Skip to Main Content
The University of Massachusetts Amherst

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


Obtaining an education has been both a challenge and an aim of Black residents of Massachusetts throughout the state's history.  While education was not illegal for enslaved people in Massachusetts (as it was in other colonies), and in some instances enslaved children learned to read alongside white children, Black children in slavery and in freedom were often denied access to sources of literacy and numeracy skills.  In 1787, Black residents of Boston petitioned the state legislature advocating for greater access to public education. A decade later, Black parents organized the Abiel Smith School, which met in the home of Primus Hall before moving, in 1808, into the first floor room of the African Meeting House (today part of the NPS African American National Historic Site in Boston).  Segregation was first declared to be illegal in Boston schools in 1855, though the path to desegregated schools was long.  Still, Black families were tenacious in their effort to secure educations for themselves and their children, and "by 1900, when W.E.B. Du Bois, himself a Massachusetts native and Harvard graduate, compiled statistics for his paper 'The Black North: A Social Study' (1901), blacks across greater Boston had the highest literacy rates in the country, and one of the highest proportions of black professionals." See Tufts University's African American Trail Project).

In Massachusetts as elsewhere, African American families also launched informal educational institutions, as Black-led organizations--from literary societies to social clubs to church-based efforts--also advanced these aims.

In the Massachusetts section of the Connecticut Valley, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, several colleges and in time the University of Massachusetts appeared, and each have their own unique connections to African American history. In recent years, initiatives to better understand those histories have emerged on each campus.  Researchers interested in these stories should reach out to the college archivists on these campuses for more information.

Amherst College

The ways African American history and the history of Amherst College, founded in 1821, intersect are complex and contradictory. The wealth that made Amherst College possible was, like everything else in the antebellum Valley, deeply entangled with the Atlantic Slave Economy. For instance, founding trustee Israel Trask was deeply committed to plantation agriculture in Mississippi, and brought enslaved men and women to Massachusetts to work both in his home and in his cotton mill. 

Amherst College graduated its first African American student, Edward Jones, in 1826.  An Anti-slavery society was founded in the 1830s.   On Black students at Amherst College later in the century see Mike Kelly, "Black Men of Amherst, 1877-1883," Consecrated Eminence, February 7, 2020.

Resources at Amherst College include:

Afro-American Society/Black Students' Union Collection” 

Charles Drew House Family Albums

 Amherst College Clubs and Societies Collection


Mount Holyoke College

See the college's "Diversity and Inclusion" timeline here:

Smith College

See the website for the project "Responding & Organizing Against Racism at Smith:"

UMass Amherst

The UMass Special Collections and University Archives holds many sources relevant for researching the histories of Black students and staff at the university.

Springfield Central Library

Springfield's Central Library maintains a limited collection of Springfield college and public high school yearbooks dating from the early 1900s to the late 1980s, some are digitized. Yearbooks are also available for reference use at the Museum of Springfield History Library & Archives.

Recommended Reading

Baumgartner, Kabria. In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America. NYU Press, 2019. 

Baumgartner, Kabria.  “Full and Impartial Justice”: Robert Morris and the Equal School Rights Movement in Massachusetts." The New England Quarterly (2022) 95 (2): 155–191.

Boston African American National Historic Site. "Abiel Smith School." 

Chapnick, Max. "Girls’ High School and the “Wild Facts” of Race in Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood."  The New England Quarterly (2022) 95 (2): 192–228.

Danns, Dionne and Mivhelle A. Purdy. "Introduction: Historical Perspectives on African American Education, Civil Rights, and Black Power." The Journal of African American History Vol. 100, No. 4, African American Education, Civil Rights, and Black Power (Fall 2015), pp. 573-585

DuBois, W. E. B. "A Negro Student at Harvard at the End of the 19th Century." The Massachusetts Review 1, no. 3 (1960): 439-58. 

Jirik, Michael E. "Combating Slavery and Colonization: Student Abolitionism and the Politics of Antislavery in Higher Education, 1833-1841." (MA Thesis, UMass Amherst, 2015).

Jirik, Michael E. "Abolition and Academe: Struggles for Freedom and Equality at British and American Colleges, 1742-1855." (PhD Dissertation, UMass Amherst, 2019).

McHenry, Elizabeth. 1996. "'Dreaded eloquence': The origins and rise of African American literary societies and libraries." Harvard Library Bulletin 6 (2), Summer 1995: 32-56.

Moss, Hilary J. "Education's Inequity: Opposition to Black Higher Education in Antebellum Connecticut." History of Education Quarterly 46, no. 1 (2006): 16-35.

Porter, Dorothy Burnett. "The Organized Educational Activities of Negro Literary Societies, 1828-1846." Journal of Negro Education 5 (October 1936), 555-76.

Romer, Robert H. "Higher Education and Slavery in Western Massachusetts." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 46 (2004): 98-101.

Shabazz, Amilcar. Advancing Democracy: African Americans and the Struggle for Access and Equity in Higher Education in Texas. UNC PRess, 2004.

Thomas, Veronica G., and Janine A. Jackson. "The Education of African American Girls and Women: Past to Present." The Journal of Negro Education 76, no. 3 (2007): 357-72.