Collaboration, Compassion, and Expecting the Unexpected: Methods for Historical Research in Projects on Histories of Slavery and People of Color
By Emma Winter Zeig, Historic Northampton
At any museum, you get used to hearing the same questions from visitors. At Historic Northampton, many people asked us about slavery, and even more asked about the 18th century. As we put together an exhibit intended as an introduction to 350 years of Northampton history called Making it on Main Street, we wanted to address both topics. However, we found that while there had been great research done about slavery in Northampton, it was somewhat fragmented – a paper here, a paragraph in a book there. Historic Northampton had looked into the subject before, when board member Sara Lennox proposed research into the subject in 2017. We put together a feature panel based on what we knew in the spring of 2019, and then began the project of compiling the existing sources and finding new ones.
We have been working on this project since 2019, and in December 2021, I turned in our final report. At the beginning, I estimated that I would either need to complete the research myself and do nothing else for 8 months, or get a large team and work for two years. I’ll admit the first option was not a serious suggestion: this is not the kind of work that should be done alone. It requires long hours, and many perspectives. I was immensely lucky to have worked primarily with a wonderful team of interns. Truly, one of the most satisfying parts of this project was spending the past two years helping these students grow more knowledgeable about the past and more confident in their research skills.
Over the course of this project we have collected dozens of names and added to the biographical information of people we already knew about. It has been an incredibly rewarding research project, but this essay will focus less on the results, and more on techniques we used that I hope will be helpful to anyone trying to start a research project on this topic at their museum. When I first started, the amount of work seemed insurmountable, but I learned that as hard as it is, if you work with a great team it is attainable, even at a small museum.
How to Begin
If I could sum up my advice in one sentence, it would be to begin your project with a very specific goal: know what you are doing and why you are doing it. For us, it was beneficial to figure out the “why” first, and let it inform the “what.” Our project focused on slavery in 17th and 18th-century Northampton, because that was a time period and subject matter that are vital to our interpretation of local history. But there are a thousand reasons to start a project like this. Every project will look different depending on what works best for your institution based on conversations with your constituencies and assessment of your research focus.
There has not been a huge amount of scholarship on slavery specifically in Northampton, so after reading what was there, we went farther afield, reading about the Connecticut River Valley, Massachusetts, and all of New England. Casting a wide net worked for us, and we were able to pass on the resources we read at the beginning of the project to new researchers as they joined. As we were doing our own research, we consulted scholars of the history of race in the Valley to get advice on regional trends and terms to look for in our research.
One of the main results of this early research was my terms list, which I would give to every person who joined the project. They could type these into searchable sources, or scan for them in unsearchable ones, but either way, it would make them feel slightly less like they were looking for a needle in a haystack.
The terms we used that got the greatest number of results fell into a few major categories. Terms that directly referenced a person’s enslaved status such as “slave” or “enslaved” were useful indicators, but not incredibly common. Much more common in our archival sources were words that implied enslaved status without stating it. The most common of these was “servant,” a term that New Englanders often used euphemistically for the people they enslaved. Another indirect term was anything that referenced one person “belonging to” another, or a person acquiring freedom. Freedom could be written about in a few different ways, either as something given, bought, aged into, or taken.
The above terms often indicate the presence of an enslaved person in the historical narrative, but there are lot of gray areas in this type of research. For example, many of these terms could also refer to indentured servants regardless of race. In our research, we erred on the side of capturing too much data rather than too little. References that could refer to indentured servants were just one example of times when we recorded all of our findings, then returned to them lated to evaluate them further. For this reason, although the original goal of the project was to focus on enslaved persons, we ended up expanding our aims because we acquired a large amount of data on free people of color. We recorded every reference to a person of color that we found in the record, and this enriched our findings immensely, since it painted a more complete picture of the 17th and 18th-century Northampton community.
This brings us to the last major category of terms that were used to describe enslaved people: descriptions of appearance. For our project, these all fell into the category of collect and analyze later, since they give no indication of enslaved status. These terms are complicated: many sources will use complexion to describe people, but the meaning of complexion has changed a lot in the past few hundred years, and often it can have little or nothing to do with skin pigmentation. Some of these terms are also loaded with centuries of oppression. They may be important to use for searches, but anyone undertaking this research has to think seriously about how they are presenting these terms in their findings and in their conversations with peers.
