A team of UMass Amherst faculty, librarians, staff, and students and their partners at the Pioneer Valley History Network (PVHN) are among the partnering projects awarded $349,803.00 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in support of the project Enslaved: Peoples of the Historical Slave Trade, also known as Enslaved.org, an open-access website affiliated with Michigan State University that publishes datasets and biographical narratives with information about the lives of individuals who suffered under slavery and who were part of the transatlantic slave trade. The Western Massachusetts team launched their initiative, the Documenting the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley (DBL) project, in 2021, with support from a UMass Amherst Public Service Endowment Grant and from MassHumanities. The NEH award will allow the local project to expand and become accessible through the larger Enslaved.org portal.
Organized by PVHN and the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries and Public History Program in collaboration with numerous local history organizations, DBL is a community-based research project that documents the lives of free, enslaved, and formerly enslaved Black residents of the Connecticut River Valley prior to 1900. To date, DBL researchers have amassed 4,500 entries into the project’s public dataset of local Black history. The project website features resources supporting future research on Black history in the Connecticut River Valley; an online handbook with reflective and practice essays; biographical sketches sharing the stories of local Black historical figures; an extensive research guide with dedicated one-on-one research support by librarians at the UMass Amherst Libraries; and a gathering of additional resources spotlighting other scholarship and public projects on local and regional Black history.
Enslaved.org project directors Walter Hawthorne and Dean Rehberger explain that this recent NEH grant will help the national project expand to include datasets from regions that are currently underrepresented on the website. “With this grant, we are working with partners who will [contribute records documenting the lives of] people who lived in places like Connecticut River Valley, the Caribbean, and the Deep South,” noted Hawthorne. Additional partners joining the project include the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Mount Vernon, the Newport Historical Society, the Schomburg Center, the Historic Natchez Foundation, and the University of the Virgin Islands, as well as other partners in Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, and Mississippi.
The expansion of data means that enslaved people’s descendants can start getting answers about loved ones whose stories were previously forgotten by history, added Rehberger. He explained that the challenge of recovering “the history of those enslaved is that there are little bits of information all over the place about them….. The more information we can bring in, the more people we can identify and figure out what happened to them and learn about their relationships and lives, that is what makes our work important.”
“Making those connections–across archives, across institutions, across town and county lines–is crucial if we are to fully understand our region’s history,” added Marla Miller, DBL steering committee member and UMass historian, “but they also help researchers trying to piece together family histories, support new, dynamic interpretation at museums and historic sites, and can support claims for reparations.”
Erika Slocumb, a PhD student in UMass’s W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies and Director of Interpretation and Visitor Experience at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center for Social Justice, and another member of the DBL steering committee, adds that “access to the DBL dataset is helpful for me as a historian of Black History in Western Massachusetts and the Connecticut River Valley and in my scholarship across New England.” She continued, “as a Black woman, researching my community family genealogies, this database and others like it have been helpful in expanding our families’ histories. They are imperative to expansion of national and global accessibility to the history of Black American and diasporic history.”
“One of the exciting things about this project is that it is pushing history and the humanities broadly in a new direction,” observes Hawthorne. “Books and print publications are still important but there are other pathways to get research out there. This type of digital project opens a lot of possibilities for research to be published and made available. The project is really pushing the boundaries of humanities and history, especially when it comes to data preservation, scholarly publications, and outreach.”
On a local level, historian Zoë Cheek, who is on the steering committee of the Pioneer Valley History Network and the DBL project, explained that prioritizing cooperation, communication and public access has long been the hallmark of PVHN’s work and of the DBL project specifically. “We are delighted to see public access to local Black history continue to grow through this grant with Enslaved.org. We look forward to the new national and international connections this grant will make possible.”
For more information on these digital projects visit Enslaved.org and www.umass.edu/connecticut-river-valley-black-history.
Photo courtesy of the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, Springfield, Massachusetts.