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Fridays with Zoe- Documenting Black Lives in Longmeadow

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

This summer the Longmeadow Historical Society has been participating in a project called “Documenting the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley” organized by the Pioneer Valley History Network (PVHN), the UMass Public History Program, and the UMass Amherst W.E.B. Du Bois Library, with support from Mass Humanities and the UMass Amherst Public Service Endowment Grant.

Most Fridays over the past few months, I have had the privilege of meeting with UMass Amherst Public History student, Zoe Cheek, as we continue the important work of uncovering the names and stories of free and enslaved black residents of early Longmeadow. Zoe has been inputting these names, dates, details and links to sources into a new database generated by the program which collects similar information from other participating organizations all over the Pioneer Valley. One of the goals of this work is to build a broader and more complete view of the role people of color have played in building the communities in which they lived and worked.

As part of our work, Zoe and I have been pouring over the diaries of Longmeadow’s first minister, Stephen Williams, for details of the community, his household, and the people he was known to enslave. Williams’ diaries, which cover the years 1716-1782, have been transcribed and studied before, and names and dates and some details of enslaved people have been known for well over a century. It has never been a secret that Williams, like many ministers in colonial New England, was an enslaver. We also know that Rev. Williams was not the only enslaver in 18th century Longmeadow. Now is the time to gather what we know and look at it in the larger context of what was happening in the region and hopefully be able to connect names and places and come to a more complete understanding of the racial and class complexities of the Connecticut River Valley in early America.

We have completed the first three of ten volumes of the diaries of Stephen Williams, all of which are available for the public to view in their handwritten and transcript forms on both the Storrs Library and Historical Society’s websites. There is nothing linear about this work. One mention of a name or set of initials sends us cross-referencing with available town and church records. In addition to that we must also compare what is transcribed to its 18th century handwritten counterpart. We’ve crossed borders between towns, counties and into Connecticut. Mentions of Stephen Williams visiting a “poor negro” in prison several times in 1732 led Zoe on a journey through newspapers of that year and a further hunt for court records about a case involving parties from Windsor and Suffield that was tried in Springfield.

We’ve known that Williams owned an enslaved boy named Nicholas in 1719-1720 before selling him to someone in Deerfield. By entering Nicholas’ name and the few details we are able to ascertain about him into the project’s database, will it be possible to trace his movements in another household after 1720? We hope.

There is mention in a Williams diary entry on July 30, 1734 that S.W. Esq. B “Bought me a servant.” Who is S.W. Esq. B.? By servant, does he mean slave? The two terms were interchangeable at the time. This diary entry also mentions the city of Boston. Does the “B” stand for “of Boston” meaning the “servant” came from Boston? Was that the seaport through which this person entered? Or had he or she come from another household? This query has sent our board president, Al McKee, to begin searching what he describes as a mammoth Boston directory called, "Boston, MA: Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston 1630 -1822.” He is beginning at the "Ws": “working my way from Wackum thru the end of the Ws.” We hope to find a clue as to the identity of this S.W. Esq. B to see what further information about the slave trade in Massachusetts we can learn as it relates to our community and region.

Our search for details about the lives of the free and enslaved people of early Longmeadow is a winding one, sending us into wills, probates, tax records, vital records, merchant account books, church records, and all manner of town records. It is work we are eager to take on, and we look forward to continuing this work with PVHN and UMass. It is time to bring the names of some of Longmeadow’s earliest residents to light and acknowledge their legacies - people like Nicholas, Robin, Phillis, Scipio, Zickrie, Peter, Stamford, Caesar, Tom, Patte, Tobiah, Cato, Joseph, Betty, Jack, Pomp, Pero, Richard, Andrew, Prince, Guy Gordon, Azuba (Guy’s mother), Susannah Freedom, Ceasar Avery, Prince Starkweather, and countless other souls who lived and toiled here.

For more information on the project "Documenting the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley" please visit their website.

Contributed by Melissa M. Cybulski, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member

Originally published August 26, 2021

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