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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

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


Records of organizations engaged in political or civic work, many of them Black-led, are invaluable sources of historical insight.  Across Massachusetts, Black residents formed civic groups, philanthropic organizations, fraternal groups, women's clubs, and other kinds of associations. For instance, Boston's Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Free and Accepted Masons, Jurisdiction of Massachusetts is "the oldest Black Organization in America;" in Springfield, an affiliate lodge was the Sumner Lodge No. 12, with twenty-nine members, including Thomas Thomas and Samuel R. Scottron (see the Republican, June 22, 1869, and "Massachusetts Negro Freemasonry."  Black residents of Springfield in 1865 also established the Springfield Mutual Beneficial Association, to assist Civil War veterans with sick and death benefits.

Black women also formed associations and clubs, in Massachusetts and the Valley.  From Boston came The Woman’s Era (1894, the "first newspaper founded and edited by Black women, this monthly publication served as a means of communication for Black clubwomen across the country at a time when they found themselves largely excluded from White women’s politics)," which issued a call for a national convention of Black clubwomen; the First National Conference of Colored Women of America convened at South Boston's Berkeley Hall on July 27th, 1895.  

Black organizations like these were present in Springfield, and likely other Valley communities.  For instance, in  August 1872, a group of Black men organized the city's second "Grant Club," in support of President Ulysses S. Grant's re-election campaign (see the Republican, August 23 and Aug 28, 1872); nine members represented the group at the "New England Convention of Colored Men" in Boston that September (see Republican, Aug 28, 1872) . Though the number of archival collections preserved in Valley repositories associated with Black political or civic activity at this time is not especially large, with more research to locate and identify these records, future donations this area of archival preservations will hopefully grow.

Organizations that involved both White and Black members include the Grand Army of the Republic; in Springfield, at least four veterans of color attended G.A.R meetings.

A category of activity that involved both Black and White activists was the organized opposition to slavery.  Throughout the local Valley men and women gathered to end the practice of enslavement in political organizations and elsewhere.  In response to the Fugitive Slave Act, some forty-four Black men together with White abolitionist John Brown formed the Springfield branch of the United League of Gileadites.  Another important area of activity in the Valley and beyond was the Underground Railroad.


Holyoke History Room

Holyoke Council to Aid Prince Edward County. 

Holyoke: Association for the Improvement of Minorities (AIM)

The Carlos Vega Collection.

Wood Museum of Springfield History

Grand Army of the Republic. "Photo Album of the E. K. Wilcox Post, No. 16," of the Grand Army of the Republic, Springfield, Mass. contains images of four men of color.

"Journal of the Hampden County Anti-Slavery Society", manuscript in Archives, Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, Spring"eld Museums, Springfield, Massachusetts.


Other Databases

Recommended Reading

Boston National Historical Park. "Shall We Have a Convention...?"

Christopher, Cameron. To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2014.

Laurie, Bruce. Beyond Garrison: Antislavery and Social Reform.  Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Laurie, Bruce. Rebels in Paradise: Sketches of Northampton Abolitionists.  UMass Press, 2015.

McCarthy, Cliff.  "League of Gileadites.Freedom Stories, May 21, 2019.

Power-Greene, Ousmane.   Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement.  NYU Press, 2014.

"Resisting Slavery." Our Plural History:

Sesay, Chernoah Momodu, Jr. "Freemasons of Color: Prince Hall, Revolutionary Black Boston, and the Origins of Black Freemasonry, 1770-1807. Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University, 2006.

Sesay, Chernoah M.  "The Revolutionary Black Roots of Slavery's Abolition in Massachusetts." The New England Quarterly 87, no. 1 (2014): 99-131.

Sinha, Manisha. The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition. Yale University Press, 2017.

U.S. Dept of Interior "Special Resource Study: The Underground Railroad. 1995.