Researching the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley
In the Connecticut River Valley before the mid-19th century, the vast majority of communities of faith were Congregational--that is, Protestant churches with roots in Puritanism that prioritize the right of individual churches to govern their own affairs. Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries town residents were required to participate in the life of the church for that reason, before church and state were formally disentangled in Massachusetts in 1833, Congregational church records are closely tied to town records. Over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century Valley towns saw the appearance increasing numbers of of Baptist and Methodist churches, and some other faiths, but before the second quarter of the nineteenth century, most Valley churches were Congregational.
Congregational church records are especially important because before civil (county and city) records existed they were the principal records of births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials. Church records are often more complete and accurate than civil records. For example, baptism and christening records may include the date and place of birth, the parents' names and residence, the officiating clergy, and the mother's maiden name. In some cases church records are the only place wives' full names appear. For researchers seeking information on people of color, these early church records can be useful, as African Americans were eligible for baptism (and so these records can suggest a general time period of birth) and membership; sometimes marriages between enslaved and/or free Black residents were solemnized by the church, and church records sometimes list Black residents who died and were buried. Researchers should note that Baptist Churches' baptisms were not child baptisms so are not particularly useful for determining age.
The nineteenth century saw the blossoming of a number of Black churches, and these records--in some cases still stewarded by active congregations, and in other cases preserved in library collections--are critically important avenues of insight. An important Massachusetts historic site is the Boston African American National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park Service. In the Valley, early Black churches include the Goodwin Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church and Hope Community Church in Amherst; and St. John's Congregational Church (formerly the Sanford Street Church) in Springfield.
Church records that contain genealogical information include parish registers, recorded marriages, baptisms, christenings, confirmations, and burials. Other records document the church history--meeting minutes, financial records, and membership lists (including admissions and dismissals), as well as minutes associated with charitable work (sewing circles, etc)--preserve the history of the congregation as a body.
Church records are usually stewarded by their congregations; researchers can learn what records they hold and how to consult them by calling the church offices. Some church records are also preserved in area museums and libraries (see below).
"Black Church Stories." Black History of the Town of Amherst, Massachusetts.
Boles, Richard J. "Documents Relating to African American Experiences of White Congregational Churches in Massachusetts, 1773-1832." The New England Quarterly 86, no. 2 (2013): 310-23.
Boles, Richard. “Dividing the Faith: The Rise of Racially Segregated Northern Churches, 1730-1850.” Ph.D. dissertation, The George Washington University, 2013.
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song. Penguin Press, 2021.
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