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UMass Amherst Libraries

Researching the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley

Welcome!

Project Introduction

This Research Guide, associated with the grant-funded initiative "Documenting the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley" (a five-month pilot project that unfolded from May to October 2021; see below for project overview), offers a gathering of resources for researching African American history, genealogy, and biography, with a focus on the Massachusetts section of the Connecticut River Valley. The lives of people of color, enslaved and free, throughout the valley from Vermont to Connecticut, were connected in ways too often hidden by the records associated with the past, as well as longtime history and archival practice; the guide aims to help researchers learn to surface those connections. It includes links to additional resources that dig deeper into the distinct methods required to recover historical information about African Americans in the Massachusetts section of the Connecticut River Valley, with emphasis on the eras from European colonization to the U.S. Civil War.

This five-month pilot project was created with a specific aim, which is to develop additional tools and resources (including this Research Guide and associated Handbook) to support similar grassroots local history endeavors--from town-based historical societies to libraries and museums to other pastkeepers, like churches and service organizations--that wish to undertake research in local African American history.  It provides technical assistance to assist researchers who may be new to this subject area or to these primary sources.   How can these researchers and volunteers help uncover stories of enslavement and freedom? What sources reveal these histories?  How can we locate and connect stories that cross the boundaries of individual towns and the records they generate? And how can we think beyond the identification of enslaved residents, or slaveowners, to tell broader stories about how a community’s economy and culture was inextricably entwined with the commerce of slavery?

Toward that end, this Guide offers a detailed discussion of the many resources for this research at the W.E.B. DuBois Library and other Valley repositories and is arranged by resource category/record type. Please note that this Guide is only a beginning. It is by no means meant to be exhaustive. In order to both direct users to specific materials in area repositories and also suggest the kinds of things they might look for in their own search through area repositories, it lists known examples of archival material in area collections, in many cases located through publicly-available online resources.  But one premise of this project is that similar material resides in collections throughout the Valley: researchers should always check with the small, local historical societies and historians who know their collections best. We welcome and encourage additions to the Guide using the contact info below.

Each tab offers an introduction to the nature of the genre under consideration, where you'll find information about how to access, consult, and examine those records as well as advice for using these resources, often created by the property owning class, to locate the stories marginalized communities. The Guide also notes selections from the W.E.B. Du Bois Library's holdings, and offers examples of subject headings to locate additional materials in the Library Catalog.  

We have also provided selected sets of recommended readings for those who wish to learn more about these subjects; a final tab gathers resources for those who wish to learn more about the interpretation of histories of enslavement and freedom in museums and historic sites.

If you would like to participate in this project, email pioneervalleyhistory@gmail.com, visit our website, or fill out this form to suggest resources for the guide. For help in researching, you can receive reference assistance by phone (413) 545-0151 or online through the Ask A Librarian email and chat services.

Project Overview and Scope

In the wake of the Spring 2020 murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and ensuing wave of protests across the U.S., history organizations nationwide, as they published statements condemning racism, also asked what more they could be doing to help their communities better understand long histories of racial injustice. 

Local history organizations are asking similar questions. In western Massachusetts, some historical organizations have been focused on researching Black history in their communities for many years; others have turned to this subject more recently.  Long before this project commenced, Valley museums libraries, and historical societies have been working to recover historical understanding of Black lives in their respective communities. Notable examples here include the Pan-African History Museum USA, an institution founded in 1995 "where African culture and African-American history converge to paint a full picture of Black History, with a special focus on Western Massachusetts;" the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s 25-year-effort "African Americans in Early Rural New England (1695-1783)"; the ongoing research of the David Ruggles Center; the Black Holyoke project, led by UMass Amherst doctoral student Erika Slocumb in association with Wistariahurst, and the Black Holyoke Collection (a collective of archival collections held at the Wistariahurst Museum, the Holyoke Public Library History Room, and some documents and resources from the University of Massachusetts, Special Collections and University Archives); and ongoing work of Historic Northampton as well as efforts by Historic Deerfield and the Memorial Libraries.  Also important are campus-based efforts to engage students in the research and interpretation of these histories: especially notable here are the course "Heritage Of The Oppressed" and web resources "Black History in the Town of Amherst, Massachusetts" and "Black Springfield," created by UMass Amherst students of Dr. Amilcar Shabazz, of the W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies.  Scholars based on our Valley campuses have also published books and articles on Black history in the Valley; citations to these appear on the several bibliographies contained herein.

