History is about stories — truthful stories, amazing stories, and sometimes, painful stories. Stories can thrill us, make us angry, enlighten us, and educate us. They let us share our thoughts and emotions and the things that are meaningful to us, today, by looking backward. They ground us by giving us context; by putting our lives in the perspective gained by seeing the lives of others that have come before us. Stories give us a yardstick to measure our lives; a yardstick that stretches back through the centuries.
While this project has been, so far, about unearthing the ore that has been buried beneath the surface of our history and bringing that ore to light, it is difficult not to follow the path that the research invites us down.
As with all biography, we cannot re-create those lives. We’ll never fully understand the motivations, the emotions, and the thoughts of our subjects. We can only use the crumbs of evidence that are left to us by the vagaries of time to piece together an approximation of a person’s life.
The narratives that follow represent a sample of the stories we’ve followed while working on this project. They represent the spectrum of the lives of people of color born before the Civil War. There are stories of enslaved people, indentured servants, free-born people, and people who gained their freedom. They include people who led amazing lives, the well-known and prosperous, as well as those that struggled. Most of the stories simply highlight the drama in the everyday lives of average people. All of these narratives are of people we encountered while digging deep into our region’s past.
Indenture Certificate of Susannah Freedom, Longmeadow Copybook and Misc. Manuscripts, Box 3, Folder 16. Collection of the Longmeadow Historical Society, Storrs House Museum, Longmeadow, MA.
Artist’s depiction of the first meeting of the League of Gileadites, 1851.
Springfield, MA; Richmond, VA
Alexander Hughes in the National Cyclopedia of Colored Persons, 1919.
Benjamin C. Putnam
“Champions of America for 1878,” photograph, Historical Society of Greenfield, Greenfield, MA.
Thomas Thomas (left) in the doorway of his Springfield restaurant. Courtesy of the Wood Museum of Springfield History.
Photo courtesy of the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, Springfield, Massachusetts.