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UMass Amherst Libraries

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

Introduction

Newspapers are a valuable source of historic narratives. As the “first draft of history,” news sources can show the evolution of public thought, document events, and provide insight into historical contexts.  Advertising columns can be particularly valuable in documenting the flow of consumer goods (many of them also artifacts of the Atlantic slave economy), and also the changing shape of labor, as notices seeking apprentices, wet nurses, and other forms of assistance appear here regularly.  In the documentation of African American history, researchers have often used advertisements placed by enslavers seeking to recover runaways to understand many aspects of enslavement.

In the nineteenth century, Valley newspapers begin to document thriving Black-owned businesses.  The Springfield Republican, for instance, beginning in the antebellum era, contains regular advertisements for Black-owned barbershops, hairdressers, and other enterprises; these can be cross-referenced with city directories and census records to gain insight into the Black business community.

Not all newspapers in the U.S. were organized around location; in the nineteenth-century, African Americans launched regional and national newspapers to serve Black audiences, including the first African-American periodical, Freedom's Journal, founded in 1827.  As Black communities in cities grew, new newspapers appeared to serve those localities.  In Massachusetts, the Liberator ran from 1831 to 1865 and the Boston Guardian ran from 1901 into the 1950s; New York periodicals like The Colored American (1837-42) and another publication of the same title based in Washington D.C. (1893-1904) were also read in the Valley.  Among the largest collection of African American newspapers--"important original source material—written by African-Americans for African-Americans"--is gathered at Accessible Archives, a resource requiring annual subscription.

More recently, the Valley has hosted newsletters or online news sources, like Springfield's "AfAm Point of View: Our Community News Magazine."  Copies of many community newsletters, including the Black Citizens Newsletter, are preserved in the Carlos Vega Collection of Latino History in Holyoke, housed at Wistariahurst.

Researchers new to newspapers as a historical source might note that thy, like any source, have biases, and reflect the perspective of its authors and publishers. This is more relevant still in early America, as the idea that newspapers or journalists should report “objectively” had not yet emerged in that industry or profession. Most newspapers actively represented a distinct point of view. Abolitionist newspapers opposed enslavement and published the words of African Americans;  White dominated newspapers that advertised rewards for escaped slaves and supported the institution of slavery through these interactions. Researchers should be sure to understand the orientation of any newspaper as part of assessing its perspective.'

Recommended Reading

Block, Sharon. Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.

Bly, Antonio T. Escaping Bondage: A Documentary History of Runaway Slaves in Eighteenth-Century New England, 1700–1789. Lexington Books, 2012.

Bly, Antonio T.   “A Prince among Pretending Free Men: Runaway Slaves in Colonial New England Revisited,” Massachusetts Historical Review, 14 (2012), 87-118.

Dann, Martin E. ed., The Black Press 1827-1890: The Quest for National Identity. Perigree1972.

Desrochers, Robert E. Jr. "Slave-For-Sale Advertisements and Slavery in Massachusetts, 1704-1781." In The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. LIX, number 3, July 2002.

Lazaro, Ned and Barbara Mathews. "Picturing Slavery: Clothing, Appearance, and New England Advertisements for Run-Away Enslaved Men During the 18th Century" The Village Broadside: The Blog of Historic Deerfield, August 14, 2020.

"Negro Higher Education as Seen Through the Antebellum Black Press." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 20 (1998): 36-38.