From elsewhere across Massachusetts, we have been inspired and informed by projects like Tufts University's African American Trail Project, and Housatonic Heritage's African American History Trail (and, north of the state line, the Vermont African American Heritage Trail).  In Connecticut, the powerful Witness Stones Project seeks "to restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals who helped build" communities there. Further afield, the Atlantic Black Box project (a "public history project that empowers communities throughout New England to take up the critical work of researching and reckoning with our region’s complicity in the slave trade and our extensive involvement in the global economy of enslavement") has gathered substantial data and resources on its valuable website.  This project benefits from the knowledge and insight already developed by all of these important initiatives. 

This project is presented by the Pioneer Valley History Network, a consortium of nearly fifty community historical societies and small museums in the three counties of the Pioneer Valley that is a resource for local history organizations in western Massachusetts and the public they serve; the UMass Amherst Public History Program; and the UMass Amherst W.E.B. Du Bois Library, the largest publicly-funded library in New England and home to the papers of esteemed African American scholar, writer and activist and Great Barrington native W.E.B. Du Bois.

The project aims to: 1) Assist local historical societies, archives, museums, and other past-keeping organizations, as well as interested individuals, in interpreting and presenting histories of Black life in the Connecticut River Valley; 2) Support new research on this vital subject; 3) Facilitate connections across local boundaries to create an understanding that is greater than the sum of its parts; and 4) Develop mechanisms to aid future researchers, curators, interpreters, and educators in locating and sharing relevant resources.

The scope: This initiative was born of a shared sense among local history organizations in the Connecticut Valley and beyond that these sites need to better understand, document, and be prepared to address community concern about and acknowledge histories of enslavement in the Massachusetts counties of the Connecticut River Valley.  In order to be able to answer important questions about New England communities' complicity in the nation's history of enslavement, recovering the stories of enslaved people is the project’s first priority. The Valley was also home to hundreds of people who came here having fled slave states before the end of slavery at the national level, and their stories fall within the compass of this work as well. As our project at its broadest purpose aims to understand the Valley’s relationship to the Atlantic slave economy broadly defined, surfacing narratives that help illuminate the consequences of enslavement for Black families, directly and indirectly, in the decades before the Civil War is also a critical component of this endeavor. Finally, the project seeks to support the aims and interests of the local organizations it serves, and has followed their leads, responding to their unique resources and priorities.

This Research Guide offers a detailed overview of the many resources for this research at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library as well as libraries, museums, and other repositories throughout the Valley; it is part of a larger project handbook developed over the course of the grant period and available here, containing essays by and for local history practitioners. The guide is arranged by resource category. Each category offers an introduction to the nature of the genre under discussion, notes selections from the W.E.B. Du Bois Library's holdings (the library's numerous books, magazines, journals, newspapers, government documents, and maps are especially strong in Massachusetts and New England history) and offers examples of subject headings to locate additional materials in the Library Catalog.  The resources are weighted toward seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, with emphasis on the pre-Civil War era, though in some categories where there are robust resources that document later histories in the Valley, they are also included here.  The Guide and associated handbook also offers advice for using these resources, often created by the property owning class, to locate the stories of enslaved and marginalized communities. 

If you would like to participate in this project, email pioneervalleyhistory@gmail.com, visit this website, or fill out this form to suggest resources for the guide. For help in researching, you can receive reference assistance by phone (413) 545-0151 or online through the Ask A Librarian email and chat services.

Acknowledgments

This project was undertaken with funding from the UMass Amherst Public Service Endowment Grant and MassHumanities and we are grateful for their supper at partnership.  We also thank the participating history organizations who joined this pilot project: Amherst Historical Society, Belchertown Historical Society, Forbes Library, Greenfield Historical Society, Historic Northampton, Longmeadow Historical Society, and David Ruggles Center.

We are deeply grateful to our consulting scholars for sharing their insight and expertise:  Joseph Carvalho, Ian Delahanty, Gretchen Gerzina, Marjory O'Toole, Ousmane Power-Greene, Erika Slocumb, and Emma Winter-Zeig.

We are grateful to these additional history organizations for their support and collaboration: Hadley Historical Society, Pan African Historical Museum USA, Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum.  We also thank Sharon Leon from OnTheseGrounds and Kristina Poznan from Enslaved.org for productive conversations about shared aims, and our evolving process.