MHS Programs Explore Aspects of African American History
By Gavin Kleespies, Public Programs
This past November, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar spoke at the MHS about their new book The Annotated African American Folktales. This publication presents nearly 150 African American stories, among them familiar Brer Rabbit classics, but also stories like “The Talking Skull” and “Witches Who Ride,” as well as out-of-print tales from the 1890s’ Southern Workman. Professor Gates’ reflections on how folktales weaved into his own personal history made the power of these stories very real, while professor Tatar helped place these stories in historical context and as a part of the American literary tradition.
Both Gates and Tatar are faculty members at Harvard University. Professor Tatar is the John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures. She chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology, where she teaches courses in German Studies, Folklore, and Children’s Literature. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, a literary scholar, a journalist, a cultural critic, and an Overseer and long term friend to the MHS.
For the audience, it was a captivating opportunity to hear new tales and revisit some familiar stories. These folktales are so full of wisdom, humor, whimsy, and intelligence that anyone who reads or hears them must understand that they should hold a prominent place in the Western literary canon. However, the personal stories of when these tales were first heard or memories of them being shared made the evening truly special.
Kicking off African American History Month, we have made this program available to all on our website. Over the course of the month we are hosting several programs that explore aspects of African American history.
February 8 - 6:00 pm
Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America with Douglas Edgarton (Le Moyne College)
One of the most treasured objects belonging to the Society’s collection is the battle sword of Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of the courageous 54th Massachusetts infantry, the first black regiment in the north. The prominent Shaw family of Boston and New York had long been involved in reform, from antislavery to feminism, and their son, Robert, took up the mantle of his family’s progressive stances, though perhaps more reluctantly. In this lecture, historian Douglas R. Egerton focuses on the entire Shaw family during the war years and how preceding generations have dealt with their legacy.
$10 (free for MHS members)
February 20 - 6:00 pm
Growing Up with the Country with Kendra Field (Tufts University)
Following the lead of her own ancestors, Kendra Field’s epic family history chronicles the westward migration of freedom’s first generation in the fifty years after emancipation. Field traces their journey out of the South to Indian Territory, where they participated in the development of black towns and settlements. When statehood, oil speculation, and segregation imperiled their lives, some launched a back-to-Africa movement, while others moved on to Canada and Mexico. Interweaving black, white, and Indian histories, Field’s narrative explores how ideas about race and color powerfully shaped the pursuit of freedom.
$10 (free for MHS members)
February 26 - 6:00 pm
Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court with Paul Finkelman (Gratz College)
The three most important Supreme Court Justices before the Civil War—Chief Justices John Marshall and Roger B. Taney and Associate Justice Joseph Story—upheld the institution of slavery in ruling after ruling. These opinions cast a shadow over the Court and the legacies of these men, but historians have rarely delved deeply into the personal and political ideas and motivations they held. In Supreme Injustice Paul Finkelman establishes an authoritative account of each justice’s proslavery position, the reasoning behind his opposition to black freedom, and the incentives created by his private life.
| Published: Monday, 5 February, 2018, 12:00 AM
History by the Numbers: A Gomes Prize Ceremony conversation between 2017 recipient Tamara Thornton and MHS President Catherine Allgor
By Alexis Buckley, Research Department
In 2016, the MHS founded the Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize, awarded annually for the best book on the history of Massachusetts. The prize honors the memory of the Reverend Professor Gomes, a Harvard scholar and a respected and beloved Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society for almost thirty-five years. Peter Gomes believed in the transformative power of engaging with the past, and held an especial fondness for the history of his native state. He extolled the role of the imagination in creating a better world.
About two centuries earlier, another Massachusetts native himself set out to create a better world. His name was Nathaniel Bowditch, and above all he believed in the power of numbers. Thus it’s only fitting that the 2017 Gomes Book Prize was awarded to historian Tamara Plakins Thornton for her biography, Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life. Thornton brings to life the Atlantic-facing maritime world of Bowditch’s hometown, the bustling port of Salem. She also reveals Bowditch’s role in creating the numbered and sorted bureaucratic society familiar to us today, from creating navigational tables, to organizing the collections of Salem’s East India Marine Society—now the Peabody Essex Museum—and the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company, to introducing a numerical grading system at Harvard. As Thornton demonstrates, Bowditch took his faith in numbers and transformed the world.
Thornton joined us at the Society on Thursday, Jan. 25, to receive the 2017 prize. Like any good historian, she came in early to spend the day in our reading room, diving into the research for her next project. (Not to mention using collections well numbered and sorted! Our library staff would make Bowditch proud.) Come evening, after Ellis Hall had been transformed for the award ceremony, she received her award check and a certificate beautifully framed and matted with century-old French endpaper. She then took to the stage to commence a conversation on what it means to be a historian and a biographer.
Who better to join Thornton in this conversation than our new president, Catherine Allgor, another historian cum biographer? Allgor’s biography of Dolley Madison followed her work Parlor Politics, on the founding women of the early republic, much as Thornton’s biography of Bowditch followed her monographs on handwriting and the making of country life by the nineteenth-century Boston elite.
