Black Autonomy in Documenting Black History: The Importance of Black Researchers and Black Voices in Recovering the History of Black Folks in the Valley
By Erika Slocumb, W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro American Studies, UMass Amherst
In November 2017, I was invited to Wistariahurst Museum by the then director, Kate Preissler and the museum archivist Penni Martorell. They let me know that they were embarking on a project that centered around locating Black history in their archives and the local archives within the area. This endeavor had been prompted by two experiences they had, the first encounter being the surprise visit of Albert “Terry” Griffin to the old Skinner home. He fondly remembered that his grandmother, Ada Peoples, had worked in the Skinner home as a domestic worker when he was a child. He remembered the fish in the frozen pond in the front of the home during the winter, running around the home sometimes while she worked, and sometimes picking his grandmother up after her shift. While his stories of his grandmother were consistent with what folks at the museum knew from their work preserving Wistariahurst, there was no direct information about any of the Black folks who worked for the Skinner family. Another fascinating discovery about Black Holyoke history at Wistariahurst was a plaque from the Monarch Club, a Black men’s organization in Holyoke. The discovery of the plaque in the Wistariahurst’s archive begged the question of what else was there? What other stories were missing from the larger narrative?
There were a lot of hours dedicated to understanding what already existed in the history about Holyoke, but knowing from alternative sources that there was a Black community in Holyoke dating back to the 1700s, then I had to ask myself: where were their stories and how did they already show up in the documented history?
What I found in the archives was that when historians did collect the history of Black Holyoke, there seemed to be a “color-blind” approach to the narrative. While this can seem inconsequential, it actually changes the way we think about who gets to claim space in Holyoke and how Black folks generationally think about themselves in relation spaces that they occupy there. Many museums and other institutions have begun to do the work of repatriating artifacts and diversifying their collections through a more moral approach—including working within their surrounding communities to expand collections and narratives.
The greater problem when it comes to Black history and culture in the museum is that the demographics, according to American Alliance of Museums, are not favorable for museums that focus on Black history and culture. And even when museums have a section or collection of Black art or history they are often curated and run by white individuals. While the history is on display, the lens by which it is presented is from a white perspective. Arguably, these individuals have sometimes been trained and may have expertise on Black history and culture; however, the Black voice and perspective are missing. So, when a project like the history of the Black folks in the Connecticut River Valley is presented and funded, the question remains, whose narrative is being told, from what perspective, and whose voices are missing?
The pathbreaking historian, collector, and activist Arturo Schomburg said, “The American Negro must remake his past, in order to make his future.” He believed that Black folks in America had to have autonomy over the narratives of their history and the artifacts of their culture. I hold this philosophy, that Black folks must control their own narratives because without cultural context much of our history, cultural practices, and their significance can be lost and historically has been lost. We have seen this happen in many instances throughout history, for instance in the Federal Emergency Relief Agency (FERA), and their Work Progress Administration Writer’s project (WPAW) following the Great Depression. One of the efforts of the WPAW project was to collect narratives of formerly enslaved individuals about their experiences while they were enslaved. The interviewers for the project were overwhelmingly white, and what was found, despite instructions not to alter the narratives, was that many of the stories collected by white interviewers painted the enslaved experience as more benevolent than those stories collected by Black interviewers. Though the reasoning for this difference is not documented, one might speculate that cultural and racial biases and differences have a part to play.
It was from the Black oral histories that we learned that Holyoke was a notorious sundown town—Black folks we relegated to certain spaces in Holyoke, specifically after sundown, and were not allowed to be in the “white” part of town. When this information was presented in the Reliquary of Blackness exhibit at Wistariahurst, there was pushback, specifically from white residents who claimed that it was not their experience growing up in Holyoke, despite this narrative being repeatedly told by Black folks in the community. My point is that when we do not center Black voices in the telling of Black experience, then the reality of life as a Black person in historically known white spaces gets lost and/or misconstrued.
In our current historical moment, there is a hypervisibility of Black people and Black experiences. I believe that this visibility of Black experience is necessary and extremely important. Yet and still even with such a hyperfocus on Blackness the full breath and texture of Black lives are not being fully articulated. The solution I believe to this is to utilize the resources and funding that are available to large institutions and to largely white public historians; and redistribute them to Black people in the communities where the work is being done and to the Black researchers and academics whose work is integral to the recovery and distribution of these narratives. Our responsibility, as public historians, is to the public. We should continue to challenge the history as it has been written, question what we know to be true, and continue to work hard to ensure that the authenticity of the histories and experiences of Black people in the valley. Their stories are fundamental to the history of the region. We must work to make sure that their voices are pronounced as we do the work.
I would like to acknowledge the work and faith of the Black community in Holyoke. Without their trust and help my work would not be possible. So, thank you to the Monson Family, the Griffin Family, the Westbrooks, the McCollums and Humbers, the Thomas family, the Kennedys and Jennings families. I especially appreciate the Bethlehem Baptist Church and their minister Pastor Paula Alexander for welcoming me into their congregation. To A’knesha Darkwah Davis, who was born and raised in Holyoke and worked with me on the Black Holyoke project from the beginning, I am eternally indebted. I would like to thank Marwa Atef Mohmed Amer, Dr. Kourtney Senquiz, and Olga Orbe who have helped me to articulate my ideas eloquently. And to Dr. Marla Miller for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and opinions on this project. Thank you.