Boston’s Black History

I was rejected twice by a major institutional donor to digitize the Freedom House collection, in 2016, and then in 2018. The papers are extensive, and our low-ball digitization estimate was that it would take $150K to complete. The first time, it was because of some incorrect assumptions about the digital humanities portion of the grant, the second time (if I’m remembering correctly) is that it didn’t have ‘national significance’.  Recently, we began an in-house project, but it’s slow going, without money to pay vendors.

I’m disappointed, because if it had been funded, we would be wrapping up the work right now– at the height of BlackLivesMatter protests, the collection is completely closed.

I’m sharing this little narrative section, because it says a lot of things that I want to say about history, about community memory, the importance of Black Boston, and what kind of effect universal, free access to this collection could have.

Any chance [large granting agency] you want to reconsider, and happen to have $150K for us to continue to digitize Boston’s Black history?

neu_130163
Thomas Atkins, an unidentified man, Kenneth Guscott, and Paul Parks in front of the Liberty Mutual display at the 1968 NAACP Annual Convention.

Grant Narrative:

Freedom House brought people together around pressing Civil Rights and Social Justice issues from 1949 to the present. It served as both a mouthpiece for and as a reflection of the African-American community in Boston. The collection is thus of crucial value to scholars interested in studying grassroots social justice movements or how conversations on civil rights, Jim Crow, integration/desegregation, and Black Power were started or fostered in northern African-American communities. The Snowden’s attempts to alter Boston’s culture of discrimination chart the evolution of their strategy: starting with open houses, teas, and neighborhood clean-ups in the 1950s, expanding to block-by-block organizing efforts in the 1960s, and organizing more politically targeted events such as school walkouts and Freedom Schools in the 1970s.  The collection also casts an important light on how a ‘liberal’ northern city interacted with its residents of color over time, including city and state agencies, political leaders, philanthropic organizations, and employers.   

The collection also provides rich documentation of the experiences, activities, and social interconnections of an entire community. It offers a detailed record of the experiences through which the community expressed cultural identity over an extended period of Boston’s social justice history. Freedom House’s membership and board serves as an Honor Roll of leaders in Roxbury, suggesting the political and social alliances being established between community leaders and the larger Boston political scene. Ebony Fashion Fairs brought community members on stage for beauty contests, and the Showcase of Stars brought international performers like Nina Simone and the Commodores to perform. The collection can illuminate how the community united to influence and react to national events, such as Brown v. Board of Education.

Important strands of scholarship are already exploring Boston’s busing crisis, but the Freedom House collection has the potential to support perspectives that are often overlooked.  As Jeanne Theoharis has argued, much current scholarship on the history of Boston school desegregation, including Anthony Lukas’ Pulitzer-winning Common Ground (1986) represent “prevailing historiographical and sociological schools of thought that marginalize the entrenched and explicit structures of racism in Boston and erase a well-organized, protracted local movement constructed against racial injustice” (Theoharis and Woodard, Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America, 18). Adding Freedom House’s long history of local struggle for education equity provides ample research fodder.  

In addition to clear scholarly research value, the collection also carries immense significance for current curricular priorities in both the Boston Public Schools (BPS)  and potentially for other K-12 programs in areas where social justice history is a pedagogical priority. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Boston’s court-ordered desegregation, BPS built a multi-grade curricular unit for students to study the city’s desegregation efforts. To assist, UASC has been spearheading the BPS Desegregation Project, a multi-institutional digitization project whose goal is to make available material that shows Boston’s decades-long fight for equal education. This project will take advantage of the DPLA platform and API to provide integrated searching across a deep pool of primary source material gathered from many different sources.


In 2007 we digitized some of their photographs; you can see them here: https://freedomhouse.library.northeastern.edu/ Imagine if we had the stories attached to those photographs?

Tear down this (pay)wall!: Equality, equity, liberation for archivists

Freedom HouseAttached is a preprint of an article that I have submitted for the forthcoming special edition of the Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies. “This issue will provide an extended exploration of “how an archival ethics of care can be enacted in real world environments.” https://journals.litwinbooks.com/index.php/jclis/announcement/view/10

My article, “Tear down this (pay)wall!: Equality, equity, liberation for archivists” uses the concept of radical empathy and applies it to a discussion of archival collections made available for sale by for-profit companies.