Fortunately for those too far away—or too cold!—to attend the program, the conversation was filmed and is now available for you to watch online. Allgor and Thornton spoke about transitioning from writing monographs to writing biographies, and the advantages they had in having already written books that made them familiar with their subject’s world: in Dolley Madison’s case, it was Washington D.C. and all its politicking; for Nathanial Bowditch, it was the surprisingly cosmopolitan city of Salem. More specifically, Bowditch lived in a world of merchants and shipping, where—instead of the Latin and Greek needed for Harvard—young men bound for occupations as clerks and navigators learned math and penmanship. Of course, Thornton and Allgor continued, writing biography also means considering the role of inborn personality and temperament in relation to the influence of the subject’s era.
MHS President Catherine Allgor and Gomes Prize recipient Tamara Thornton, in conversation.
Thornton and Allgor also discussed their efforts to find points of familiarity with their subjects while keeping in mind that the past remains a foreign country. Allgor enjoyed taking a fresh look at Washington politics in its infancy through Dolley Madison, and considering how the politics we know today are contingent on so many nineteenth-century choices that people such as Madison made. Thornton described the uncategorized society that Bowditch transformed, with numbers and forms, into the world we live in today.
And, of course, the two biographers discussed Bowditch’s love of numbers. He was inspired by the rules and regularity of the solar system, and sought to recreate that wherever he could. He saw the world, Thornton said, in “pluses and minuses.” He loved the certainty of numbers. If you were incorrect, inaccurate, immoral, wrong: all of these things were the same to him.
There is more to be heard on the video, about finding sources and excluding them, about Bowditch’s views on the places he sailed to around the world, and about strange and unexpected discoveries in the archives! But I will keep this entry short enough to fit on one of Bowditch’s blank forms, and merely suggest that you watch the video, then pick up Tamara Thornton’s award-winning book and take your own trip to Nathaniel Bowditch’s ordered world.
If you’ve published a book on Massachusetts history copyrighted in 2017, we invite you to submit your work for consideration to receive this year’s Gomes Prize, and we look forward to telling all of you what the 2018 competition brings!
| Published: Friday, 2 February, 2018, 10:09 AM
By Sara Georgini, Adams Papers
The First Lady was lost. Nine miles off the main road, Abigail Adams, 56, hacked her way through the thick woods bordering Baltimore and the “wilderness city” of Washington, D.C. Eager to join husband John in the new capital, Abigail had left Quincy in early November 1800 with two servants. By Saturday the 15th, they had fallen a few days off course. For two hours, a frustrated Abigail circled the same forest paths—a precious gulf of travel time gone, since they only rode in daylight, and local inns were scarce. Abigail (accurately) reckoned that 36 miles of rough and lonely land lay ahead. She forged on, “holding down & breaking bows of trees which we could not pass,” as she told sister Mary Smith Cranch, “untill we met a Solitary black fellow with a horse and cart. We inquired of him our way, and he kindly offered to conduct us.” Abigail hired him on the spot. Following his directions, by Sunday afternoon she reached her new home, “a Castle of a House…in a beautifull Situation” with a “romantic” view of the Potomac River.
Abigail Adams’ trove of letters, as national convention-watchers have recently reminded us, supply a unique view of slavery and of the African-American experience in the new republic. When First Lady Michelle Obama reiterated on Monday that slave labor built the White House, many viewers turned to founding-era papers, including those of the Adams family, for details. Enter Abigail. One of the second First Lady’s D.C. dispatches, back in popular circulation again this week, lists her candid observation of slaves at work outside the President’s House window. Here’s an extract of the 28 Nov. 1800 letter to Cotton Tufts that got Abigail Adams trending on Facebook and lighting up Twitter:
“The effects of Slavery are visible every where; and I have amused myself from day to day in looking at the labour of 12 negroes from my window, who are employd with four small Horse carts to remove some dirt in front of the house. The four carts are all loaded at the Same time, and whilst four carry this rubish about half a mile, the remaining eight rest upon their Shovels, two of our hardy N England men would do as much work in a day, as the whole 12; but it is true Republicanism that drive the Slaves half fed, and destitute of cloathing, or fit for May faire, to labour, whilst the owner waches about Idle, tho his one Slave is all the property he can boast. Such is the case of many of the inhabitants of this place.”
Such a public display of slavery in the nation’s capital distressed Abigail Adams, although a New England upbringing had not shielded her from its misery. Her father William Smith, a Weymouth clergyman, owned several slaves who were freed upon his death in 1783.“I wish most sincerely there was not a Slave in the province,” Abigail wrote to her husband in 1774, as demands for American liberty grew. A staunch antislavery advocate, Abigail was furious when the Declaration of Independence’s “most Manly Sentiments,” denouncing the slave trade, were, after debate, heavily struck from the final draft. Plain-spoken about the need for African-American freedom on paper, Abigail’s actions also merit a quick review. She employed her father’s former slave, Phoebe Abdee, to run the family farm. She educated African-American servants in her Quincy parlor. When a neighbor balked at Abigail sending one of her staff, James, to school, she argued for him in a letter to John: “The Boy is a Freeman as much as any of the young Men, and merely because his Face is Black, is he to be denied instruction? How is he to be qualified to procure a livelihood? Is this the Christian principle of doing to others, as we would have others do to us?” Then Abigail pivoted to quash James’ toughest critic: “Tell them Mr. Faxon that I hope we shall all go to Heaven together. Upon which Faxon laugh’d, and thus ended the conversation. I have not heard any more upon the subject.” The question of James’ education was settled in 1797. Three busy years later, Abigail set out for the President’s House.
