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UMass Amherst Libraries

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

Introduction

Among the most valuable historical records are first-person testimonies.  Antislavery activists shared personal testimonies of formerly enslaved persons who recounted their experiences to live audiences, in newspaper articles, and for memoirs or other publications.  Sojourner Truth is among the best-known Valley residents to share her story, but there were many others who offered accounts of their lives and experiences to help white Northerners understand the realities of enslavement.  

The Springfield History Museum, for instance, holds a published account by William Green of Springfield, and another for Thomas Jones, who lived for at time in Florence.  The Springfield museum also holds transcripts of unpublished accounts of formerly enslaved people (see below) who lived in the Springfield area.

Among the best-known resources for first-person testimony of enslavement are the "Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938" in the Library of Congress, which "contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA)."  These narratives were largely gathered in southern states, but are particularly relevant to this project in the ways that they illuminate the lives of men and women who fled southern states for northern states, including Massachusetts, in the decades before the U.S. Civil War.

 

Published Autobiographies and Memoirs (Known to Date) associated with Valley residents

 

African American Biographical Database. The largest electronic collection of biographical information on African Americans, 1790-1950.

Brignano, Russell C., ed. Black Americans in Autobiography: An Annotated Bibliography of Autobiographies and Autobiographical Books Written Since the Civil War (1984)

Green, William. Narrative Events in the Life of William Green (formerly a slave), Written by Himself.  Springfield: L.M. Guernsey, 1853.

Jackson, John Andrew. “The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina (1862): Electronic Edition”. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Harrison, Rev. Samuel.  Rev. Samuel Harrison; his life story.  Pittsfield, MA: Eagle Publ. Co., 1899.

 

Memorial Libraries, Deerfield

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina Research Collection: Gerzina is the author of Mr. and Mrs. Prince, an exceptional example of a book-length treatment of an African American family in the local Valley in both enslavement and freedom. While researching the book, Gerzina and her husband "spent many hours in Deerfield and the Connecticut River Valley looking for evidence of Lucy Terry Prince and Abijah Prince’s presence in the area. After completing the book, she donated her research files to the PVMA Library. Her files contain research on the Princes, plus other enslaved persons, slavery in New England, and Terry family members. See also Proper Research Collection for David Proper’s research on Lucy, as well as the Prince Folder of the Miscellaneous Family Papers, and the Lucy Terry Prince Research Papers." 

Wood Museum of Springfield History

 

Green, William. Narrative Events in the Life of William Green (formerly a slave), Written by Himself.  Springfield: L.M. Guernsey, 1853.

JacksonJohn Andrew. The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina" 1862. [photocopy of original]

"Remarks of Springfield Residents Who Remember Slavery." Remarks made at the John Brown Anniversary Celebration at St. John's Congregational Church, 8 May 1907, ecorded by a stenographer provided by the Connecticut Valley Historical Society." Narrators include Nelson Carr, William Hughes, Edward Lewis, Henry Clinton, Lee Egbert, and Martha Tucker.

 

Recommended Reading

Barnes, Ann-Elizabeth.  The Rev. Samuel Harrison. Crow Flies Press, 2016.

Di Bonaventura, Allegra. For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England. New York: Liveright, 2014.

Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook, Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend. Amistad Books/Harper Collins, 2008.

Jeffers, Honorée Fanonne. Tbe Age of Phillis.  Wesleyan University Press, 2020.

Logan, Rayford W. and Michael R. Winston, editors. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.

McCarthy, Clifford. "Freedom Stories of the Pioneer Valley."

Painter, Nell Irvin.  Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. W. W. Norton & Company; Revised ed. edition, 1997.

Smith, Clint. "Stories of Slavery From Those Who Survived It.The Atlantic (March 2021).

Sweet, John W., ed., Biography and the Black Atlantic, co-edited with Lisa A. Lindsay. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Ziegenbein, Linda M. "Inhabiting Spaces, Making Places: Creating a Spatial and Material Biography of David Ruggles." PhD Dissertation, UMass Amherst, 2017.