Dotting the T’s and Crossing the I’s: Unconventional Paths for Uncovering the Black Presence in the Past

Dotting the T’s and Crossing the I’s: Unconventional Paths for Uncovering the Black Presence in the Past

By Carol Aleman, Greenfield Historical Society

Outlined below are four brief lessons I have learned on the paths I have taken as a relatively new researcher engaged in the Documenting the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley project. I should say at the outset that the biggest obstacle to my research may have been hearing repeatedly that the Historical Society of Greenfield didn’t have much. This seems to be a common refrain for small, rural organizations like ours. In order to begin this work, I had to trust in unconventional paths and outcomes that could be valued for their fabric, rather than their volume. The research trajectory, in some ways, developed quite on its own, and I hope that the lessons presented may serve as encouraging and informative. For me, the experience has been a meaningful way of broadening the lens through which local history may be shared and embraced. 

Stitch together what you can and declare it a start.

In the months before tackling the serious research, I searched in a slightly haphazard order both print directories for Greenfield (1873 forward) and census records from 1850-1940. Becoming familiar with family names helped me orient myself and gave me confidence to launch this work. 

Four folders stand out in my mind as somewhat random yet holding key information on Black lives in or around Greenfield: SchoolsEntertainment, Leavitt, and Disasters. The secret to identifying the individuals came largely in knowing the names to look for. One might correlate the amount uncovered in barely three months’ time with the population of people of color in Greenfield during the decades covered – never much more than 1%. 

Study the fabric, embrace the folds.

One day while I was helping our curator, whose title is not exactly curator, move some garments from one closet on the south end of the building to the north end where a rack had been readied, I was handed several waiters’ jackets from Greenfield’s long-discontinued Mansion House and Weldon Hotel. As we carried the items to their destination, I remember sharing the names of Black residents in town who by then I knew had been employed at these hotels. When I handed them one by one to our non-curator, I spotted the tag on a particular uniform. It read “O’Neil.” To have stood holding the uniform jacket of long-time Greenfield resident James O’Neil brought tears to my eyes. It was a totally unexpected moment and proof that the historical society did have something after all.

Look for the woven fibers that dwell in the fits and starts and amid the lives of others.

Starting out and observing that resources seemed scarce was disconcerting until I realized the importance of documenting some of what seemed a stretch but might be relevant another time. For example, having at one point come across information on  Greenfield’s George Davis, a white abolition-minded Congressman of the 1850s, I noted his name as a possible person of interest. Sometime later I spotted a newspaper clipping that reported how Black barber and fiddler John Putnam had provided the music and prompting at a party given by members of the Davis family – his sisters – in September 1873. The two threads had aligned!

On once seeing the Hon. George Grennell’s connection to the Franklin County Antislavery Society, I dug deeper and discovered an 1862 clipping reporting on the presentation of a special banner by his daughter, 23-year-old Ella Grennell, to the just-mustered (and assembled) 52nd volunteer Regiment at Greenfield’s Camp Miller. I scrambled to find a clipping of the same year, residing in my electronic folder and reporting that John Putnam had been hired to provide barber services to the regiment. A pattern seemed to be emerging.

Engage in new and meaningful styles of seeking.

Another day after weeks of visiting the library on the third floor of the historical society I recall walking in, looking around, and dramatically twirling in place and imploring to the walls, “Please point me in the direction of something I haven’t found.” My eyes fell upon a set of about a dozen black loose-leaf notebooks reinforced with peeling black duct tape. I knew them to contain the raw data Lucy Cutler Kellogg used to compile Greenfield’s vital records up to 1850. I grabbed the notebook identified with the letter P. Yes, I’d searched it before and found other John Putnams, but no mention of the Black barber. Yet again, my eyes passed over the pages and I sighed, “Nothing here. No surprise.” As I flipped the pages to the end of the book, however, I noticed that someone had used that same black duct tape to affix a large envelope cut in half so as to create a sleeve. Inside the half-envelope were newspaper clippings (almost exclusively obits from the 1930s) and a small note on white scrap paper, all pertaining to a different person whose surname began with the letter P. I read the obits and tucked them back into the sleeve, satisfied they were not relevant to my work. As I paused to examine the tiny piece of paper, I saw that written lightly in pencil at the very top were the words “John Putnam b. 1819 Boston. Married Julia Putnam b. Worcester.” The information was nothing new to me. But, it  communicated that someone from the 1930s or later had deemed it important enough to include John and Julia Putnam in the annals of Greenfield’s history. 

As I have contemplated the linear pathway that we are accustomed to follow in conducting historical research, I have wondered, “What if direction and order are not so important?” Might there be wisdom in taking less traveled routes – in turning to the east when the southwest seems less productive or in taking the time to free the stained and potentially useless pages caught in a jammed drawer to see what they might tell us? Perhaps one of the most important lessons I have learned beyond the above is to not lose hold of the proven methods for research but to be willing to welcome new ones when practical, and to always make a little room at least to dot some t’s and cross some i’s along the way – and see what happens.