Searching for Black History in a Public Library Archive

Searching for Black History in a Public Library Archive

By Dylan Gaffney, Forbes Library

We at the Forbes Library, the public Library for the city of Northampton, were so excited to join the Documenting Early Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley project, and to embark on the vital work of exploring the hidden histories in our local history resources. While most of the partners in this large collaborative effort were local historical societies and museums, we knew that local public libraries like the Forbes are key partners in that effort.  The essay that follows shares some of our findings, while also noting some of our key takeaways as an institution: the comparative impact of working alongside other community partners; the rewards and challenges of digital tools; and the importance of grant-funded projects in setting institutional priorities. We challenged ourselves to examine the context of the documents we were researching, how they were created, why they were preserved, and what biases, interpretations, and emotions we were bringing to the table when we searched through them.  Many of our discoveries either centered the enslaver or recorded the punishment of Black residents in the area. Details which would give us a better sense of their humanity and their everyday lives, (what they wore, ate, talked about, what their homes were like, and how their families came to be) remain scarce.

A family in Hatfield, ca. 1889. L.H. Kingsley, photographer.

We know too little about Black lives in rural and small-town New England and the places Black residents were able to carve out for themselves in these communities. We hoped to uncover names, details of their lives, and some small sense of how people of color survived in the Connecticut River Valley before and after the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783.

We recognized that the methodology and potential success of this project would mirror the work we do in the archives on a daily basis. This is the everyday work of a local history librarian in a public library: comparing multiple sources, checking city directories, maps, atlases, newspaper articles, account books, town records, and manuscripts to confirm, expand upon, or correct information. This project took that work and expanded its scale to include numerous repositories and countless volunteers and professionals to create a shared body of knowledge to aid our communities and future researchers. 

The question for us became how to begin and structure the work. As a public library, we needed to balance the pace and demands of this project with the everyday work of serving the public in our city, just as the library was fully reopening the building amidst an ongoing pandemic. The arrival of this grant-funded project, and its thematic overlap with the library’s current Strategic Plan, the reparative work we have been trying to undertake in our Special Collections, and the goals of our newly formed Racial and Social Justice Committee, inspired our administration to make space among the competing demands of our workday and allowed us to devote the time and energy the project deserved. This, in turn, benefitted the library as our staff and volunteers became more familiar with previously underutilized materials, and were able to make use of this new expertise when applying for funds to digitize these materials.

With limited time and resources, we needed to develop an approach that would be productive right away. We decided to focus on amplifying and building off the work of two of our community partners, Historic Northampton and the David Ruggles Center for History and Education, and to prioritize the collections we thought would most benefit their respective projects.

We had been assisting Historic Northampton since August of 2019 in their ongoing efforts to undertake a systematic study of enslaved people living in Northampton in the 17th and 18th centuries, and wherever possible find names for those enslaved. 

Judd Manuscript, Northampton Prices and Account Books, page 305.

For this research project we identified several collections in the library’s Hampshire Room for Local History that we expected could be productive resources for identifying enslaved people in the area. The most promising of these was the Judd Manuscript Collection, a collection of 60+ volumes created by local newspaper editor and historian Sylvester Judd in the 1840s. The Judd Collection consists of transcriptions of early colonial documents from the New England region, as well as information gathered from interviews with local residents around the time of the creation of the collection, field observations, and personal journal entries. It has multiple but limited indexes, focusing only on particular volumes. The most productive approach we identified would be to search for the names of enslavers who Historic Northampton had identified in their project, and hope that these entries revealed names and other details about the individuals enslaved. 

Judd Manuscript, Northampton Prices and Account Books, page 32.
Judd Manuscript, Northampton Prices and Account Books, page 285.

While Judd lacks a central unified index, his system allowed us to follow notations in one entry about a person, leading to further discoveries. For example, in an entry on Lieutenant Caleb Strong, we learn of a castor hat owned by “his negro Moidore” in an entry from Deacon Ebenezer Hunt’s Account Book. This entry has a subscript notation telling us to check p. 285 where we learn that Moidore was also a fiddler, while other entries describe how he played at dances in town. Every detail from name, to clothing, or details about their lives, felt like a little act of recovery when there is so little information on the lives of those enslaved in our community.  

