Documenting the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut Valley

A Handbook for Massachusetts History Organizations

This webpage contains an online handbook that aims to support history organizations and their associated researchers in efforts to add to our collective understanding of the early history of Black life in the Valley.  Its most substantial components are:

1) A Research Guide hosted by the UMass Amherst Libraries — offered as a “LibGuide,” which is a widely used tool designed to gather and share library materials.

2) A Series of Essays offered by volunteers and consulting scholars who contributed to the five-month pilot project that unfolded over summer 2021.  These essays offer a range of guidance for history organizations and their communities, from nuts-and-bolts information on archival records and where to look for historical information; to how to prepare an organization for this sort of project; to larger issues involving relationships between predominately White organizations and Black history, historians, and audiences–in the immediate community and beyond.

Table of Contents

Section One: Introduction: The History, Scope, and Overview of the Project

Section Two: The Research Guide

Section Three: Forms and Templates

Section Four: Essays

Section Five: Acknowledgments

Section One: Introduction

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. The UMass Public History Program began receiving queries from organizations eager to better document these histories but unsure how best to proceed, given the higher degree of difficulty in researching enslavement 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, or enslavers, to tell broader stories about how a community’s economy and culture was inextricably entwined with the commerce of slavery?

UMass Public History and the UMass Amherst Libraries joined in an effort to try to address this pressing need by creating a partnership with the Pioneer Valley History Network (PVHN), a consortium of nearly fifty community historical societies and small museums in the three counties of the Connecticut River Valley that is a “resource for local history organizations in western Massachusetts—and the public they serve.”  Together they secured funding from the UMass Public Service Endowment Grant program as well as MassHumanities to carry out work over summer 2021, “Documenting the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley.

The project aimed to 1) build capacity among both PVHN and the (often all-volunteer) staff of its member historical societies and museums, as well as interested individuals, to better document and understand Black life in the Valley, including how those stories are unearthed from archival sources; 2) support new research on this urgent subject; 3) facilitate as participants (both organizations and individuals) draw connections between their findings, creating a whole that’s larger than the sum of its parts; and 4) support the development of new efforts to incorporating these findings into their practice, in its interpretation to audiences (the most immediate and obvious outcome) but also other practices, including collecting practices and policies as well as cataloging systems, so that this hard-to-find content is made more easily discoverable by future researchers.  Following an event at which researchers shared their knowledge of African American history in the Valley, a small set of local history organizations–selected by application to the PVHN–with the support of graduate student “research liaisons” from UMass, combed their collections for archival material related to the recovery of this history.  A dataset was developed to gather findings.  Researchers also developed a series of biographical writing that narrate some of the life histories revealed in the work.

The Scope

As the initiative was born of a shared recognition among local history practitioners that Valley organizations can and must do more to better understand histories of enslavement in the Massachusetts counties of the Connecticut River Valley, recovering the stories of enslaved people was among the project’s highest priorities. Illuminating stories of free Black residents of the Valley in this early period was also a pressing concern.  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 fell within the compass of this work as well. As our project at its broadest purpose aimed 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 was also a critical component of this endeavor. Finally, the project sought to support the aims and interests of the local organizations it serves, and followed their leads, responding to their unique resources and priorities.

This handbook advances those aims in a number of ways.  Part I brings together a series of essays from local history practitioners with experience and insight to share with their peers. Some of these authors represent organizations that participated in this grant; others represent neighboring Valley organizations whose work before and beyond this project shines a light on the path ahead for other organizations that wish to do similar work.  Part II explains the LibGuide built by UMass librarian Kate Freedman and Digital Projects Intern Emma Lewis, with input from members of the grant team and our project’s consulting scholars.  Part III shares research worksheets and other resources, and also helps users, should they wish to contribute information to the project dataset, to learn how to do so.

Section Two: The Research Guide

Researching the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley Research Guide

This Research Guide offers a gathering of resources for researching African American history, genealogy, and biography, with a focus on the Massachusetts section of the Connecticut River Valley. The lives of people of color, enslaved and free, throughout the Valley, from Vermont to Connecticut, were connected in ways too often hidden by the records associated with the past, as well as longtime history and archival practice; the guide aims to help researchers learn to surface those connections. It includes links to additional resources that dig deeper into the distinct methods required to recover historical information about African Americans in the Massachusetts section of the Connecticut River Valley, with emphasis on the eras from European colonization to the U.S. Civil War.

Developed as part of the “Documenting the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley” pilot project, it aims to support similar grassroots local history endeavors–from town-based historical societies to libraries and museums to other pastkeepers, like churches and service organizations–that wish to undertake research in local African American history.  It provides technical assistance to assist researchers who may be new to this subject area or to these primary sources.   

This Guide offers a detailed discussion of the many resources for this research at the W.E.B. DuBois Library and other Valley repositories and is arranged by resource category/record type. Each section offers an introduction to the nature of the genre under consideration, where you’ll find information about how to access, consult, and examine those records as well as advice for using these resources, often created by the property owning class, to locate the stories marginalized communities. We have also provided selected sets of recommended readings for those who wish to learn more about these subjects; a final section gathers resources for those who wish to learn more about the interpretation of histories of enslavement and freedom in museums and historic sites.

Please note that this Guide is only a beginning. It is by no means meant to be exhaustive. In order to both direct users to specific materials in area repositories and also suggest the kinds of things they might look for in their own search through area repositories, it lists known examples of archival material in area collections, in many cases located through publicly-available online resources. But one premise of this project is that similar material resides in collections throughout the Valley: researchers should always check with the small, local historical societies and historians who know their collections best. We welcome and encourage additions to the Guide using the contact info below.

If you have resource to add, fill out this form to suggest resources for the guide. For help in researching, you can receive reference assistance by phone (413) 545-0151 or online through the Ask A Librarian email and chat services.

Section Three: Forms and Templates

This project uses online forms to gather and aggregate research into a dataset. If you are a researcher interested in contributing to the project, or if you’re developing a similar project and would like to see a live copy of the forms as a model, please reach out! Click here to see a sample. Email pioneervalleyhistory@gmail.com.

Section Four: Essays

Section Five: Acknowledgements

First and foremost we thank our lead funders, MassHumanities (and particularly Katherine Stevens) and the UMass Amherst Public Service Endowment Grant program (and particularly Mary Green), for making this pilot project possible.  We also thank UMass History Department chair Brian Ogilvie for making available additional funds in support of this work.

We are deeply grateful to our core participating partners, who responded to the initial call to Pioneer Valley History Network members, for their time and energy, patience and flexibility, and willingness to undertake this difficult work alongside us: the Amherst Historical Society, the Belchertown Historical Association, the Forbes Library, the Greenfield Historical Society, Historic Northampton, the Longmeadow Historical Society, the David Ruggles Center, and the Wood Museum of Springfield History.

Across the Valley, we also welcomed the participation of other pastkeeping organizations who supported the project in a range of ways.  We thank Alan Weinberg at the Hadley Historical Society for opening the Society’s doors to researchers on several occasions; and Susan Lisk and Karen Sanchez-Eppler for lending enthusiastic support and inviting summer intern Lauren Whitley-Haney to devote time to this project. At Springfield’s Pan African History Museum USA (PAHMUSA), we are grateful to trustees Lauretta Peterson, Tony Bass and Sam Bradley, who have offered their observations, insights, and expertise.

Lastly we are indebted to 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.