#Sayhername in the archive: The Challenges of Researching Black Women in the Connecticut River Valley

#Sayhername in the archive: The Challenges of Researching Black Women in the Connecticut River Valley

By Ousmane Power-Greene, Clark University

With the emergence of #Blacklivesmatter movement, scholars, teachers, and archivists have turned their attention to their own fields to lift Black people out of the “dust-bins of history” and onto the front table. Although African American scholars and civic organizations, such as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, have done this for over a century, the new enthusiasm among archivists and educators for such research and preservation signals an important opportunity to show that, indeed, Black lives do matter -especially in the Connecticut River Valley where Black people have never comprised a significant number of residents.

My essay, then, offers a black historian’s perspective about the challenges and rewards of researching black women in local historical repositories. In so doing, my essay addresses issues black researchers face – from the trip to these local historical archives and museums to uncomfortable interactions with white archivists and curators when searching for resources on black women. These issues certainly overlap with concerns others or less experienced researchers confront. The first part considers my own personal reflection on the metaphysical aspects of doing work in local archives in predominately white towns, as well as how my research on the colonization movement has been perceived as a threat to prominent local white “gentlemen of property and standing.” Second, my essay considers ways local historical organizations and archives that could encourage black researchers by foster a collective spirit of among those who seek to research black women in the Connecticut River Valley.

Listening for Black Women’s Voices in the Archive

While such work might feel overwhelming to some, pathbreaking scholarship over the past two decades has demonstrated the crucial role of Black women for how we think about our most cherished historic topics and people. From Gretchen Gerzina’s 2006 prize winning book, Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend to  Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s 2018 biography of Ona Judge, Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (Simon and Schuster, 2017), researchers have outstanding models for how to use scant archival materials to write compelling histories of Black women in the Connecticut River Valley, specifically, and New England, more broadly. Not only is Armstrong Dunbar’s treatment of Ona Judge noteworthy, thematically as well as theoretically, but she demonstrates how one might “do” Black women’s history in New England by reading “against the sources” for insights about Black female subjects as well as drawing from a wide array of documents in order to complete a historical reconstruction of a self-emancipated Black women who lived in New England. 

Yet, there are those who might wonder about the value of using this methodology. Some might even ask if it’s worth a historian’s time to scour through small historical archives for bits and scraps of sources when such forays often result in minimal finds. Furthermore, do Black women – especially those once enslaved – have lives that matter more broadly to how we understand American history? Setting aside the banal claim that “all lives matter,” should researchers bother pursuing obscure Black women who lived humbly in small New England towns? Scholars I know who study African American history, broadly, and Black women’s history, specifically, have pulled me aside on more than one occasion to vent about a conversation where a colleague or archivist asked some version of these questions. 

Despite the acceptance of social history within the academy, the historical profession continues to be shaped by the biographies of “great [white] men,” and privileges archival research over other methodological approaches to researching the past, such as the use of oral histories. This privileging of archival sources poses a particular challenge to those who research and write about Black women – especially those who were enslaved. Few people who preserved such materials actually believed Black women’s ideas, as expressed in diaries, speeches, letters, or notes, were worthy of a box in state or private archival collections? Given this reality, researchers who seek to find these resources confront cynicism and even hostility when they perceive a researcher’s motives for uncovering documents might call into question the pious or noble image of White gentlemen of property and standing who often preserved materials for posterity. 

My own research on the colonization movement is often perceived in this way. Despite searching in archival records of white men in Connecticut river towns for letters from Black women who wrote for funds to leave for Liberia, archivists and museum professionals have no choice but acknowledge these men supported colonization of black people in Liberia. Because the colonization movement has been branded an anti-black movement, those white men who funded the movement are often considered “racists.”  In biographies of these white men, historians often downplay their association with the colonization movement, and, therefore, the records of their involvement become of little concern to those researching and writing about the person in question. In the past, I have felt like an archivist perceives my interest as if I’m searching for “dirt” that might sully the reputation the “great white man.” In an age when marble statues of founding fathers have been toppled, this fear of exposing a respected local figure can have has real consequences for how the public views him, or even, celebrates him (masculine pronouns intentional). You might be thinking, ‘Come on, Professor. Don’t be absurd. We’re in New England, after all. What do we have to lose if we allow a Black scholar to dig up information in our archive about a respected father of our city or town?’ Well, actually, I guess that depends on how much a town’s reputation has been built on the shoulders of the particular person. One need not look any further than Amherst College’s choice to change their mascot from the Lord Jeffs to the Mammoths for an example of what I mean.   

