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UMass Amherst Libraries

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

Introduction

While the graves of African Americans who died in the 17th and 18th centuries are less likely to be marked with headstones than White members of Valley communities, those numbers rose in the 19th century, and it is possible to find graves that fill in the picture of Black Valley residents in life and in death. The best source on this subject at present is Bob Drinkwater, In Memory of Susan Freedom: Searching for Gravestones of African Americans in Western Massachusetts (Levellers Press, 2020), a paperback "containing photographs of most of the gravestones discussed in the text, and a series of appendices with statistical data pertaining to the African American population of all the cities and towns in western Massachusetts, c. 1750-1900."

Most towns in the Connecticut River Valley include a Cemetery Commission; their contact information is generally listed on the town website.  Researchers interested in this avenue of research should also become familiar with the free online resource findagrave.com.

Gravestone inscriptions provide genealogists with birth and death information and offer family relationship clues. However, as primary sources, gravestone inscriptions can contain errors. Genealogical and historical societies and various individuals have transcribed and published cemetery inscriptions. The Systematic Series of Massachusetts vital records relied on information from headstones and other sources. Printed town records and histories sometimes contain epitaphs. Tombstone decorations offer insight into the deceased's economic status, occupation, religious affiliation, interests, and organizational memberships.

A key title and point of departure for this subject in Western Massachusetts is Bob Drinkwater,  In Memory of Susan Freedom: Searching for Gravestones of African Americans in Western Massachusetts. Levellers Press, 2020.