Some folks have asked me for the pre-print, and I thought it would be easiest to attach it here.

Enjoy!

Mecagni JCLIS _Paywall_ resubmission

Logs and Lists during COVID-19

This is the rough outline of a presentation I gave at a recent staff meeting, lightly edited and linked. I am in awe of how quickly my team was able to identify and prepare these projects, and how our part-time staff have just plugged away at these logs and lists for so many months. My team are a hard-working, resilient, and brilliant bunch.

FayFoto2We have a full complement of activities in the University Archives and Special Collections.  Hopefully you’ve all seen the teaching with archives Molly, Regina, and other R+I colleagues have been putting together, and have been highlighted in the last CATLR newsletter as “something they are currently reading”. We continue to provide reference services, work on blogs, oral history transcription editing projects, remote classes, webinars, and upgrading our CERES sites.  

But today I’d like to highlight some of the back-end work that COVID has given us the opportunity to work on:

Lists and Logs. 

Most very very large collections need to have some kind of list, log, or indexing system to make them usable to the originating organization.  Our 3 outsized collections, FayFoto, The Globe, and the Phoenix are no exception (although the quality of them vary widely). We are spending our work from home time developing strategies to upgrade those logs.

[NB. Embarrassingly, I did neglect to call out the work Gina Nortonsmith is doing with her massive Civil Rights and Restorative Justice spreadsheet work, but she will be given another time to shine in a staff meeting] 

FayFoto1FayFoto:

Information about the collection and acquisition is here:

https://librarynews.northeastern.edu/?p=274573

  • 80 years of commercial photography business
  • 7.5 million negatives
  • Index is contained in 29 log books, from 1968-1999, 310 pages each, mostly handwritten

Example of a log book:

https://repository.library.northeastern.edu/files/neu:cj82rg717

Part-time staff are hand-transcribing these logs, which will ultimately become an index to the ‘who, what, where’ of what was going on in Boston over those years.

Boston Globe box list

The Globe collection did come in with a subject log, one that is easily follow-able.  

And when packing the collection, Daniel developed a list of the boxes that make them much more easily retrievable.  And created this wonderful finding aid: https://archivesspace.library.northeastern.edu/repositories/2/resources/984

However, we only know what folder sits at the beginning of the box and at the end. After retrieving the same 25 Kennedy boxes a few times, we started box listing all of the Globe clippings boxes we retrieve. 

In addition to the folder list, staff included disambiguation based on the subjects of the clippings file, determining which John Buchannan is an Escaped convict, a lynn machinist, or a professor at Penn.

102 boxes later, we have a list, but it needs some editing before we are able to load it into archivesspace. 

Phoenix crowdsourced pilot

The Phoenix is one of our more heavily  used teaching collections.  But apart from browsing, there really isn’t a way to easily delve into the articles of the phoenix unless you knew what you were looking for. 

However, the Phoenix did produce two typed card file indices to its paper. These indices have been scanned, OCRed and made available online here:

18 Author Indexes, 1973- 1990 

13 Index Subjects, 1974-1986, (bulk 1974-1982)

Filed by year, each author index usually includes >1000 cards. 

Because we are so busy working on FayFoto, we have started exploring the idea of a crowdsourced project.  Let me know if you’d like to be a volunteer tester of the zooniverse instance we have started to put together.

Teaching with Archives

 

The 2020 Northeastern University Library Supporter’s newsletter is chock full of things that the University Archives and Special Collections have been involved in over the past year;  the Boston Research Center, The Holocaust Awareness Committee digital collections online, the COVID-19 Archive, the Boston Globe photo archive display tours, but what I am most proud of is our community-embedded Teaching with Archives program, stewarded by the fabulous Molly Brown. Here is the article from the newsletter. The whole newsletter is attached as a pdf at the end.


