Tag Archives: Local History

Towards a Better History…

Pardon me while I climb up on my soap box…

Pardon me while I climb on my soapbox…

Okie dokie, now….Who watched the Bloomberg TV broadcast of the Boston Pops concert and fireworks last night?

Do you remember the montage of Boston that they’d played right at the beginning of the night?  Right after Brian Stokes Mitchell sang a stunning rendition of “American the Beautiful”, and added “sisterhood” after the line about “brotherhood”?

I know I did.  So did my cat.  And what we both noticed was that after a performance that honored not only the humanitarian goals of America (symbolized by “brotherhood”), but the determination and activism that is trying to bring us closer to that goal (symbolized by the “sisterhood”), as well as the recognition that America is made up of lots of different peoples…

…We get a montage about Boston that features images of men.

And I, along with my cat, who is himself a keen student of history, let out a huge sigh.  Not only because this kind of stuff happens all the time, because it does.  All the time.

You don’t have to take my word for it, either.  A Slate.com article last year pointed out that popular history books are not only largely about men, but are also largely written by men.  Click on the above link for more information, as well as a truly eye-opening graph about the state of the history publishing industry.   The problem with this isn’t the books themselves, or their authors (as long as they use good research practices and conscientious citations).  The problem is that these books, together, have the effect of a bullhorn–it makes it that much harder to hear any other stories being told around them.  And there are so many more stories that still need to be told.  Not only about Boston.

A painting recreating the Battle of Lexington and Concord

But Boston (and Massachusetts in general) is a phenomenal place to start telling those stories!  From the opening shots of the American Revolution fired in Concord and the riot that was the Boston Tea Party to the The Combahee River Collective in the 1970s to the being the first state to legalize gay marriage, Massachusetts has a history of producing and remembering people who change the status quo.  And to overlook that is to do a great disservice to its history, as well as upholding a troubling precedent of overlooking their contributions to history.

So let’s put together a list, shall we, of histories and people who weren’t discussed on Bloomberg TV last night, and celebrate all the people who make this area, this country, and this species we call humanity, so fascinating….

The Poems of Phyllis Wheatley:  The woman we know today as Phyllis Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753, and was sold into slavery around the age of seven.   She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, and named after the ship that brought her to North America.  The Wheatley children taught her to read and write, and their parents, John and Susanna Wheatley encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent.  Phyllis was emancipated in 1773, and became the first published female African-American poet the same year.  She corresponded with George Washington and the King George III, and wrote movingly about the rights of slaves in the emerging United States.  Phyllis Wheatley died at the age of 31, while working as a scullery maid in order to pay back her husbands’ debts.

Improper Bostonians : lesbian and gay history from the Puritans to Playland: Drawing on sources ranging from newspaper accounts to private archives, and incorporating more than 200 images, this book is one of, if not the most comprehensive LGBT city history around. Showcasing an extraordinary variety of perspectives and periods, subjects and sources, from Prohibition to World War II to  urban development to the AIDS epidemic, to tell a new and vitally important history of Boston.  The History Project is a volunteer-based organization that works to collect and preserve the history of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people in and of Massachusetts, and have a pretty remarkable digital archives on their website, which you can check out here.

Louisa May Alcott: A Biography: One of the faces that Bloomberg TV showed was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was, by far, the most well-known of the Transcendentalists living in Concord, Massachusetts in the 19th century.  But, nothing against Emerson at all, he was famous because he was the most mainstream of all the Transcendentalists.  He didn’t go build himself a cabin in the woods like his buddy, Henry David Thoreau.  He didn’t create a big scandal by implying that children had minds of their own and should be encouraged to think and contradict their elders, like Bronson Alcott.  And he wasn’t a rabble-rouser like Bronson’s daughter, my friend Louisa May Alcott.   Did you know that Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote?  The state legislature passed a bill in 1879 permitting women to vote in town elections dealing with children and education, and Louisa knew that this was the first, critical step, to women gaining a voice in politics.  You can read all about Louisa’s remarkable life, and her unique family, including her mother, who worked at a shelter for abused women in Boston in the mid-nineteenth century, in this phenomenal biography by Madeline Stern.