All conspiracy theories aside, I do believe our towns and communities are dotted with the family names of people whose behavior or views we might find reprehensible today. What’s my point? Black scholars who research about Black women in the archive walk into these spaces fully aware that their very presence might (not always) threaten the idols of the tribe. And, in my case, I see challenging the “idols of the tribe” as a “positive-good.” I invite my students and colleagues to join in the process of reconsidering whose stories are told, from what vantage point, and how such stories challenge dominant American narratives. No one, in my view, is above such a critique.

This, obviously I hope, brings us back to Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s work on Ona Judge and George Washington. Who knew when Professor Armstrong Dunbar began her relentless pursuit in historical archives for sources to reconstruct Ona Judge’s life that she would change the way we think about one of the most sacrosanct “founding fathers”? Who knew her biography of Ona Judge would challenge George Washington’s image as a “good enslaver” who treated his “property,” such as his valet, William Lee, sympathetically, if not generously? How many archivists and fellow American historians recognized Professor Armstrong Dunbar’s research would use Washington’s perennial quest to capture Ona Judge as a path toward changing how people think about him? 

A Seat at the Table or a Say in the Menu? 

One way my mother always tried to motivate me to use manners at the kitchen table was by telling me that I needed to practice in case I was invited to the White House for dinner. That rarely worked for me as a kid. Not only was I raucous, but I also had no desire to eat dinner with Ronald Reagan. And, I knew there was no way in hell my Marxist father would let me go. But that wasn’t her point. My mom wanted me to see that my behavior represented how I was raised. In my case, this meant eating with my mouth closed, not dominating the conversation, telling fart jokes, or smelling my food, then bunching up my nose in disgust. 

I believe my mother’s insistence that I eat my dinner as if I was at the White House is one way to think about how archivists and museum educators might approach their interactions with Black scholars, when he or she comes to their professional home. Off color jokes or overly-enthusiastic tours might be a turn off to Black researchers who already feel on edge, having just driven through an all-white town in Massachusetts to arrive at the archive or museum. Sometimes I have even felt that the White keepers of regional history have behaved as if he or she was doing me a favor letting me to search for sources that he or she didn’t believe were a part of the collection.  Their hubris gave off a “vibe” that was discouraging. Many of us have encountered cranky history professionals from time to time. Some of you might have even defended such crankiness as just “the way she is” or by saying that “so and so is really a good guy once you get to know him.” But these excuses miss a more important point. Behaviors and attitudes like the ones just described do more damage than one might realize when it comes to encouraging Black researchers who already feel anxious driving into this all white community, in order to use a facility.  

I often wonder if white archivists or museum professionals even consider the stress Black researches feel before they even arrive at their door. When I was a graduate student, I tried to ensure I completed my research before it became dark. I drove just below the speed limit to and from these archives because I was worried about being pulled over by town police. I was also certain I parked close to the entrance so I would not be singled out as a person who didn’t belong in the community. Don’t get me wrong. I have had mostly positive experiences in these towns. More often than not, the volunteers who ran these local archives and museums were polite and generous with their time. Yet, despite how gracious they were, those of you who are familiar with the late historian James Loewen’s work on “sundown towns” understand the historical roots of my insecurity.

A Path Forward

Despite the challenges mentioned above, the path forward is actually quite promising. The Black Lives Matter movement has reinvigorated the study of African-American history and inspired people to consider racism as both systemic and institutional. Historical institutions have become conscious of barriers for researching Black people in the Connecticut River Valley and they have an opportunity to rethink the systems and approaches that actually foster the racial disparities in the demographic of researchers and the topics researched. To continue this trend, they might consider examining, thoroughly, the institutional culture and professional practices that, perhaps unintentionally, impede a broad and diverse group of people from participating in the Black Lives in the Valley project. 