On any given day in the Northeastern University Library Archives and Special Collections, you could find a Northeastern student, a National Parks Service Ranger, a Boston Public Schools high schooler, or a Greater Boston community member visiting for a class using primary sources. The classes, workshops, and experiences offered by the Archives are a result of the Teaching with Archives program led by Molly Brown, the Reference and Outreach Archivist, and Regina Pagani, the Arts, Humanities, and Experiential Learning Librarian. Teaching with Archives classes equip participants to locate, read, and engage with primary sources such as meeting minutes, correspondence, photographs, local newspapers, and more related to the history of Boston’s social justice organizations as well as Northeastern University’s history. The Boston Public Schools (BPS) continue to include the Teaching with Archives program in their curriculum educating high school juniors about Boston’s school desegregation history. The BPS students visit the Archives to learn more about the long history of education activism and find primary sources to incorporate in a chapter they are writing about an activist. Students are asked to consider their chapter as a way of contributing to popular historical records about desegregation, and expanding it by embedding community informed archival records in their telling of an activist’s life. The sessions taught by Brown and Pagani emphasize experiential learning and encourage reflection about the participants’ own role in history, how their neighborhood, school, and beyond are part of the story of Boston’s past and present. They welcome anyone interested in learning from the Archives and Special Collections’ records. Find more about the Teaching With Archives program at https://library.northeastern.edu/archives-special-collections/services/teaching-with-archives 


For the third year this summer, the National Parks Service’s youth program “Historias de Boston” will return to the Archives and Special Collections to kick off their Latinx cultural heritage documentation project. Historias de Boston is a new youth employment program from the National Parks of Boston designed to engage youth in exploring the connections of the Latinx communities of Boston throughout the city’s history. At their sessions with Reference and Outreach Archivist Molly Brown, the Historias de Boston team listens to oral histories from the Archives as a group and explores materials from the Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción records and the Carmen Pola papers to think creatively about what Latinx history in Boston looks like in archival records, and how they could contribute to our understanding of the past. The session in the Archives and Special Collections helps direct and empower the students as they go out to begin collecting their own history. During the 6-week program, students research and gather stories within the three different sites of the National Parks of Boston and the Boston Latinx Community. Their final

project results in a group video project as well as personal video reflection which are all deposited and preserved in the archives. You can find the past two years of Historias de Boston stories deposited to the Archives at https://latinxhistory.library.northeastern.edu/historias-de-boston

2020_supporters_newsletter_-_web_optimized_file

A Fresh Slate AKA Vote for me!

Fresh Slate In 2017, I traveled to Washington DC to attend the Women’s March in a 16 passenger van filled with angry, sign-carrying radical ladies. The speeches and performances were amazing, inspriational, and I cried several times (I’m looking at you, Sophie Cruz and your chain of love). But the thing I decided to DO after that march came as a suggestion from Michael Moore.  In a (waaaay too long) speech on how vital it is for the women’s march attendees to run for office, he said that there was a role for everyone, including people like me:

“Shy people, there is [even] an office for you! PRECINCT DELEGATE. Run for precinct delegate. You only have to go to the county convention once a year. Who’s going to run for precinct delegate?” (raises hand)

I raised my hand, thinking that one day per year was a committment I could make.

Fast forward to today, and I’m running for office for the Massachusetts equivalent of precinct delegate. I have never run for anything, ever. Echoing my friend local immigration attorney Matt Cameron, I’m running “because the Massachusetts Democratic Party has been too complacent, too complicit, too centrist– and here in Eastie, openly right-wing for far too long, and this is the thing I can do to change that.”

Screen Shot 2020-01-31 at 1.59.53 PM

The Bay State Banner article linked in Matt’s Facebook post characterizes the role of the ward in Massachusetts politics as such:

“The hundreds of ward and Democratic town committees across Massachusetts function as the grassroots arm of the party, providing residents with direct access to the party apparatus. The committees elect delegates to the annual state convention, where they nominate candidates for statewide office and vote on the party platform.”

