Citizen Archivist program works to complete region’s historical record by uplifting stories of Black lives

  • A photo of French's Hotel in downtown Peterborough, circa 1870. Courtesy of the Monadnock Center for History and Culture. Courtesy image

  • Dinah Freeman's entry in the 1820 Census. Courtesy of the Monadnock Center for History and Culture Courtesy image

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 2/1/2021 5:34:39 PM

When you think of the people who inhabitated the Monadnock region in the late 1700s, are any of them Black?

Citizen Archivists: Uncovering African American history in the Monadnock region”  is a newly coordinated effort that uses archival data to reconstruct the stories of the region’s Black residents throughout history.

“We’ve had an African-American community here for two and a half centuries,” Monadnock Center for History and Culture executive director Michelle Stahl said, but there’s little reflection of that in the region’s town histories.

Why is that an issue? There’s a tendency to think of slavery as an issue exclusive to the southern United States, Peterborough Town Library assistant director Mary Hubbard said.

“We had it here,” she said. “African Americans were a vital part of our community, enslaved or free, and that story is not told,” she said. “We need to realize they played an active role.”

Acknowledging that the Monadnock region was a diverse community all the way back to the 1790s changes a modern citizen’s perspective and understanding of local history.

“Not only the bad history, the history of cruelty and racism which we need to know, we also need to understand how we all came together and participated in building the communities that we have,” Hubbard said.

The Citizen Archivist project launched 18 months ago as a collaboration between the Monadnock Center for History and Culture and the Historical Society of Cheshire County, and volunteers have identified a number of Black residents with stories to pursue, Stahl said. Some were Revolutionary War soldiers, others were slaves, others were homeowners and active in church communities. More details of their lives are await discovery in primary sources like census records and town histories, Stahl said. “It’s all right here, we just have to see it,” she said.

For example, one of Peterborough’s daily church records from 1819 references Dinah Freeman, a woman of color, being admitted to full communion. That alone doesn’t tell us much about Freeman’s life, Stahl said, but cross-referencing 1820 census records from Peterborough revealed that she was in her late 40s, living with a non-white teenage male and female, and one other person whose designation is unclear, Stahl said. By the 1830 census, Freeman’s household consisted of just her and her daughter. Stringing together details from different records collections makes it possible to piece together more of a life narrative, Stahl said, even 200 years later. “It’s about building biographies, not just counting heads,” she said of the project.

You can also learn a lot about the way colonial society considered the Monadnock region’s Black residents by the way their records are kept, Stahl said. For example, an inventory of taxable property in Peterborough from 1780 to 1793 refers to the number of slaves in a household by their gender and monetary value, side by side with the property’s acres of arable land, Stahl said, a clear message that slaves were considered property.

In Dublin’s town history, the town clerk’s birth records from 1790 include a 21-year-old slave named Caesar Freeman, whose master granted his freedom that year. “It speaks again to the way slavery was seen at that time,” Stahl said, when a grown man’s emancipation is listed alongside births in town records.

Francestown’s 1895 history has a section describing “Negroes in Francestown,” Stahl said, which was helpful for the Citizen Archivist program research. However, the section is sandwiched between a note on weather oddities and another on folklore, which speaks to how the white narrator considered the town’s Black residents as compared to other citizens, she said.

Resident demand brought this historical excavation to the forefront over the past couple years. Teachers from throughout the region have been requesting local Black history resources to use in their lessons from the Historical Society of Cheshire County, director of education Jennifer Carroll said.  “[Those requests] weren’t being answered as well as we could if we researched and knew more,” she said, so three years ago, her organization began planning an archives sweep. Their efforts extended to crowd sourcing this year after initial work was being completed through Keene State courses, she said.

In Peterborough, a library patron’s questions prompted Hubbard to help organize a two-part program called “Talking about Race: Staying Curious, Moving Forward and Being Part of the Solution” a couple years ago. It was the best-attended program for adults Hubbard said she’d seen in her entire tenure at the library, and follow-up discussions in a reading group eventually led to her approaching the Monadnock Center for History and Culture to uncover the so far overlooked Black history of the region.

The Citizen Archivist program has united the two historical institution’s efforts and standardized the way volunteers record information they gather from records across 38 towns in southwest New Hampshire, Stahl said. Spreadsheets have space for anything that might emerge as volunteers scour records like county histories, newspapers, church and court records, and paupers lists, Stahl said, including a person’s name, aliases, gender, appearance, legal status, literacy, marital status, number of children, civic involvement, important life dates, and more.

So far, the initiative has identified 240 individuals through census records to follow up on, and have 109 of their names, Stahl said.

The plan is to eventually compile and share the Monadnock region’s information with the statewide Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, and Enslaved: Peoples of the Historical Slave Trade, an international database of enslavement records that launched in December 2020.

“We teach the history of people whose lives have been omitted from the historical narratives of the state. Statistics will never tell these stories that should be shared,” Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire board member and volunteer Jody Fernald said. “Stories about individuals are the means by which we gain insight into their lives. Stories are humanizing. We learn of laborers, barbers, blacksmiths, vocalists, master carpenters, educators, laundresses and all of the other people who made a way for themselves in difficult circumstances,” she said, describing the work of the Citizen Archivist program as “completing the record of New Hampshire’s history.”

People interested in contributing to the Citizen Archivist project can contact Stahl at director@monadnockcenter.org.


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