In the wake of the Spring 2020 murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and ensuing wave of protests across the U.S., history organizations nationwide, as they published statements condemning racism, also asked what more they could be doing to help their communities better understand long histories of racial injustice. 

Local history organizations are asking similar questions. In western Massachusetts, some historical organizations have been focused on unearthing the Black history of their communities for years; others have turned to this more recently. All face a high degree of difficulty in researching histories of enslavement and freedom across the small towns of rural western Massachusetts. How can avocational researchers help uncover stories of enslavement and freedom? What sources reveal this difficult history? How can we locate and connect stories that cross the boundaries of individual towns and the records they generate? And how can we think beyond the identification of enslaved residents, and enslavers, to tell broader stories about how a community’s economy and culture was inextricably entwined with the commerce of slavery?

“Documenting Black Lives in the Early Connecticut River Valley” seeks to address this pressing need. This project is presented by the Pioneer Valley History Network, a consortium of nearly fifty community historical societies and small museums in the three counties of the Pioneer Valley that is a resource for local history organizations in western Massachusetts and the public they serve; the UMass Amherst Public History Program, one of the nation’s leading academic programs in public history; and the UMass Amherst Libraries, the largest publicly-funded library in New England and home to the papers of esteemed African American scholar, writer and activist and Great Barrington native W.E.B. Du Bois.

The project aims to: 1) Assist local historical societies, archives, museums, and other past-keeping organizations, as well as interested individuals in interpreting and presenting histories of Black life in the Connecticut River Valley. 2) Support new research on this vital subject. 3) Facilitate connections across local boundaries to create an understanding that is greater than the sum of its parts. 4) Develop mechanisms to aid future researchers, curators, interpreters, and educators in locating and sharing relevant resources.

The scope: This initiative was born of a widely-shared belief that we need to better understand histories of enslavement in the Massachusetts counties of the Connecticut River Valley. Recovering the stories of enslaved people is the project’s first priority. 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, and their stories fall within the compass of this work as well. As our project at its broadest purpose aims to understand the Valley’s relationship to the Atlantic slave economy broadly defined, surfacing narratives that help illuminate the consequences of enslavement for Black families, directly and indirectly, in the decades before the Civil War is also a critical component of this endeavor. Finally, the project seeks to support the aims and interests of the local organizations it serves, and will follow their leads, responding to their unique resources and priorities.

Over the summer of 2021, local history organizations based in Greenfield, Amherst, Belchertown, Northampton, Springfield, and Longmeadow, in formal association with this initiative, undertook deep dives into their archival collections, helping gather known material and uncover new insight into these Valley stories. But the project still welcomes contributions from anyone who wishes to engage in this urgent work! If you are an individual researcher or a member of an organization with records to share, please get in touch! Read more at the Get Involved tab, and find us at pioneervalleyhistory@gmail.com.


This project was undertaken with funding from the UMass Amherst Public Service Endowment Grant and MassHumanities and we are grateful for their supper at partnership.  We also thank the participating history organizations who joined this pilot project: Amherst Historical Society, Belchertown Historical Society, Forbes Library, Greenfield Historical Society, Historic Northampton, Longmeadow Historical Society, and David Ruggles Center.

We are deeply grateful to our consulting scholars for sharing their insight and expertise:  Joseph Carvalho, Ian Delahanty, Gretchen Gerzina, Marjory O’Toole, Ousmane Power-Greene, Erika Slocumb, and Emma Winter-Zeig.

We are grateful to these additional history organizations for their support and collaboration: Hadley Historical Society, Pan African Historical Museum USA, Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum.  We also thank Sharon Leon from OnTheseGrounds and Kristina Poznan from Enslaved.org for productive conversations about shared aims, and our evolving process.

Photo courtesy of the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, Springfield, Massachusetts.