The article also describes the various reasons why the several ‘insurgent’ slates, which include Ward 18 (Hyde Park), Ward 3 in (Downtown), Ward 9 (South End + Roxbury). and Ward 1 (East Boston), are running, and the kinds of changes they want to make.  For Ward 18, a goal is reinvigorating the committee. The article says:

“While Boston’s more active ward committees maintain webpages, communicate with voters, host candidate forums and engage in get-out-the-vote activities, Ward 18 seldom does more than post the time and date of its annual caucus, as required by state party rules.”

And for ward 9 candidate Vanessa Snow, the goal is to

“help shape the party’s platform to focus on issues in our community.”

For ward 1, our plan is a combination of both.  Our party statement is below.

____________________________________

We’re delighted to announce our candidacy for the Ward 1 (East Boston) Democratic Ward Committee in the March 3 primary! We are lifelong and newly-arrived Eastie residents, parents of students attending Boston Public Schools, and leaders of community organizations.

OUR VISION
Our goal is to increase local participation and civic engagement in East Boston. We believe that the changing face of East Boston merits fresh and inclusive representation. Our ward committee will look like our community. Our goal is to have an open, inclusive, and active Ward Committee, where everyone in the community will be able to join through regular public meetings.

We also believe in grass-roots participation and engagement. Our goals are to inform the community and to be informed of any issues that must be addressed; foster debate and civic engagement; and advocate for the East Boston community at the city and state levels. We will strive for independent thinking and healthy debate, accept disagreement, and believe that through dialogue we can reach actionable and attainable goals for our community.

The following is the complete list of candidates making up the slate: Matt Cameron, Gabriela Coletta, Ben Downing, Victoria Dzindzichashvili (DiLorenzo), City Councilor Lydia Edwards, Margaret Farmer, Jo Ann Fitzgerald, Brian Gannon, Zachary Hollopeter, Lisa Jacobson, Giordana Mecagni, Gail Miller, Dionyssios Mintzopoulos, Sandra Nijjar, Heather O’Brien, Ricardo Patron, Jesse Purvis, James Rosenquist, Aneesh Sahni, and Kannan Thiruvengadam. (read more here: https://bit.ly/2QUyA0i)

It takes a village to raise a library!

Last week, a group of parents from my kids’ school, along with some dedicated kid helpers, raised a library.  The Dante Alighieri Montessori School is a tiny little K-6 public elementary school in East Boston, both part of the (giant) Boston Public School system and the only Montessori school within it. We love this school for so many different reasons, but near the top of the pile is the amazing, committed parent council, who grapple with issues of welcoming, equity, multi-lingualism, multi-culturalism, kindness, and peace, right along with our kids and their teachers.

JoAnn Cox, Elsa Wiehe and I were unofficial co-chairs of the library build committee, and with help from what feels like a cast of thousands, we completed phase 1 of the library build.  Here are some excerpts from the thank you letter written by JoAnn:

Yesterday, at 3pm, we left the school with a transformed “library”/conference
space/special ed room, housed in the room named La Ceiba.   I’m hopeful all will enjoy this repository of knowledge, source of education, destination for curiosity, space for exploration, and locusfor rumination.

What started as an idea and a conversation with Giordana in the spring
of 2016 while Ethan raced Lucy in the school play area is now closer
to a vision developed over the years with Elsa joining as one of the
leaders to find funding.

Hundreds of hours from volunteer efforts as well as some fundraising
dollars went into this project, one we wanted to see happen at the
school–and all of you helped make it happen.  All of the efforts deserve an award:  planningmeetings and funding research; conversations with Kate Scheid and support from the school staff; the guidance and support of community members Sharon Gentges (architect), Margaret Kelly (East Boston branch library), and Deborah Froggatt (BPS librarian); the generous funding
from Brown Rudnick; and  additional support from funds raised for the
school. A large team of volunteers–you!–with assistance of the 5th & 6th years, family members, and students–transformed an awkward and crowded space in three days; La Ceiba stands ready to embrace all activities, taking advantage of the light and airy qualities of the room.

We are truly in phase 1 of the project– next phases include cataloging the books (Dewey Decimal System rears its ugly head!), weeding, fundraising for additional titles to include, integrating with in-classroom libraries. However, we can’t be more happy with the way things have turned out thus far.

 

 

New Boston Research Center Grant!