I mentioned previously that I gave researchers secondary sources to read. This can be very useful, because not every member of team needs to have the same expertise as the people leading it. In fact, you will be limiting yourself if you are just trying to find people who simply duplicate your viewpoint or skills instead of adding to them.
Regardless of how you assemble your team, you will probably be dealing with a range of comfort levels with the period of history you are studying. I would pick out a few sources to have as required reading that dealt most specifically with the time period and geographic area (I regularly used Robert H. Romer’s writing on the Valley and Joanne Pope Melish’s work on slavery in New England, among others). For, but make sure I loaded up our shared drive with extra material on that covered a wider subject area. That way, participants did not get overwhelmed with a huge amount of secondary reading right out of the gate, but they also had a resource at their fingertips for when they were ready to learn more.
I encouraged researchers to come to me with questions. For our project, much of this research was done by excellent undergraduate student interns from UMass Amherst, Smith College, Hampshire College, and Amherst College, and I viewed it as part of my job to do the secondary research to support the questions that arose from their primary source readings. This was a great part of my job, because I always learned more myself when they asked questions.
The key with secondary sources is accessibility. Don’t assume that your participants have access to an academic library or the resources to purchase books. If you can go to your local public library or have access to institutional database resources, download readings or purchase them. If you want them to read something from a hard copy book, scan it or photocopy it.
Types of Sources
Though researching responsibilities will probably be shared between project participants, it is important that the person or group in charge of the project shapes the direction of that research, and is transparent about it, so that everyone involved can feel like they are working toward a shared goal. I began by using my list of terms to search the archival databases of all five local colleges. I would recommend this strategy to anyone starting their own project. Look at the holdings of local academic and public libraries, as well as taking a deep dive into your own collection. Think about every type of resource these institutions can offer you: archival papers, microfilmed newspapers and documents, and access to online databases. There are certain categories of sources that may be useful for you to seek out.
Church records were a great source for our project and could be for others as well, since there are multiple places where historical people could intersect with the record (birth, church membership, marriage, parenthood, death). If the congregations from your research period still exist, you can simply ask where the records are, but also be sure to check local libraries and special collections. Don’t discount online sources either. I found three different versions of Northampton’s church records published and digitized on genealogy websites.
Vital Records are useful for similar reasons as church records: there are multiple chances for one person to be recorded throughout their life. Vital records are also possibly even more frequently digitized than church records. You can get some of their data from searching genealogy sites, and if you are looking at a relatively small geographical area and can commit the time to it, you might want to consider just reading through them. Ledgers and day books (which contain financial records of individuals, households, and businesses) are not as frequently digitized, but can also be a good source of information about everyday life and interactions.
Probate records and judicial records are a high risk, high reward option in terms of the investment of time to review them. Each individual church or vital record is about 1-2 lines of text, but each will or court record can be anything from a few sentences to multiple pages, and you won’t always know whether it has information you are looking for unless you read the whole thing. However, this also means that when you get something relevant, you could potentially get a lot of information. One way to help in both of these cases is to familiarize yourself with the parts of these records that are just legally necessary official jargon, and will be the same in every single record. Skimming those sections for proper nouns could cut down on the amount of reading time you will need to devote to these sources. If you do not know where to find these or any other official documents, your local government may be able to help, even if the items are no longer in their possession.
Historical secondary sources are a bit of a double-edged sword. In most cases you want the most current knowledge on any given subject, but hyper-local contemporary histories can be worth a look. Someone writing closer to the time when the events took place may describe sources or documents that have since been lost or destroyed, or conversations with people who had direct knowledge of the events and are now deceased. However, you should be sure that you are remaining clear-eyed about the perspective of the people writing these histories, and the extent to which they are communicating facts vs. local legends. This is not to say that the legends are not useful, as they too illustrate the historical period, but they are not useful as representations of fact.
Newspapers were not a major source for my project as Northampton did not have a local newspaper for most of the period the project covered (the Hampshire Gazette appeared in 1786), but they are a big resource for many projects of this type. One thing that I learned from not having a local paper was the value of casting a wide net. Local news could be reported in nearby cities or even nearby states, so we were able to get some results from that.
