Recovering history: Community-based project researches early history of Black lives in the Valley

  • Thomas Thomas was a Springfield restaurant owner (he opened his restaurant in 1862) and abolitionist who was associated with John Brown when he lived in the city. Thomas is believed to have been a participant in the Underground Railroad and the League of Gileadites. MUSEUM OF SPRINGFIELD HISTORY

For the Gazette
Published: 7/7/2021 2:24:01 PM

Last summer, as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country, Marla Miller received a series of questions from the Valley’s historical societies about how to better understand and represent Black history in western Massachusetts.

Miller, the director of the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, decided to guide the societies on this mission.

“A lot of communities just didn’t really know that story of their past and wanted to know how they could,” she said.

This summer, local researchers are banding together to unearth the pre-1900s lives of the Valley’s Black residents. Participating historical societies across Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties plan to spend the summer digging into their archives to rediscover these important stories.

The initiative, titled “Documenting the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley,” is a collaboration between the Pioneer Valley History Network, UMass’ Public History Program and W.E.B. Du Bois Library. The community-based project is also open to volunteers who want to participate.

Specifically, the historians aim to document the lives of free, enslaved, and formerly enslaved Black residents, according to the Amherst Historical Society.

“Recovering the stories of enslaved people is the project’s first priority,” reads the project’s website. “But the Valley was also home to hundreds of people who came here having fled slave states before the end of slavery at the national level.”

The research presents challenges because Black history in the Valley hasn’t always been recorded in conventional ways.

“It takes a lot of digging and some special expertise,” Miller said.

A group of UMass graduate students are serving as research liaisons and helping navigate these challenges, as the historical societies decide how to best execute the project and understand their archives. The liaisons also serve as the first line of contact between the university and the historical societies and provide support wherever they can.

“We’re kind of building the plane while we’re flying it,” Miller said. “Our goal is to be open and flexible.”

One of the objectives is to create a database documenting early Black life in the area that will serve as a resource for future projects.

“We want to expand on what we already know. And also help connect stories across communities,” Miller said.

In addition to the database, participants also hope to create a guide to aid other historical societies in similar research. The guide would allow communities that didn’t participate in this summer’s initiative to explore their own Black history at a later date.

The project officially kicked off on the Juneteenth holiday with a virtual seminar where local Black history scholars spoke about the importance of the project.

The first phase will conclude with a capstone event that’s scheduled for Oct. 3, where the historians present their findings. However, participants plan to continue looking into Black history in the Valley after the end of the summer, as well.

“One question that we will ask at the capstone event at the conclusion of this project is ‘what next?’” Miller said.

The project is funded through Mass Humanities and the UMass Public Service Endowment Grant.

The organizations participating include the Amherst Historical Society and Museum, Belchertown Historical Association, the David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History and Underground RR Studies, Forbes Library, the Historical Society of Greenfield, Historic Northampton, the Longmeadow Historical Society, and the Wood Museum of Springfield History.

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