This isn’t about someone over there. This must start with us. Although it might feel uncomfortable, we must open ourselves to introspection about our own personal motives for the work we do moves beyond how we feel and toward the reason we feel a sense of personal empowerment through the work we do.  Was it because you learned that your grandparents or great grandparents participated in World War II? Was it because your parents took you to historical monuments or museums full of people with your background or heritage? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, you might consider the researcher who arrives at your archive searching for sources on Black women from the 19th century as a kindred spirit. The point is not to seek a personal connection with this researcher. The point is to treat their research topic with the same respect you treat a topic related to your own heritage.  Thus, when I say ‘kindred’ I mean a partner rather than kin, or friend.

So, what’s the answer? Diversity training? Maybe. But, before institutions spend the money on diversity trainers, I suggest a really simple exercise that might provide a path forward. Even if you choose to have someone help you create anti-racist approaches to your work, I believe it’s central you spend time considering these questions beforehand:

  1.  How might we reconsider our roles as archivists and educators in ways that take seriously our own positionality? 
  2. How might one’s positionality – as a white person in an all-white (or largely white?) community- shape the interaction, and thus the experience, of a Black community member, or undergraduate researcher, searching for sources about Black women in your archive? 

In my view, any real change in an institution’s culture must go beyond political correctness or ensuring all staff are “cordial” or “friendly” to Black researchers. 

“I’m calling for a total reconceptualization about the place (that is, the communities whose histories we seek to recover) and the space (archive) in order to promote research on Black women in these archives.

 How might archivists consider knowledge as one that seeks to expose the people, groups, and policies that perpetuate racial caste. This includes changing both attitudes and behaviors, ideas and actions. Afterall, the Black researcher seeks more than merely a seat at the table: he/she/they seek a voice about what is served and whether or not the meal will give them indigestion, or worse, cause anaphylactic shock.

I believe a collaboration and coordination between scholars and local archivists who will increase both the quantity and quality of archival sources and will in turn “decolonize” the archive.  One central way this might happen is through digital sharing. Uploading museum materials or archival materials will provide scholars of all ranks and positions to access materials that will add depth to their work and benefit all of those who study history. How do we create such a research tool? How do we promote this tool broadly? What fiscal and copyright issues must we contend with when trying to create such a tool? These questions need to be addressed, but in the meantime, start digitizing.

While the digitization of archival sources has provided scholars with greater access to sources related to the colonization movement, those scholars interested in unearthing Black women within the movement continue to be struck by the paucity of materials digitized. My goal, then, is to join with other scholars who research Black women during the nineteenth century in an effort to follow the path of Black women historians and archivists, such as Dorothy Porter, while considering the broader possibility of finding the proverbial “needle in the haystack” as the process of digitization of archival collections continues. 

For example, when a scholar is researching Charlotte Forten and they come across letters that mention colonization or Liberia, the scholar would be able to upload these documents for the benefit of all of those researching the colonization movement. This sort of coordinated research will allow for scholars globally, and of every rank, as well as researchers both within and who are not a part of the academy to access these documents. Such collaboration will not only benefit the individual scholar but the broader scholarly community. This idea would, perhaps, build on current digital platforms, such as H-Net, but focus specifically on research findings. From what I’ve seen, H-Net does not have a search function specifically designed to network those conducting historical projects. Yet, organizations, such as Massachusetts History Alliance, does have a Listserv that offers a model for this sort of collaboration between local historical museums and archives and scholars.

So much of this sort of research-sharing takes place informally between colleagues within similar fields.  Yet, in the grand scheme of things, I count myself as fortunate to have a community of researchers who are eager to share ideas and questions about research methods. I can’t help but think that those who don’t have the personality, or a friendly community of scholars in their particular field, may be left out of this sort of resource sharing. In fact, African American researchers who were not affiliated with academic institutions in the past bumped against a professional culture that prevented them from joining circles where research passed freely. This left those who researched less popular topics, such as Black women activists, to fend for themselves and compete for a small pool of funds. This caused a greater degree of competitiveness among an already marginalized group of researchers. Therefore, one central benefit of the project Documenting Black Lives in the Early Connecticut Valley is the spirit of comradery and enthusiastic collaborations from the outset of the project. In other words, a project founded on principles of collectivity, inclusion, and intentionality has a far greater ability to deconstruct the structural and institutional barriers that have maintained the marginalization of research on Black people living in majority white communities of the Pioneer Valley.

The author thanks the wonderful group of scholars who participated in the #sayhername workshop organized by Krystal Appiah at the C19 conference in 2017.