“Searching for Bijah and Lucy”

Searching for Bijah and Lucy: A Conversation with Professor Gretchen Gerzina

UMass Amherst Professor Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Paul Murray Kendall Chair in Biography and Professor of English, was among the presenters at the June 2020 launch of this project, and at that event shared insights and experiences from her work to research the lives of Abijah and Lucy Terry Prince as she was writing her 2008 book Mr. And Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend.  As the DBL team prepared this handbook, we sat down for a virtual interview with Dr. Gerzina to talk with her at more length about her research, and particularly the challenges of doing local Black history.

DBL: In your remarks at the launch, you mention the challenge of encountering the assumptions of others (sometimes those charged with providing access to records) who might be quick to discourage a researcher interested in Black history, reporting that they “don’t have much,” or not thinking about ways that records of white families might be useful to this research.  What advice do you have for researchers who might hear that sort of response?

GHG: That is such an important question. What many “gatekeepers,” who may have the best of intentions, don’t realize is the way that Black history and White history are entangled. Particularly in New England, they were often part of the same household. Thus in the case of my book, it hadn’t occurred to some librarians that records of enslaved people would be found in the papers and records of White families. They didn’t occupy entirely separate spheres, even though their circumstances were vastly different. I learned that I shouldn’t open with the statement that I was searching for a Black person; that immediately put everything into a box in their minds, rather than opening them up to the wider possibilities, such as letters or wills of White people who could shed light on the Black people who lived and worked among them.

BDL:  In your June 2020 remarks, you recommend that we “start from the perspective of presence.”  That seems like a helpful phrase for researchers, too.

GHG: Yes, that is a good way to put it. In New England there is still often the sense that Black history, especially in colonial and antebellum years, took place in the South. One of the things that researchers need to do is to educate others about the Black presence. As a young person said years ago when I was writing about the early Black presence in England, “I didn’t know we were here.” So starting with the perspective of presence is essential, both for researchers and for those working in the collections as curators and librarians. Many of them were quite wonderful.

DBL: You have mentioned in talks how your husband accompanied you on research trips, noting the value of the “fresh eyes” of someone who doesn’t bring the same questions as a trained academic researcher.  Can you say more about that? Our readers–many of whom are also new to this work–might see themselves in his experience.  

GHG: Oh, it was such an eye-opener for me! As scholars and professional researchers, we think we know how to look for things. For instance, when we were looking together at the early town records of Sunderland, Vermont, which I’d looked at before, and I couldn’t find what I was looking for chronologically, he said, “Paper wasn’t plentiful in those days, so why do you assume it would be in that spot?” And then he flipped to the end and amazingly there were seven pages devoted to the case. I was being too methodical, and he was more open to intuition. He also helped me to understand that the stories aren’t always in the archives, and the archives aren’t always correct.

DBL: It also seems nice to undertake research as a shared quest, to share the thrill of finds, and the disappointment when you come up empty, yes?

GHG: Frankly, it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. We researched together (and sometimes separately) for seven years. Then in the evenings we could discuss and reflect on what we’d found, what it might mean, and where else we might look. In the end, when I finished writing the book and it was published, we felt bereft. One doesn’t always say this honestly, but immersing ourselves in the lives of these people was life-changing. It not only uncovered the true story of two remarkable people, but it brought us closer together to search for them.

DBL:  Your research on Abijah and Lucy Terry Prince took you beyond the sorts of places people might be thinking they’ll research in – libraries, archives, and historical societies – but also to town halls and other kinds of places that hold public records, but aren’t principally devoted to historical research.  There researchers encounter town clerks, registrars of deeds or of probate courts, and other local government officials –folks who aren’t really thinking of themselves as historians or library professionals.  Can you share some thoughts about how best to work in these settings?

GHG: Sometimes people in these positions seem themselves as just doing a job (very well), but often they became genuinely fascinated by the finds and the story itself.

DBL: Most of your career has been spent in literary and British history; your search for Abijah and Lucy was sparked by the discovery of a local history connection.  That is an experience likely shared by many of the researchers and volunteers associated with or inspired by this project, and you wound up researching your own family history.  Do you have advice for others who are trying to discover their own family’s distant past? Words of wisdom, or caution?

GHG: My mother was a semi-professional genealogist, who traveled to do her research and led workshops, and worked in the Springfield local history museum to help others as a senior volunteer. When she passed away, she left a meticulous three-room archive that is now housed in the New England Historic Genealogical library in Boston. She never mastered computers, and every bit of her research was in person. She impressed upon me that this kind of research takes time, but also that people were quick to fill in the blanks and make assumptions that couldn’t be supported. For instance, three consecutive children in a family may have had the same name because of child mortality. So she was very distrustful of many researchers’ finds until she could verify them herself. I often have to remind myself to go back to the source, to confirm that the pieces all fit.

DBL: Has your research changed your notions about the local past and ideas about America?

GHG: Whenever I give talks or public panels, one of my goals is to make us think about America as it genuinely was, the good and the bad. And that we’re all in this together. When I hear that of a person talking about “real” Americans, I always want to say, “My white ancestors arrived here from England in 1635. I’m not sure when my enslaved ancestors were brought here, but there are records of them on plantations in the mid-1800s. When exactly did yours arrive?” We’re ALL Americans.

DBL: Thank you!