Editor's Note: This article first ran in August 2021. Since then our work on this important topic has continued. Zoe Cheek is now employed as an Archivist at the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History and is still a great resource for us.
The program "Say Their Names" being offered at the Storrs Library on August 30th at 6:30 pm is a result of the work we did for Documenting Early Black Lives Project with PVHN and UMass Amherst.
During the summer of 2021, the Longmeadow Historical Society participated 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 those few months, I had the privilege of meeting with UMass Amherst Public History student, Zoe Cheek, as we continued the important work of uncovering the names and stories of free and enslaved black residents of early Longmeadow. Zoe had been inputting names, dates, details, and links to sources into a new database generated by the program which collected similar information from other participating organizations all over the Pioneer Valley. One of the goals of this project was 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 pored 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 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 it was time to gather what we knew 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 went through all 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 Longmeadow Historical Society’s websites. There is nothing linear about this work. One mention of a name or set of initials sent us cross-referencing with available town and church records. In addition to that, we also compared what was transcribed to its 18th-century handwritten counterpart. One small error in transcription could lead to a new understanding. We 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 know that Williams owned an enslaved boy named Nicholas from 1719-1720 before selling him to someone in Deerfield. By entering Nicholas’ name and the few details we were able to ascertain about him into the project’s database, we hoped it would be possible to trace his movements in another household after 1720? Sadly, all traces of Nicholas were lost after he was sold.
There is a mention in a Williams diary entry on July 30, 1734 that someone called "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 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 began at the "Ws": “working my way from Wackum thru the end of the Ws.” We hoped 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 could learn as it related 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. 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" visit their website at https://blogs.umass.edu/pvhn-blackhistory/
To Register for the August 30th "Say Their Names" event visit visit the Storrs Library Event Link
-Contributed by Melissa M. Cybulski, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member
Image of an unidentified woman by Alice Willard, courtesy of Longmeadow Historical Society Collection