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  • New England African American History Resources

    Beth Anne Bower

    Many researchers are surprised to learn that New England's African American history stretches back as far as that of English and European immigrants to North America. While it is still being debated whether Abraham Pearse was the "blackamoor" listed among the Pilgrim settlers in Plimoth Colony, it is certain that African slaves were brought to Massachusetts in 1638 by the colony. Connecticut and Rhode Island imported slaves in approximately the same decade and New Hampshire was not far behind. New England merchants were active participants in the Atlantic slave trade throughout the Colonial Period. After the end of the importation of slaves to the United States, New England's economic and family ties to plantations continued through the manufacture of cloth for southern plantations. New England experienced a steady influx of descendants of Africans as freed and escaped slaves moved north during the Antebellum period. After the Civil War and in the twentieth century, New England received some of the southern African Americans that participated in the Great Migrations. And immigrants from the West Indies and Africa have continued to settle in New England.

    For those researching African American genealogy, knowledge of secondary sources that discuss their rich and varied history in New England is important. Why? First, an understanding of the historical context will help the researcher to get the most out of the primary and secondary sources available. Second, knowing the facts of the slave trade and immigration trends, racial and regional issues, and specific restrictions and prejudices faced by African Americans will assist with interpreting sources and guiding the family researcher to other research material.

    The discussion below highlights books, guides, and articles specifically about African American genealogy and history in New England. This list, while not exhaustive, provides a selection of resources from each New England state and concentrates on works that describe specific African Americans and records about African Americans, rather than general coverage of historical trends. Family researchers should always remember to search all historical terms for Africans and African Americans ("Black," "Colored," "Free person of color," "Mulatto," "Negro," "Octoroon," "People of Color," "Quadroon," and "slave") when searching any resource. Do not limit this method of searching to only historic records, as indexing in historical journals is often inconsistent. Researchers should search indexes for all of the above as well as the terms "underground railroad," "slave trade," and "slavery."

    New England Resources
    William D. Pierson's Black Yankees: the Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England (1988, UMASS Press, Amherst, MA) is an excellent overview of African American culture in the colonial period, as is the earlier The Negro in Colonial New England by Lorenzo Johnston Greene (1974, Athenaeum, New York). The participation of African Americans in the American Revolution is the subject of New England Black historian William C. Nell's Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855, R.F. Wallcut, Boston) and The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution by Sydney and Emma Nogrady Kaplan (revised edition, 1989, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst). Thomas Truxtun Moebs' Black Soldiers-Black Sailors-Black Ink: A Research Guide on African Americans in U.S. Military Service (1994, Moebs Publishing Company, Chesapeake Bay, VA) is a compendium indexed by name that includes writings of Black veterans.

    Although African American slaves in Massachusetts successfully litigated for their freedom in the 1780s, more gradual emancipation took place in the other states of New England as outlined in Joanne Pope Melish's Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860 (1998, Cornell University Press, Ithaca). The New England African American experience in the Civil War is chronicled in books on the Union's Black Regiments such as Luis F. Emilio's History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865 (1894, The Boston Book Company, second edition, Boston) and Noah Andre Trudeau's Voice of the 55th: Letters from the 55th Massachusetts Volunteers, 1861-1865 (1996, Morningside Press, Dayton, OH). Topical resources include the Kendall Whaling Museum's African Americans in the Maritime Trades, A Guide to Resources in New England (1990, Kendall Whaling Museum, Sharon) and Edward Clark's Black Writers in New England.

    By the end of the colonial period, Connecticut had the largest African American population in New England. The Connecticut State Library has an excellent online guide to African American genealogy which contains a bibliography of African Americans in Connecticut. The New London Historical Society has recently published two books on Connecticut African American history: an updated Black Roots in Southeastern Connecticut, 1650-1900 (2001) by Barbara W. Brown and James M. Rose, and Linwood T. Bland's A View from the 60s: The Black Experience in Southeastern Connecticut (2001). Rose and Brown have also published Tapestry, a Living History of the Black Family in Southeastern Connecticut (1979, New London County Historical Society). Mary Nason's African Americans in Simsbury, 1725-1925 (1996, M. L. Nason, Simsbury, CT), Sandi Brewster Walker's articles on Bridgeport and Greenwich records in the Journal of the African American Historic and Genealogical Society (JAAHGS),  and Daniel Stewart's Black New Haven (1977, D.Y. Stewart, New Haven CT) provide history and genealogical information for other localities. The Sweeter the Juice: a Family Memoir in Black and White by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip (1994, Touchstone Books, New York) is a moving account of a family history search.

    Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820, so researchers should consult sources in both states prior to that year. Maine's African American population is currently the second smallest in New England. Randolph Stakeman's article "The Black Population of Maine, 1764-1900" can be found in the New England Journal of Black Studies (1989). African American genealogy and history topics can be found in the journal Maine History, published by the Maine Historical Society. The University of Southern Maine Library has an African American Archives of Maine Reading Room located in Gorham. Anchor of the Soul: the History of an African American Community in Portland, Maine is an in-depth film about African American history and race relations in northern New England.

    A handout is available from the Massachusetts Archives entitled "Sources for Black Genealogy/History" which indicates records that specify color of an individual and reference materials pertaining solely to African Americans. In 1866, George H. Moore published Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts (reprint 1968, Negro Universities Press, New York) detailing the enslavement of Africans and the individual and collective efforts to end slavery in Massachusetts. The book also reproduces the "Warning Out" lists of 1800 from Boston, which contain records of "Africans and Negroes" and "Indians and Mulattoes" and their places of origin.

    There are a number of studies of Boston's African American community. Three books span three centuries: Adelaide M. Cromwell's The Other Brahmins, Boston's Black Upper Class, 1750-1950 (1994, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, AR), Franklin A. Dorman's Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts, 1742-1998 (1999, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston), and Robert C. Hayden's African Americans in Boston, More than 350 Years (1992, Boston Public Library, Boston). James and Lois Horton's seminal work Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North (1999) has recently been reissued by Holmes and Meier and The African Meeting House in Boston: A Sourcebook (19--, Museum of Afro-American History, Boston) provides context as well. Elizabeth H. Pleck studied the post-Civil War period of the same community in Black Migration and Poverty: Boston 1865-1900 (1979, Academic Press, New York).

    The period of the early twentieth century is recounted in Mark R. Schneider's Boston Confronts Jim Crow (1997, Northeastern University Press, Boston). For those interested in the mid- to late twentieth century, Mel King's Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development (1981, South End Press, Boston) and J. Anthony Lukas' Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1986, Vintage Books) chronicle the 1960s through the 1970s.

    Joseph Carvalho's Black Families in Hampden County, Massachusetts, 1650-1855 (1984, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston) and James Avery Smith's The History of the Black Population of Amherst, Massachusetts, 1728-1870 (1999: New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston) cover African American family history in the western part of Massachusetts. Kathryn Grover has just published The Fugitive's Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts (2001, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst) and Robert C. Hayden and Karen E. Hayden describe African Americans on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket: A History of People, Places and Events (1999, Select Publications, Boston).

    New Hampshire
    New Hampshire's African American population has congregated in Rockingham County, especially on the coast in Portsmouth. Valerie Cunningham, director of both the African American Resource Center and the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, has published related articles in New Hampshire History magazine. These articles and much more are available online, where you can also take a virtual tour of the Trail. Historical New Hampshire, the journal of the New Hampshire Historical Society, is the source of a few articles and references to African Americans, including a 1966 article on "Slavery in Colonial Portsmouth.

    Rhode Island
    Jay Coughtry's The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807 (1981, Philadelphia) describes the very active role Rhode Island played in the Atlantic slave trade. The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society has two publications: A Heritage Discovered: Blacks in Rhode Island (1978) by Rowena Stewart and Creative Survival: the Providence Black Community in the 19th Century. Another study of Providence's African American community is Robert J. Cottrol's The Afro-Yankees: Providence's Black Community in the Antebellum Era (1982, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT). The Newport Historical Society has published African Americans in Newport, 1700-1945 (1995) by Robert C. Youngken. Another study of Newport's black community is "Lord, Please Don't Take Me in August": African Americans in Newport and Saratoga Springs, 1879-1930 (1999, University of Illinois) by Myra B. Young Armstead.

    Vermont has always had the smallest African American population of the New England states, but according to James R. Fuller, Jr.'s Men of Color, to Arms!: Vermont African Americans in the Civil War (2001, University Press), 152 of the state's 709 Black residents enlisted to fight in the Civil War. The book covers the period from 1771 through the Civil War. Information is also available online at the Vermont in the Civil Warwebsite. The Civil Rights Era in Vermont is addressed in Stephen M Wrinn's Civil Rights in the Whitest State (1997, University Press of America).

    Beth Anne Bower is an independent researcher. She has recently completed a study of the manuscript collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) that contain primary sources about African Americans. The study is available as an MHS finding aid entitled “Collections Relevant to African American History at the Massachusetts Historical Society.”

    1."Who was the "Black Pilgrim?"
    2.Clark, Edward Black Writers in New England A Bibliography, with Biographical Notes, of Books by and About Afro-American Writers Associated with New England in the Collection of Afro-American Literature (1985: National Park Service, Boston).
    3.See JAAHGS vols. 4:23, 4:35-38 and 7: 157-161.
    4.Oedel, Howard T. "Slavery in Colonial Portsmouth" in Historical New Hampshire, vol. 21 (Autumn 1966), p. 3-11.

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