How To Start the Work of Uncovering and Documenting Early Black Lives in Your Community

How To Start the Work of Uncovering and Documenting Early Black Lives in Your Community

By Melissa Cybulski, Elizabeth Hoff, Betsy McKee and Dr. Al McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society

The Longmeadow Historical Society is committed to its mission to preserve our town’s history and inspire public awareness of the people, places, and events that have contributed to Longmeadow’s history.  In recent months we have begun the work of building a more complete picture of Longmeadow’s past and we are uncovering and documenting the names and stories of the Black men, women and children who lived within our community during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Our goal is to bring forth the names and stories of these people whose historical record is harder to find.

We’ve known from an 1884 Centennial Book written to celebrate Longmeadow’s first hundred years that the First Church was built with a Negro Pew in the balcony, and that our first minister had enslaved people in his household.  Today, we feel strongly compelled to know more and be able to present to the public a complete and accurate account of the foundations of our community. We are fortunate to have a ten volume daily diary by that first minister, Rev. Stephen Williams.  It covers the years 1716-1782.  This is an enormous resource for us.  It details church and town affairs, weather events, political developments and has many mentions of his family, friends, neighbors and colleagues.  Through the diary alone we have been able to identify the names of at least ten people that he enslaved.  Williams’ diary is a window into daily eighteenth century life in Longmeadow, MA.  

Most towns do not have a resource like this.  Like us, most local historical societies are small organizations made up of dedicated volunteers with a passion for history, but no formal training in the field of archival research.  Don’t let that stop you.  Get started, and you will learn through experience.  We certainly have!

So, how do you begin to uncover the names and stories of the enslaved in your community?  We’d like to share what we’ve learned through this process:

