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?

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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?

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