A lot of projects like this can get use out of genealogy sites, but I found them less helpful for a primarily 17th-18th century-based project. I learned two things that were useful. First, looking in the library function of several of these sites can bring you to new primary sources. Second, if you are searching for enslaved people you will often run into problems because most of these sites are not set up to find people whose last names are not listed. Enslaved persons were often listed with the word “negro” in place of their last name, so plugging that in can get results, but be prepared to get creative in searching (try Freeman for emancipated people, and try looking backwards on family trees from people whose names you do know).
I mention family papers last because it may serve you to have these be the last big category of sources that you look at. You will probably find more results if you already know the names of the people you are looking for. Obviously it is useful if you have the papers of the people who you are trying to research, but because of the systemic racism at play throughout that last few centuries, oftentimes the records of marginalized groups were not saved. So, start looking for family papers that your subjects may appear in: friends, family, business partners, employers, and enslavers. It is useful to have as many names as possible before jumping in, because it will help you to find references to people who may fit your research parameters but are not identified as such in an informal document. In addition, all kinds of papers end up in a family collection: you can find indentures, deeds, and other official documents here too.
There is more than one type of person who can succeed at a project like this, so think about multiple experience levels and fields of study or interest. My experience with this project is that while it is always good to have someone who is versed in the subject area, that is a secondary consideration. I found that the biggest determining factor in how much participants were able to engage with the project was the experience they had with primary source research, regardless of what period or subject that research was on. On a similar note, make sure you are being upfront with potential participants about the type of work that will be done. If they are not up for reading hundreds of pages of sometimes hard-to-read handwriting, this may not be the right project for them to work on with your institution, and you may be able to work together to find something else.
If the bulk of your participants are interns, make sure that you are helping them get any available funding or course credit if you cannot pay them. Regardless of whether or not you are able to pay your interns (or volunteers who are early career professionals), I’ve found that it is a good strategy to try to give them projects that are able to be completed in their entirety during the internship and able to be described succinctly. This will help by giving them a concrete accomplishment that can be easily listed as they build their resume.
Every project is different, but I am going to outline a few of the organizational strategies that worked for me. I hope that some of them will be applicable to your projects as well.
I wanted each participant to feel a sense of ownership over the project, so as much as possible I divided up sources between participants so that each person would become very familiar with one type of source. This was sometimes hard because we had one large source (the Hampshire Council of Governments Records) that no one person could tackle, but we divided it up into different volumes. I had one volunteer who specialized in newspaper searches and church records, and another who got to know probate records very well.
Dealing with these big sources could be a lot of reading, and I wanted to make sure that all of the interns and volunteers that I supervised were building up multiple types of research skills while they were on the project. I also wanted to give them an alternate option if they needed a break from the dense primary sources. So I gave each person an additional side project that they could work on as they saw fit. For example, some learned how to do research in multiple sources on a single subject and others mapped the geographic locations of people we were researching.
I found that my most productive groups of interns were the ones who had time together as a group as well as with me individually. My interns worked virtually part-time even before the pandemic, but I tried to schedule one time when everyone could come in together for a check in (or later, a group video call), to build a sense of camaraderie, solve problems together, and celebrate successes together.
I can’t anticipate the types of challenges that will face you in your research, but some of the issues that I dealt with were universal enough that I hope a discussion of them will be useful to you.
Digitization and Gray Areas
It is highly probable that you will have to deal with some issues revolving around lack of digitized sources. This could mean that items are either not available, or not searchable. There may be little that one can do about that, but knowing it going in might help participants be prepared. That said, if you are dealing with a printed source, don’t give up on finding a digitized copy until you have done some internet sleuthing. Also, don’t be shy about emailing other institutions. We had some lovely correspondence and great help from other local museums who sent us document scans and gave us advice.
I have written previously in this essay about the gray areas that you may face in terms of what is knowable about people in the past, but I would just reiterate that you should keep clear in your notes exactly what you know about each person. Do not assume enslaved status because of race, and possibly err on the side of taking too many notes.
