopted Providence as his home, he knew his work wouldn’t be done until after the walk concluded – and maybe not even then.
“I’ll go back, and they’ll be something there I’ve never seen before. A couple of times someone will ask me a question that just floors me,” Rickman said.
For instance, a 12-year-old on a tour asked what the names of one family’s slaves were and Rickman did not know. He subsequently did the research and can now answer the question.
But walking tours, those who will run them throughout the summer say, are about more than teaching history. The tours help preservation efforts, thanks to the tours’ inimacy.
“It works here, because the scale of the city is small and the streets are friendly,” said Barbara Barnes, tourism-services manager for the Rhode Island Historical Society. “You don’t see in a car what you see on foot. You see the truth of what the city is, and you’re not just glossing over it. It’s just a great experience.”
Barnes has been guiding tours around Providence for about 20 years, the last 10 of which have been at RIHS.
The society runs its “A Mile of History” walk on Benefit Street every Tuesday through Saturday at 11 a.m.
Created in the mid-18th century, the street is an urban neighborhood as well as a museum-like collection of original Colonial homes, thanks to preservation efforts begun in the 1950s.
“It gives people a chance to hear a little bit about architecture, a little culture, a little bit about preservation,” Barnes said. “The preservation part of it is important. It’s the changing fortune of the most historic street in the city and the role of historic preservation in making that so.”
The Providence Preservation Society, whose founding in 1956 was proposed to begin preservation work on Benefit Street, recently began its second season of “Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk” tours.
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