Judd Manuscript, Northampton Vol. 4 Genealogies, page 380.

We were pleased to find one black family, of Amos and Bathsheba Hull, in a Judd genealogy volume, which is, unfortunately, rare for our collections. Amos and Bathsheba are a great example of how this project can be beneficial to researchers, as at least 20 mentions of the Hulls and their children have been recorded in the project database across multiple institutions, offering us the chance to trace their lives as they moved between communities.

Judd Manuscript, Northampton Vol. 2, page 165.

The language used in these early documents, particularly in the descriptions in Court Records, is disturbing, detailing the cruel punishment of enslaved people, often for the crime of fornication, often accompanied by overwrought moral grandstanding and judgmental pontificating by officers of the court. The seemingly matter of fact manner in which the child of Mingo and Hannah, never named herein, is described as property to be divided by the enslavers is dehumanizing, and indicative of the everyday horrors of the lives of those we are researching. 

We tried to be mindful of the experience of our volunteers doing the research. The times when we were able to work together in a room allowed for fruitful and necessary discussion about the language and context of these documents and left us asking questions about the process and the project.  What does it mean to only be able to find information about those enslaved by looking up records indexed by their enslavers’ names, referencing names imposed upon them, in a transcription made in the 1840s transcribing documents from the early colonial period? Allowing room for these questions while doing the research, and the discussions they prompted, informed our approach throughout. 

Another collection that proved productive for the project were the records of Northampton’s First Congregational Church, which include baptismal and vital records from early members of the congregation stretching back to the beginning of the congregation in 1661. We had a head start on this work because of previous research done by Joanne Block in our collection on enslaved people in Northampton during Jonathan Edwards tenure as minister. We knew the names of the enslaved and enslavers to look for, and were able to find additional info in entries on black individuals baptized into the church…but again we were faced with contextualizing what we found.

First Church Congregational Records Northampton MA Bk 1 1661-1845.
Section 2, page 8.

There is an emotional weight in seeing “Leah my servant” written in Jonathan Edwards’ own hand noting when his enslaved ‘servant’ was admitted to the church. The emotional response of the researcher, over 270 years later, of course pales in comparison to the emotions of the person to whom it refers. What were their fears as they attended church with their enslavers? What did it mean to them to be in that church which segregated Black worshippers in galleries? Through regular discussion with our volunteers and student liaisons, we tried to regularly examine and question the context in which these documents were created and how that affects and obscures what we can glean from them.

We also endeavored to find a way to assist the David Ruggles Center with their ongoing research into the dramatic decrease in the black population of Florence after 1850. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act that year, 10 Black Northampton fugitives organized a rally at Town Hall to implore their fellow residents to resist the law. When the meeting broke down in rancor and they found themselves without protection or security, many left town with their families. The Ruggles Center has been examining this question for years: when did the families leave and where did they go? We hoped to uncover data which could help trace the lives of those who left and arrived in those years.

1857 Northampton Town Census.

We have in our collections yearly town census documents from 1857-1860 which we hoped could help to trace some families between the 1840, 1850 federal censuses, the 1855 state census and the 1860 federal census and beyond, and follow the families that remained. The town census had no field for race, with occasional descriptions in a notes field, and only recorded names of heads of household and the occasional additional adult in a “Poll Tax” field, so matching the data from the local census to the state and federal took a somewhat creative approach. The spelling of names varied widely, so…for instance…the Bakeman family (one of the few Northampton black families from the mid 19th century which remained through the early 20th century and beyond) could be found under Beckmann, Blackman, Breckmann, etc in various census entries. 

The Ruggles Center recruited several volunteers to the effort but their efforts were stymied at times by the particulars of data entry via the Google survey form through which this project gathered information for the database. While there was great interest in volunteering to help with the project, we found the Venn diagram of those able to read rough 18th and 19th century handwriting, those available and willing to work masked and in-building during the pandemic, and yet comfortable with spreadsheets, data entry, and google suite, is a somewhat unique shape. 