The Boston Research Center got a new grant!  After a successful prototyping phase of faculty-led data projects, this phase (led by the incredible Amanda Rust), will look at neighborhood histories and archives and figure out ways in which data and technical infrastructure can support a community’s understanding of itself. I’m truly excited about this grant, and think it reflects current thinking in the field– ethical community partnerships combined with real-world pedagogical research opportunities, undergirded by sustainable tech.  My official role is “BRC Community Liaison,” and I’ll be spending some (undetermined, but probably too much) time working on this project.

My hands
My new career as a hand model starts today

Info follows from the Library’s blog:

The Library is pleased to announce that it has received a $650,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to implement the next phase of the Boston Research Center (BRC). The Boston Research Center is based in the Northeastern University Library and is dedicated to the study of Boston, enabling researchers from around the world to shed light on the city’s past, present, and future. The BRC serves as a place for students and scholars, Boston residents, and anyone interested in the history and culture of Boston to work together to combine special collections and contemporary data in an effort to better understand the past and envision the future.

This next phase of the BRC’s growth will, through partnerships with Boston community organizations, focus on the development of new digital collections and technological systems to empower these organizations to tell the story of their work and their neighborhoods. This builds on the strengths of the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections, a frequent partner with organizations in Boston and a trusted steward of local community archives, and will allow the BRC to serve as a digital community history lab where the creation of new collections and technology is driven by the needs of the people whose histories are represented in those collections. It also serves as a further iteration of the Library’s work to build inclusive information systems for cultural heritage.

The BRC is also now entering into a new partnership with the Boston Public Library. The Boston Public Library will play a key role in community outreach and technology development by drawing upon its extensive history of technological innovation and active partnerships with neighborhood communities served by its library branches. David Leonard, President of the Boston Public Library, said, “We are thrilled to take our relationship with Northeastern to a whole new level and collaborate on preserving and extending the reach of local neighborhood history and culture across Boston.”

“We deeply appreciate The Mellon Foundation’s generous support for this critical next phase of the Boston Research Center and how it forges strong connections with communities around Boston and with the Boston Public Library,” said Dan Cohen, the Dean of the Library at Northeastern. “And we look forward to helping to reveal new insights about our city through the BRC’s network of individuals and institutions.”

Our Home: An Eastie Community Archiving Project

I love Archives, and I love the neighborhoood I’ve lived in for the past 14 years, East Boston.  At the moment, I’m working on a project that marries them– Our Home: An Eastie Community Archiving Project.

Our Home, a collaboration between East Boston residents, the ICA, Artist Anthony Romero, Northeastern’s NULawLab, and area nonprofits, aims to activate East Boston’s activist past by hosting history capturing and storytelling events for residents and making the material available for research as part of Northeastern University’s University Archives and Special Collections.

Here is some information from some of the working documents the collaborators and I have put together.  As you can see, it’s a loosely-knit collaboration focused on experimentation, community building and care, and includes (in my mind) a hefty dose of Punk/DIY “let’s just try and see what happens” idealism.  I’ll have more to say about this project later, but thought I would introduce it here, partway through the project.

______________________________

Early history of East Boston:

Long a fishing site for the native peoples of the area, the five islands that make up East Boston (Bird, Noddle’s, Apple, Governor’s, and Hog) were first settled by Europeans in 1633.  After a notable shipbuilding period in the 1800s, the area later welcomed wave after wave of immigrants to the immigration station located in the neighborhood, often referred to as Boston’s “Ellis Island.” Many recent arrivals stayed and made their homes in the neighborhood– mingling with already established groups with different languages, religions and cultures.  Because immigration and integration are challenging processes, East Boston has developed a longstanding tradition of welcoming and supporting recent immigrants. This history started in the 1880s with the establishment of settlement houses, the predecessors of today’s East Boston Social Centers.  