The Trouble Between Us : An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement: Inspired by the idealism of the civil rights movement, the women who launched the radical second wave of the feminist movement believed fundamentally in universal sisterhood and a color-blind democracy. Their goals, however, remain unrecognized to this day.  Winifred Breines explores why a racially integrated women’s liberation movement did not develop in the United States, using sources as diverse as protest posters, pamphlets, newspapers, speeches, and oral histories with some of the most influential and active of the second-wave feminists.  Of particular focus in her work is the Combahee River Collective, a Boston-based organization of Black women whose published statement (which you can read here) is considered a bedrock of the Black feminist movement to this day.  This isn’t an easy read, but it is a vitally important one for those seeking for ways to improve the dialogue still taking place about race and feminism today.

Interesting in reading some more of Boston’s–and Massachusetts’–fascinating, diverse, and revolutionary history?  Come into the Library and we’ll be happy to help you find just want you’re looking for!


Archivist Favorite Book For 2015

Attempting to pick a favorite book for 2015 was difficult task because many of the books that I have read this year have been books that I have read in the past and of those several k2-_5ee9edaf-90e1-432a-a41d-496896093b4c.v1were non-fiction. James Deetz (1930-2000), former University of Virginia archaeology professor, book In Small Things Forgotten is one book worth rereading. Deetz maintains his argument that understanding the significance of simple artifacts may give deeper insight into American history than letters journals and other written documents. In his 1996 edition, Deetz expanded many of the chapters and added an entire chapter on Africans and African-Americans, their artifacts, and lifestyles.

Deetz examines the definition of historical archaeology, as well as historical archaeologists’ relationships to material culture and how a site and its artifacts are important. Now this might sound a bit academic, but Deetz is able to write in a way that makes his work accessible and interesting to many outside the world of history. He also uncovers archaeology’s relationship with the historical record. For example, Deetz reveals that bones of wild animals were found in many African-American cellars and he hypothesizes that slaves most likely ate them to supplement their diet. This indicates that slaves had free time to hunt, which contradicts the historical record, which assumes that their white owners fully controlled their lives. Deetz mainly covers New England and the Chesapeake area because those are the locations of sites that he where he did the majority of his work. Although Deetz touches on the national and international context of his findings, for the most part he maintains a regional focus.

By studying everyday objects like dishes, houses, and gravestones, Deetz clearly draws the connection between history and archaeology, as well as the relationship to modern day life. Each chapter of In Small Things Forgotten explores a different aspect of historical archaeology. For example, chapter five, “I Would Have the Howse Stronge in Timber,” is especially fascinating because Deetz examines houses as material culture and writes about how saving houses creates its own issues. The last chapter, on Africans and African-Americans in America, is the most interesting. The written record is predominantly from white landowners and so the artifacts that slaves left behind allow historians to better understand their daily lives. Deetz also details how European housing differs from the housing that African-Americans had in America. Interestingly, he finds that the shotgun houses in America are more similar to those found in Haiti than those in West Africa.

Deetz uses a variety of sources throughout the book to support his arguments, including photos, journals, articles and books. A few of these sources include Noel Hume’s A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America, which is a great book to help date early American objects and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647. The numerous illustrations are useful and well drawn, adding significantly to the book’s readability because they help to visually explain Deetz’s arguments.

While it is a pleasure to read Deetz’s In Small Things Forgotten, it also features clear language and structure. The book provides a new way to learn about early America because it serves as a counterpoint to the written record. Deetz has successfully updated this detailed and insightful book, explaining the importance of seemingly insignificant artifacts in a straightforward. It is a book that one can reread several times and continue to learn something new. The book is recommended for those interested in early American history or even those interested in genealogy.