Thankfully, we found very skilled and experienced volunteers and decided to allow them to work in whatever ways best utilized their time and skills. Our role as an outward facing public library involves stepping up whenever we have advantages our smaller community partners lack. These advantages most often involve staffing, and particularly young technology-savvy staff. When we hired new Smith College work study students with archive concentrations for the Fall 2021 semester, we were able to assign one of the students the specific task of compiling the names and information of all individuals identified as black in city, state, and federal censuses from 1840-1880 in a spreadsheet and to then enter all this information into the database.

W.F. Prindle Plumbing and Fitting, ca. 1880. Photographer unknown.

Forbes Library has a remarkable photographic collection for a public library of its size, consisting of thousands of images, but very little representation of the lives of black residents of the area. One notable exception is this photograph which includes Mr. Timothy Lines, who was working for W.F. Prindle’s Plumbing and Fitting Store about 1880.

Through our research on this project we were able to find out much more about Mr. Lines. We learned that he was born in Colrain, married into the Bakeman family (who are said to have local black and indigenous roots), a family that stayed in Northampton from at least the 1840s through into the 20th century. Again, like the Bakeman family into which he married, his name is listed with multiple spellings. The back of the photo spells his last name as Lindes and identifies him as “born a slave”, while State Census records spell his last name Lyons, and Federal and Town Records, as well as his grave marker in Bridge St. cemetery spell it Lines. We discovered the location of Mr. Lines’ home with his wife Harriet was at 51 Bates St. in Northampton where the Montessori School is today, and that he was described as “the colored prophet of the Connecticut Valley” in newspaper articles at the time of his death. We could find no records or accounts that confirmed he was ever enslaved, and the fact that his birthplace and birthdate is consistently listed as Colrain in 1819, and that he is not believed to have lived outside New England cast further doubt on this description.

Indenture Record for Paul from Overseers of the Poor Records, Town Papers Collection.

The Overseers of the Poor records within our town papers collection covers a long period of time from before the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts until late in the 19th century, and also proved a key resource. This document records the indenture of a “poor child named Paul, the son of Lydia, a negro” in Northampton in the 1770s. We believe this refers to Lydia Hill, who appears in other documents in this collection as being “on the Town accounts”. These documents reveal a great deal of information on Black lives in Northampton and the power of a few white men in the community who could determine if they were to survive here, pay their funeral expenses if they did not, or enslave or indenture their children if the family could not support them.  This collection required slow deliberate reading of hundreds of documents and revealed info we may have never uncovered but for this project. These records, despite their formal and sometimes dispassionate legal tone, give us a glimpse of the lives of the most vulnerable residents of the area.  How does it feel to read the accounts of poor free Black people in 19th-century Northampton seeking help for basic sustenance and medical care, knowing those accounts were written by the privileged white town fathers who could either decide to help or warn them out of town? Most importantly, what were the lives of these people like? What did they see, eat, wear, and talk about in their daily lives in Northampton? How did they care for themselves and their families, as they awaited judgment by court or town officials?

Again and again, we returned to these same questions. What information can we recover from the materials in our collections that give a sense of the humanity and everyday lives of Modoire, Amos, Mingo, Hannah, Leah, Timothy, Paul and Lydia? What we gained from this project was a certainty that this was only a crucial first step in the search. The Judd Manuscript particularly, is of such size and depth, that to truly uncover all of the information therein requires a level of accessibility we are not able to currently offer to our researchers and the public. In Fall 2021 we are in the process of applying for funds to digitize it in its entirety, and once digitized, to engage the public in a crowdsourced transcription campaign to uncover all of the hidden histories within its 60+ volumes and make it fully searchable. We believe strongly that this has to be one of the main goals of public library archives in the coming decades, to make available and accessible all the materials necessary to give the public a better sense of history as it happened, and better reflect the underserved and underrepresented communities within these collections.