More on East Boston Immigration: https://globalboston.bc.edu/index.php/home/immigrant-places/east-boston/ 

History of Activism in East Boston:

Along with the history of welcoming newcomers, East Boston also has a long history of standing up for the rights of its residents.  When “Jeffery Field” opened in 1923, no one could have imagined that the subsequently named Logan International Airport would serve 40 Million passengers in 2018.  Along the way, Olmstead-designed parks, historic buildings, and entire neighborhoods have been bulldozed to make room for runways and airport-related buildings and parking lots.  The proximity to Logan has also brought fuel tank farms, cargo/transportation businesses, to dot and highways to criss-cross the historically working-class neighborhood. East Boston activists have worked for clean air and water, lobbied for green space, bike paths and parks in the shadow of the ever-expanding airport and the Commonwealth’s ever-growing transportation needs. The neighborhood constantly fights, and occasionally wins battles between what the state needs and the neighborhood wants.  

Goal 1: History Capture

Our Home hopes to bring together the various pieces of this historical puzzle and members of the community that hold this history into conversation.  The goal is to provide a space and time for folks busy with their lives and families and volunteer work to share the knowledge of the community they hold with others in the neighborhood.  Additionally, a goal is to capture these objects and stories and make them available publicly for community understanding as part of the growing body of East Boston history collections housed and curated in the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.

The history-capture events will consist of:

  • [AUGUST 25, 11-2, ICA WATERSHED] An afternoon of ‘community scanning and sharing’ at the ICA’s Watershed.  Hosted by Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections, this is a free public event where residents are invited to bring family photos to be scanned and included in a permanent digital archive of East Boston History, creating an educational resource of primary sources for future generations.  
  • [SEPTEMBER 26, 6-8 PM, GRACE CHURCH FEDERATED]  Evening event capturing the records and stories resulting from No Eastie Casino– a volunteer group who fought to prevent a casino from being built at Suffolk Downs.
  • [September 29, 2-5, ZUMIX ] Eastie History Fest Community storytelling at  Zumix. A Sunday afternoon Mass Memories Road Show-style event. University Archives staff will work with a local planning team to organize a free public event where residents are invited to bring family photos to be scanned and included in this digital archive. 

Goal 2: ICA Boston/Romero Project integration:

These stories and objects will be featured in Anthony Romero’s contribution to the ICA Boston’s upcoming exhibition “When Home Won’t Let You Stay,” which focuses on the subject of contemporary migration, immigration, and the displacement of peoples across the world.  This inclusion is particularly profound as the ICA’s waterfront view features the Jeffries Point neighborhood of East Boston; the historic buildings recently almost completely obscured by newly-built apartment buildings along the waterfront.

Goal 3: NULawLab collaboration

Through Northeastern Law School Laboratory Seminar in Applied Design and Legal Empowerment, a six week legal seminar starting June 10th, students and East Boston residents will co-create a series of legal empowerment tools that respond to the following question:  What might we learn from the rich history of successful East Boston activism that can be deployed to empower current residents to assert their legal rights in proactive defense against displacement by redevelopment?

Students will spend  time researching organizing and activism strategies through the East Boston-related archives in the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.  They will distill those learnings into discrete actionable takeaways that can be applied to East Boston’s current housing and displacement crisis. They will research legal rights and strategies for the neighborhood, and distill these learnings into a series of tools/toolkits/materials/tangible things that manifest the East Boston approach in response. They will test those ideas/tangible things with East Boston organizers, activists, and residents, and then present the final product as a tool to distributed this fall as part of Anthony’s exhibit at the ICA/Watershed.

People Before Highways event at the State House

On January 25th 2019 Karilyn Crockett, author of People before Highways, led a group of the original activists from across the region to the Massachusetts State House to commemorate the 50thanniversary of the pivotal 1969 fight to stop I-95 and the Inner Belt.  Chris Lisinski captured the populist legacy of the anti-highway movement organizers in the following article for the State House News Service. 

The event had everything:  it brought history out of the Archives/off the pages and into the State House, included activists sharing lessons learned and anecdotes, elected officials took the time to learn and understand, linked Boston’s public transit/traffic woes to past struggles and successes, and was wrapped with elements of art/music (drumming and trees and laundry lines full of wishes.)  So happy to have played a tiny supporting role in this event.

Article:  https://www.statehousenews.com/?login=yes&trial=yes&path=cms/news.aspx&yr=2019&select=2019162