Erik Bauer

One Night Only, Frederick Douglass

“Come with me, Douglass; I will defend you with my life. I want you for a special purpose.”

John Brown to Frederick Douglass before the Harpers Ferry Raid

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879.  George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection) Exact Date Shot Unknown NARA FILE #:  200-FL-22 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #:  113
Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection)
Exact Date Shot Unknown
NARA FILE #: 200-FL-22

Of the many people who have spoken at the Peabody Institute, few could speak to the types of experiences that Frederick Douglass faced when he spoke on Tuesday, December 16, 1873. When the doors to the Lyceum opened at 7 PM “every available chair in the building was pressed into service and the platform furnished seats for a few more, […] both aisles and the gallery were overflowing also,” The Peabody Press reported. It was estimated that nearly 300 people had to be turned away. Before Douglass, the most well attended event at the Peabody Institute was Gillmore’s Band, which performed in the Lyceum.

Why did so many people want to hear Douglass speak? This escaped slave turned famous orator was by 1873 well-known both nationally and internationally, in part because of his autobiography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and American Slave, which was published in 1845. Douglass was also an outspoken supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. The year before Douglass’ speech at the Peabody Institute Lyceum, he was nominated for Vice President of the United States – the first African American ever nominated for that position – on the Equal Rights Party ticket.

Back at the Lyceum in 1873, the lucky ones who attended Douglass’ lecture faced additional issues. Because of the stale air and cigarette and cigar smoke, along with poor ventilation because the lecture was held during the winter, some in attendance fainted, which “caused much sympathy from many others oppressed” by the heat and foul air. Douglass was not the only person on the stage. He shared it with the Mayor of Lynn and Rev. Beebe of England who also had his daughter along. Yet when Douglass started to speak, everyone listened, transfixed, for the nearly two hour duration of his speech.

The name of Douglass’ lecture was titled “Reminiscences of Slavery and Anti-Slavery” and since the lecture took place less than ten years after the end of the Civil War, it would have resonated significantly with most in the crowd. He spoke not of his own experiences, which he had done in the area previously, but of a moment that he had with John Brown regarding Harpers Ferry. While there is no existing transcript of Douglass’ speech, based on The Peabody Press article, as well as other sources, Douglass may have spoken about his last meeting with John Brown in Chambersburg, PA where Brown made his final arrangements to raid Harpers Ferry.

In Douglass’ autobiography The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he talks about his final meeting with Brown and how Brown had finally committed to taking hostages at Harpers Ferry, which would allow Brown to “dictate terms of egress from the town.” Douglass told Brown that his plan would not work and that he was “striking a blow which should instantly rouse the country […].” He was against Brown’s plan and urged him not to go through with it. Despite Douglass’ pleas, John Brown followed through on his plans to take Harpers Ferry. He failed, was tried, found guilty and hung. To many abolitionists, Brown died a martyr, but others blamed him for fueling the fire that helped lead to the Civil War. We may never know Douglass’ thoughts at the Lyceum lecture, but in a speech given about John Brown at the Fourteenth Anniversary of Storer College (a historically black college located in Harpers Ferry) in 1881, Douglass noted that those who perpetuated slavery were more to blame than Brown.

Although Douglass was about fifty-five at the time of his Lyceum lecture, the Peabody Press states “his voice was clear, his diction faultless, his style vigorous and masterly and no prejudice can fail to accord him high hours as master in the art of eloquence.” Once Douglass finished he received a thunderous applause from the audience. According to the Twenty-Second Peabody Institute Annual Report, Douglas was paid $100 to speak which would be about $1,948.10 today.

Though Douglass only spoke at the Library once, his topic and message may have struck a chord with Library Trustees on the Lyceum Committee. In the Annual Report the Lyceum Committee members noted that “It is of the highest importance that first class lecturers be secured, while it is of less importance what is the theme […].” In prior years the lectures were formed around a theme or had similarities that ran through the lecture series. And from the 1873 lecture series onward, the lectures would cover wider topics and themes.