  • As a general rule, as you do this work it is very important to document where you found your information.  Always note the source where you found any potential leads.  What box and/ or folder was a document in?  What book?  What page? Take a picture of original documents with your smartphone (or ask if you can make a copy).  Consider starting a photo album on your phone specifically for this project so valuable information is easier to find later.  
  • Read what has already been written.  You don’t necessarily have to start from scratch.  A very important text written on the subject is Robert Romer’s Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts published in 2009.  It is a great place to begin.  Also, check out  Joseph Carvalho’s book  Black Families In Hampden County, Massachusetts, 1650- 1855.  Your town might already have names and dates identified in these books.  An excerpt of Carvalho’s book  is available here
  • Begin identifying likely enslavers in your town. It was not uncommon for early ministers to be enslavers.  This may seem counter to what you expect, but it was a common practice among the religious leaders in eighteenth century Massachusetts and Connecticut to have enslaved people among their households.  They held it among their Christian duties to instruct them in the ways of Christ, while simultaneously subjugating them and using them for free labor.  It was a symbol of their status in the community.  Also try to identify the prosperous farmer(s)and merchant(s) in your community as they may have had enslaved people among their households as well.  If you have personal records relating to these families prior to 1790, spend some time going through them.  Letters, diaries, personal account books may hold valuable clues. Why prior to 1790?  Because the institution of slavery was no longer legal in Massachusetts by then.
  • Be on the lookout for common names among enslaved people: Peter, Dick, Caesar, Pompey, Phillis, Jenny, Joseph, and place names like Boston, Stamford, Bristol.
  • Search pre-1790 Vital Records for your community.  This means Birth, Death and Marriage records.  If records are not available online or through your town’s library, town hall, or genealogy sites like (subscription required) and, try reaching out to the clerk in your town hall for advice as to how to access these records.  You may need to go in person and sit in a closet sized room with musty smelling old books, but it is well worth your time.  Probate records are available through the database American Ancestors, hosted by the New England Historic Genealogical Register (though most of this database is behind a paywall, probate records as official public records are available). You are scanning for the word “negro.”  That is the term we’ve most frequently come across in our research.  You will sometimes get just an identification as “negro man died.”  But keep it in your notes with the date.  Sometimes you will see “Rev. Williams negro girl…”  Even better.  Keep track of it.  Sometimes you will get a name: “Peter Negro.” Keep track of it. 
  • Search Church Records.  Another valuable resource.  These include events like baptism, marriage, death, and dismissal from the church community.  Cross-referencing with the town’s Vital Records may provide crucial additional information.  For example, a town’s death record might say “Peter Negro died,” while the Church Records will note it as “Peter, Stephen Williams negro” thus giving you names of both the enslaved and the enslaver.  Church records can sometimes be found in your archives, on a town library website, or though the church itself.  If you speak with the church itself, you may need to encourage them to look for the books or ask around to know if anyone knows where they may have gone.  Did your town’s church keep records of early Pew Assignments?  In Longmeadow, a committee assigned seats for everyone in the congregation.  Again, in Longmeadow we know from old records of the church that there was a dedicated “negro pew.”  We sought out these pew assignments hoping to find names. All of the white members of the congregation are listed, but no free or enslaved Black people.  That in itself is telling since we know from church records that Black people were baptized into the church.  It may be different for your town, so it’s worth a look.
  • If you were a town that was once part of a larger town or city, you will need to think beyond your borders.  For example, Longmeadow was part of Springfield until 1783.  Longmeadow and East Longmeadow were one town until 1894. We were all part of Hampshire County, as were Connecticut towns like Enfield and Somers.  This means you should consider archival resources at your town’s “ancestral home” if you have one as well.  For example, Stephen Williams frequently mentions going “to town” in his diary to meet with people or attend to business.  For him, “town” meant Springfield.  Don’t dismiss old Hampshire County resources just because today you are part of Hampden County.
  • Tax Rate Information:  Check your archives, whether in-house at your historical society or perhaps at town hall,  for eighteenth century tax assessment documents.  For example, we have found the identities of enslavers in our town by looking at tax assessment records from the 1740’s.  In determining how much to tax a land holder, the town tracked the value of his livestock. An uncomfortable reality of the time is that  “Negros” was a column heading as an item to be taxed on that form. 
  • Daybooks and Ledger Books are valuable resources if you have them.  Begin with the Ledger Books as they will likely have a handwritten index and may include names of black customers.  Unfortunately we have found in most ledger books that black people do not appear in indexes, but a page by page search may reveal more.   If you have Daybooks, and a good amount of time on your hands, you can read through the daily operations of the merchant’s store.  A good merchant would record an itemized sale or credit.  In Longmeadow, we have found that the merchant Samuel Colton, himself an enslaver, records purchases and bartered labor by free and enslaved black people, always giving the last name “Negro” or “Negrow” to the person.  He also mentions the purchases of some of his own enslaved people in his account books.  
  • Pauper Lists:  Your town likely had an Overseers for the Poor committee and reimbursed certain residents for the care and keeping of less fortunate residents.  Often these transactions appear as part of town records under Selectman’s Orders and Treasurer’s Orders. You may not be able to tell a person’s race, but often it is noted if they are anything other than white; also, it is important not to assume that the providers are white and the recipients are people of color, as people of color also served as providers of care in the Connecticut River Valley. After the Revolutionary War period, last names like Freedom or Freeman are common among formerly enslaved people.  After the 1780’s formerly enslaved Black people were left destitute and may have been under the care of the town. 
  • Wills and Probates may be found online at sites like and American Ancestors. Not everyone had a will and not every head of household who died had a probated estate.  Few women had probated estates. For persons who lived in towns currently in Hampshire County or formerly in Hampshire County (eg. Hampden County was split off from Hampshire County in 1812), probate records can be found online via American Ancestors, hosted by the New England Historic Genealogical Register (though most of this database is behind a paywall, probate records as official public records are available).  For persons living in Connecticut in the period, probates may be found online at  If you have been able to identify a known enslaver, look for his or her will to see if there is any mention of the enslaved person as a bequest to someone else.  If so, then you need to follow up on the beneficiary as well.  Similarly, probates of a known enslaver’s estate are very helpful.  An itemized account may have been made of the person’s estate listing enslaved people by name and value among the rest of the deceased’s possession. 
