The Swampscott Board of Selectmen put the town’s name among Bay State communities that have issued official proclamations commemorating the 106th anniversary of the Armenian genocide of 1915.
The Ottoman Empire’s systemic and mass execution and displacement of 1.5 million Armenians began on April 24,1915, largely marching them out into the Syrian desert without food and water.
“Armenian-Americans have been talking about this for the last century, and it’s really important for us to reflect and remember the atrocities that occurred,” Swampscott Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald told selectmen before they issued the proclamation on May. 3. “One of the hardest things is when [genocides] are denied, and justice is denied.”
When he was the Essex County Advisory Board’s budget analyst, Fitzgerald worked with former Peabody mayor Peter Torigian, whom Armenian-genocide survivors raised, for close to 15 years.
“To hear the stories of the displacement and absolute inhumanity continues to chill my thoughts about how awful folks can be,” Fitzgerald told selectmen. “It also reminds me of how fortunate we are to live in a society where our freedoms are protected, and our rights are protected.”
He added, “It’s important that we hold the past to account in spite of all those who choose to ignore the facts and the realities.”
Swampscott’s proclamation endeavors to “protect historical memory, ensure similar atrocities do not occur again and remain vigilant against hatred, persecution and tyranny.”
What happened 106 years ago is widely recognized by the world as a genocide, but it remains a point of deep contention for the Republic of Turkey. The country’s leaders deny genocide occurred, and they contend that both Ottomans and Armenians are responsible for the bloodshed.
The timing of the town’s proclamation carries significance: Its issuance arrives a couple days removed from President Joseph Biden doing what no American president has done: Call the Armenian genocide a “genocide.”
This holds significant weight because Biden’s use of the word formally places the Armenian genocide, in the eyes of the executive branch, in the company of others from the killing of the 6 million Jews by the Nazis to the killing of 2 million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge.
“We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history,” Biden said. “We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.”
Over the decades, Biden said the tragic history brought the genocide’s survivors to the United States shores.
“Of those who survived, most were forced to find new homes and new lives around the world,” said Biden said on April 24. “With strength and resilience, the Armenian people survived and rebuilt their community.”
Selectman Peter Spellios underscored Biden’s formal recognition as the right thing to do.
“There is a lot of importance [in Swampscott issuing this proclamation] especially given what President Biden did recently,” Spellios said. “His accurate reference of this as genocide, his accurate reflection of history. That we don’t want to whitewash history, and we don’t downplay this.”
Biden’s recognition follows resolutions passed in the U.S. Congress in 2019, formally acknowledging the Armenian genocide. Presidents and federal lawmakers’ reticence to ascribe the genocide label lies in the fact that many saw Turkey as too strategic an ally for the United States geopolitical and militarily to lose.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been at the forefront of the Armenian-genocide-recognition movement. She praised Biden’s acknowledgement, saying its “long overdue.”
“I commend President Biden’s decision to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide. Calling this atrocity what it was — genocide — we must recognize the horrors of the past if we hope to avoid repeating them in the future. This is an important human rights moment,” Warren said. “President Biden pledged to put human rights back at the core of U.S. foreign policy, and I applaud this affirmation.”
Swampscott’s proclamation falls in line with Massachusetts’ storied history as a sanctuary for Armenians and for its recognition of what happened in 1915. Massachusetts elected officials, both on local and state levels, pinned the word “genocide” to the horrific events as early as 1965.
Today, the Bay State claims the second-largest Armenian population in the country after California. Worcester is home to the nation’s first Armenian church, and the Armenian Library and Museum of American resides in Watertown
Since the mid-to-late 19th century and the turn of the 20th century, Armenians fled Ottoman persecution and oppression, finding refuge in Massachusetts – especially Greater Boston, Worcester and Watertown.
“In the years following the genocide, thousands more arrived,” reads an article on Massachusetts’ ethnic-Armenian population posted on Boston College’s Boston Global archive website. “By 1930, there were more than 3,500 Armenians living in Watertown—nearly ten percent of the population.”
The article goes on to read: “In subsequent years, the town would become a major center of Armenian culture and heritage, even as later generations dispersed to surrounding suburbs.”