Abigail, a hardy traveler, took advantage of every panorama and every person she met. Given a new window on the world, Abigail used it. Barely a month into her D.C. stay, Abigail accepted an invitation to visit Martha Washington, now the General’s widow, at Mount Vernon. The rooms she found “small and low,” and the “greatest Ornament” to the visitor’s eye, Abigail decided, was a long piazza that knit together the Potomac’s gauzy blue-grey with lush green lawn. Signs of decay, the New Englander wrote, now threatened parts of the plantation’s beauty. Abigail’s unique summit with her old friend and colleague is worth a ponder. What did the two First Ladies discuss? We know one topic for certain: Slaves. Specifically, Abigail wrote to her sister Mary Smith Cranch on 21 December 1800, the deepening anxiety that Martha, “with all her fortune finds it difficult to support her family, which consists of three Hundred souls.” With 150 Mount Vernon slaves on the brink of emancipation, Abigail wrote that Martha was “distrest” for the fate of “Men with wives & young children who have never Seen an acre, beyond the farm. are now about to quit it, and go adrift into the world without house Home or Friend.”
This rich letter, held in the Adams-Cranch Papers here at the Massachusetts Historical Society, contains Abigail’s description of plantation life and underlines her antislavery creed. “If any person wishes to see the banefull effects of slavery. as it creates a torpor and an indolence and a Spirit of domination,” Abigail wrote, “let them come and take a view of the cultivation of this part of the United States. I shall have reason to Say. that my Lot hath fallen to me in a pleasant place. and that verily I have a goodly Heritage.” Mount Vernon gave Abigail another President’s House window from which to see America’s slaves, and the thorny road ahead.
| Published: Saturday, 30 July, 2016, 11:47 AM
MHS Staff Meet with Librarians from Uzbekistan
By Nancy Heywood, Collection Services
Although there are many miles between Boston, Massachusetts and Tashkent, Uzbekistan (6,148 miles according to Google) and although the English language is quite different from the Uzbek language, librarians from the National Library of Uzbekistan and staff of the Massachusetts Historical Society found much common ground and camaraderie during a recent meeting at MHS.
The scheduling logistics for the group - comprised of the Director, Deputy Director, Head, Reading Halls Lead Specialist, and Head of IT and Access to Foreign Library Collections - were handled by WorldBoston. The focus of the meeting and tour, which took place on 5 June, was on how the MHS makes special collections materials available to researchers both remotely and on-site. During the visit, with the aid of two highly skilled interpreters, we were able to convey information about cataloging, archival storage, and collections management issues.
Following Librarian Elaine Heavey's brief introduction to the MHS's history and collections, Digital Projects Coordinator Nancy Heywood and Web Developer Bill Beck showed some examples of how we make selections of our collections available online. The MHS website features a few different types of digital presentations—some sections of the website present sets of materials comprised of relatively small numbers of items with lots of contextual information and transcriptions, but other sections of the website present large sets of documents and/or fully digitized collection with minimal descriptive information and usually without transcriptions.
Elaine Heavey then conveyed information about how researchers use online catalogs and collection guides to prepare for their research visit and she demonstrated Portal1791, our new researcher request system. The group toured the building and saw the spaces that researchers use (orientation room, reading room, catalog room) as well as some staff areas including the conservation lab and one of the larger stack floors. They also saw a few highlights from the collections.
| Published: Thursday, 9 July, 2015, 1:00 AM
Margaret Hall’s WWI Memoir: The Book, the Talk, the Exhibition
By Jim Connolly, Publications
I’ve posted on the Beehive a few times about Margaret Hall, a Massachusetts woman who volunteered with the American Red Cross in France during World War I. So you may know (and if you didn’t, now you do!) that her memoir and selected photographs from her war experience will be published for the first time in the Society’s forthcoming book, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall. The MHS will publish the volume on 14 July 2014.
Come celebrate the release of Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country on Tuesday, 15 July 2014, when the volume’s editor, Margaret R. Higonnet, will give a talk titled “‘What is Focus?’ Margaret Hall’s Battle Country.” The program will run from 6:00 to 7:30 PM following a pre-talk reception at 5:30 PM. This event is free but requires an RSVP. Register online or call the MHS reservations line at 617-646-0560.
And while you’re in the Society’s 1154 Boylston Street building, you can take in our current exhibition, Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War. Until then, you can get your Margaret Hall fix from July’s Object of the Month.
| Published: Friday, 11 July, 2014, 8:00 AM