  • Cemetery Records may also indicate if a person was something other than white.  Sometimes you will even find a cause of death.  
  • Collaborate with people within your organization and outside of your organization. Develop partnerships with other groups that might be interested in helping you with your search.  Eighteenth century handwriting is tricky.  It is really important to have someone you can reach out to for help reading and making sense of these documents.  In our group, we are frequently sending screenshots and camera images of letters or lines from documents trying to puzzle out what a word might be.  Transcriptions of early handwritten documents are not always accurate, but they can point you in the right direction. For example the WPA transcription of Stephen Williams diary says that Nicholas was “not concerned” to be sold.  Several other eyes on the original handwriting read it as Nicholas is “very concerned” to be sold.  There is a huge difference in that one word.  Double check the transcription, soliciting help with particularly difficult handwriting, if needed.  You have many allies in this field, particularly among the organizations participating in this project.  Reach out.  We learn more by being open to learning from each other.  If you don’t know where to start in building a collaborative group, contact the Pioneer Valley History Network and they can help point you towards someone who can answer your particular question. 
  • Federal and States Censuses:  Probably the easiest way to begin to identify free and enslaved Black people in your community in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century is through census records.  Why is this not listed first then?  Because it is important to recognize that the first federal census was done in 1790, and at that point slavery was no longer legal in Massachusetts.  There are a variety of ways to access the census, but websites like provide additional resources to help fill out the stories of the names and your community at a given time.
  • 1790 Federal Census. Only white male heads of households are named.  No addresses, occupations, birthplaces, ages, etc.  Simply 6 columns:  Name, White Males Under 16 years, White Males 16+, Number of Free White Females, Number of Other Free Persons, Number of Slaves.  Again, in Massachusetts, there would be no enslaved people, or at least there shouldn’t be.  However, you may find a number in the “Other Free Persons” column.  Make a note of the name of the head of household and use that person’s name to dig deeper.  At this point, and for the next several decades, the Black population is often on the move and often heading towards cities like Springfield to seek employment opportunities outside of agriculture.
  • 1800, 1810 Federal Censuses: Similar to the 1790 Census, with more of an age breakdown for Free Whites.  
  • 1820 Federal Census: Additional columns begin to track numbers and ages of “free colored males and females” under the following breakdowns: under 14 years of age, of 14 years but under 26 years, of 26 years but under 45 years, 45 years and upwards. 
  • 1830 Federal Census: Further breaks down ages of people of color within a household.  Columns denoting deaf and blind also appear.  The 1840 Federal Census is similar, but begins to track “insane and idiots” among whites and people of color as well.  It is important to note that the 1830 and 1840 censuses were two page forms. Persons who are not white are listed on the back page of the form. Both sides are in Ancestry, but the second side doesn’t have names so is not searchable. You need to find the census forms for your community, then go page by page through the census.
  • 1850, 1860, 1870 Federal Censuses: For the first time, in these enumerations each member of a household is named. There is also a “Color” column for the first time indicating whether a person was white, “W”, black, “B”, or mulatto, “M”. For the first time, you may get an indication of a person of color’s profession, place of birth, marriage and educational status. In 1870, you can see a male’s voting eligibility.  In 1880, the birthplace of a person’s mother and father is noted as well.  This information may prove helpful to you in the future.
  • In addition to the Federal Censuses taken, you can also access a Massachusett State Census for the years 1855 and 1865. These may prove important places to look as well.  “Color” was included as a category on each.
  • Have any Early Histories of your town ever been written?  It doesn’t matter if it’s published in 1850 or 1950.  Though one must be prepared to encounter racial bias that is sometimes present, these books can preserve old stories and genealogies of early residents of local towns.  Familiarize yourself with them.  Clifton Johnson (1865-1940) was a local historian and photographer who produced some early history books on our area.  His Picturesque Hampden  series of books from the 1890’s a good place to start. He did Picturesque Hampshire and Picturesque Franklin as well.  Hampden County 1636-1936 is another old history of the area filled with anecdotes of early power players.  None of these books are still in print, but check libraries, used book stores or online.  Sometimes whole texts of old books are available online as E-books with a searchable text feature to search for keywords.   
  • What about your own historical society?  What sort of Historical Memories has it written?  Ladies clubs, church groups and heritage organizations like Daughters of the American Revolution would frequently host teas where papers on local history were presented.  Do copies still exist? Old Newsletters?
  • Newspaper Databases are important resources for any time period.  There are fewer titles available in the eighteenth century, and different databases have different newspapers.  Be flexible in how you think about search terms. For example, a colleague was trying to find information about a 1732 court case in Springfield.  Having few specifics of the case she simply entered “negro” as keyword and “Massachusetts” for location.  She not only found exactly the case she was looking for, but many important leads on other results for the Massachusetts slave trade.  For Massachusetts, try 
  • Check out the Website for this project, Documenting Early Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley.  There are great articles and videos to help get you started. Also search the online archives of the Boston Public Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Library of Congress.  You can do this from the comfort of your couch.  The Boston Public Library has a large quantity of Indenture Documents scanned for view.  We have identified people of color through Indenture Contracts.  These contracts provide a wealth of information.  Play around with search terms, beginning with the name of your town or county. Perhaps you can be more specific if you have names of enslaved or enslavers to search.
  • As you journey through your work, consider starting a document to store all you are finding in one place.  We began a timeline called “What We Know and How We Know It.”  Working in this format has helped to better visualize and remember connections that have occurred.  It doesn’t have to be anything formal; the timeline aspect alone is a means of organizing findings.

We’d like to express our gratitude to Dr. Marla Miller for her help editing and revising this document.