This one might sound small, but it is a big deal. You may have people in your group who have never read a handwritten primary source or did not learn cursive in school, and this adds a layer of difficulty to their experience in your project. Luckily, the internet is here to help. There are a lot of museums, archives, universities, and genealogy sites who have pages that specialize in graphology (or paleography). I made a list of my favorites and sent it to the whole group.
However, one issue I encountered with handwriting is that some people will struggle with it, feel like they are failing, and delay telling you because they feel embarrassed. Head this off at the pass by giving the group a talk about handwriting at the beginning, make sure they know that it is hard, that everyone needs to take it slow at the beginning, and that even experienced historians still ask for second opinions on words they aren’t sure about. If you’re not sure it worked, you can drive the message home by asking them for help yourself during a group meeting.
Our project involved a lot of sources and results that were few and far between. If yours is similar, you should be upfront with potential participants about this, and think of some strategies for combatting fatigue and discouragement. I tried to encourage good working habits, discouraging interns from completing assignments by working more hours than they had told me they could, and encouraging them to take breaks. Group meetings also helped with morale, especially if they could be in person (COVID-safe, of course). Thinking about how each person was working was also important: was someone close reading a source that they should be skimming? Did the task need to be broken down into smaller chunks so they could see the light at the end of the tunnel? If someone was struggling, I would try to see what we could change about their project so they could get a break, whether it was a new goal, a new source, or a new angle on their research.
The emotional well-being of the people participating in the project should be a top priority for anyone considering embarking on this type of research. It will involve reading sources that can be challenging for any researcher. Many times, if they find what they are looking for, they will be finding a text that dehumanizes people of color. The first step, I think, is to be transparent, talk about trigger warnings from the beginning, and make sure participants know there is no obligation to stay in a situation that is emotionally damaging to them.
If it seemed like any participant was dealing with a source that had a lot of dehumanizing or violent language, or that they were being affected by what they saw, I would make sure to check in with them—not to push, but let them know that I was there if they wanted to talk. Giving people space to talk was important in general. I tried to encourage participants to speak, and to be an active listener myself, with the idea that this would help create an environment where people would be more likely to tell me if they had a problem. If people did have an issue, I found the most helpful approach was listening to their experience and letting them lead the discussion to their areas of greatest concern. I also found that simply making sure participants knew their feelings were valid could be very important.
Lastly, and this might sound a little odd, but one thing that helped with the darkness in the sources was to take the light moments where we could, even if they were not part of the official scope of research. One of my groups of interns would share whenever they found a historical name they had never heard before (Preserved, Mindwell, and Waitstill were surprisingly frequent), and I know it helped the group dynamic that we were all regularly sharing a smile.
Names, or Lack Thereof
Historic erasure of people of color will present issues for your research. One big way that this appeared in our project was in how people were named. Many records referred to people of color as though they had no last name, and in fact, this was often an indicator that the person we were reading about was a person of color. It was common for us to find people of color referred to by a nickname, or by a reference to their race with no name at all. We wrote down every one of these, and treated every one as a separate person and worked later on to find facts that connected them. However, to this day there are some separate entries that we cannot be sure are not the same person.
The big drawback to the strategy I just outlined is that the links you need to connect disparate records can be very hard to find. The suppression and disregard for Black lives and Black history both societally and in many institutions mean that you might only find one reference to a person in one source. You could also get tantalizingly close to connecting different records, but never be able to prove your theory.
I wish I had a solution for this beyond diligent research and collaboration with other institutions. My advice would be to accept that the unknown will be a big part of your project, but also not to give up. I’ve gotten results from very unlikely sources. But none of this is a real solution. The closest we can come to that is doing everything within our power to make sure that we do not perpetuate these historical silences for the next generation through what we choose to collect, document, and research today.
I hope that this essay has given you some tips that will help you jump start your research.
Note: My List of Some Favorite Handwriting Websites!
Guide on 18th Century US Handwriting – This one has some of the same advice as others, but I like it because it has some interesting history on handwriting
UK National Archives Online Handwriting Tutorial – this one has a game with a ducking stool
Cambridge University Handwriting Online Course – this has examples where you can check yourself