“Reliquary of Blackness: An Exhibit of Oral
Histories”, curated by UMass PhD student Erika Slocumb, opened to the
public and scholars at Wistariahurst in Holyoke, from
August 27, until October 23, 2019. The exhibit was based on hours of oral
history interviews Slocumb and her colleagues conducted with members of
Holyoke’s black community in 2018, a project funded by Mass Humanities. By focusing on the
experiences of those living and working in Holyoke during the mid-20th century,
the exhibit showcased the results of this year-long project to document the
history of Holyoke’s Black residents.
“I think it should inspire history students and scholars to look
in places where we think ‘the story has been told’,” Slocumb told Past@Present,
reflecting on the significance of her exhibit for history students and their
research. “It’s important to look at the histories of spaces, especially local
histories, and ask ‘who propped up the prominent figures in this narrative?’ ‘Who
is missing?’ and tell their story, let them tell their story.”
Erika Slocumb is a mother, an artist, and a community organizer, from Springfield, Massachusetts. She is a PhD student in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies who is beginning work toward the Graduate Certificate in Public History. She is also cofounder of the Western Mass Women’s Collective, a community organization advancing empowerment through “literacy, critical thinking, experiential knowledge, and community engagement.”
You have conducted many oral
history interviews with members of Holyoke’s black community. Several Holyoke
residents also shared with you family photos and documents. Please tell us
about your project and its importance for preserving local black history.
I was born and raised in Springfield, and when
I look at the documented history of Black folks in Springfield the thing that
is missing are people, specifically Black women who had influenced and mentored
me. When I was presented with the opportunity to uncover the history of Black
people in Holyoke my initial response was “There are no Black people in
Holyoke.” I think when you look at the history of Holyoke that has been
publicly documented, the Black folks’ stories are missing. And the fact is,
that there is so much of a rich Black history that dates back to the eighteenth century
and so much that the Black community of Holyoke has contributed that it needs
to be told. If not for any other reason, so that Black youth growing up in
Holyoke can know their history and generations will have the opportunity to
claim space in Holyoke.
How does this project
challenge the dominant narratives about Holyoke history?
I think the project adds to the narrative. It
works to fill in holes that exist in the dominant narrative. You can’t tell the
history of Holyoke accurately without the history of Black people in Holyoke.
There have been too many contributions by Black people to the city of Holyoke
going back generations. And we have just scratched the surface with the work
we’ve done so far.
One of the themes
that you mentioned in your work is that Holyoke is traditionally
associated with other populations: the Irish, the French Canadian, and most
recently the Puerto Rican community. But there have been African Americans in
the area since the 17th and 18th century. What have the challenges been as you
try to recover Holyoke’s black past?
The challenge in uncovering the history has
been the limited sources of Black Holyoke history. I think the biggest
challenge I had with the oral history project that was funded by MassHumanities
is that because of resources and time there are so many folks that didn’t get
interviewed. I have made connections with so many people who want to have their
stories told. I think the other part that was challenging in conducting oral
histories is realizing that there is so much that goes into building
relationships, and in order to do that, we have to find time in our schedules
to bond and to understand the community and the context in which the history is
situated and that takes time.
There is no rushing oral histories. These
memories, for so many in Holyoke’s Black community are sacred in a way, and I
think that is why I named the exhibit “Reliquary of Blackness.” Here you have
this whole community of people that have been saving up their stories,
collecting their family’s histories and for many they have been waiting for a
project like this, for an exhibit, or a space to exhibit, their family’s
history. I think in doing something like the exhibit, the challenge for me was
making sure that I presented their stories authentically, with as few of my
words as possible, because the exhibit was an exhibit of oral histories.
have some of the most exciting moments been in this process?
I think some of the
most exciting moments in the process have been making connections—as well as
the face someone makes when they look at a picture that we found in the
archives and they recognize themselves or their mother, who they haven’t seen
in years, or some obscure childhood friend, and that photo invokes memories of
place, and sounds, and brings them back to a time that they had forgotten.
Something else that has excited me is the validation I get from the community
and the excitement. Ms. Dian McCollum said “Erika was an answer to my
prayers. That someone would come to uncover the history of Black Holyoke.” That
is something you can’t get from researching a thing that has already been
researched, or from using solely secondary sources. There is something about
the oral histories, watching the history unfold right before your eyes. There
is nothing better.
Early afternoon sunlight filtered down through the immense skylight of the former Wilmington Artisans Bank, casting shadows into the musty corners of the Art Deco lobby that now made up the reading room and library of the Delaware Historical Society (DHS). Earlier that morning I had boarded a train from another Art Deco monument—Philadelphia’s 30th Street station—as I began my search for the history of women’s fight for the right to vote in the “First State.”
It was here in the solemn atmosphere of the muted orange onetime bank lobby that I found myself poring over the papers of Delaware suffragist Emaela Warner. Mixed in amongst her clippings of “controversial” anti-suffrage tactics and letters with fellow suffragists was a lengthy report written in loopy, scrawling cursive describing the first woman’s suffrage parade held in Delaware. The report, drafted the day after the May 2, 1914 parade, was an important internal record for Delaware’s suffragists as they charted and recorded the history of their movement. As I haltingly read the author’s handwriting, I noticed amongst the list of parade attendees the Wilmington Equal Suffrage Study Club, one of Delaware’s most active black suffrage organizations. The author noted the club was “composed of colored women,” before going back and striking out the entry in a bold, thick line of ink.
In that moment I was transported back to my first semester at UMass Amherst and my initial encounter with Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “silences in the archive,” described in his landmark Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. This particular “silence” I stumbled across seemed to reverberate around the hushed library of the DHS. More than a list of parade attendees, this report marked one of the exact moments at which Delaware’s black suffragists were deliberately erased from the history of the suffrage movement. This document was both product and producer of the gross power inequities embodied by the suffrage movement.
I grappled with Trouillot’s notion of archival silences and the thorny implications of commemoration and memorialization throughout my summer in Philadelphia. As a National Council for Preservation Education intern, I spent my summer in the Northeast Regional Office of the National Park Service (NPS) in downtown Philadelphia helping coordinate efforts to commemorate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment. An ongoing NPS initiative, the commemoration of the centennial will conclude in August of 2020, 100 years after the amendment was ratified and added to the United States Constitution. More specifically, I was charged to undertake original research for three relatively new NPS park units: the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park (HATU) in Dorchester County, Maryland, Harriet Tubman National Historical Park (HART) in Auburn, New York, and First State National Historical Park (FRST) in Delaware. My research sought out connections that all three parks shared with one another through the lens of suffrage and voting rights, and is to be eventually incorporated into the parks’ interpretive agendas. Additionally, I produced digital articles and shared content for the parks to publish on their respective websites and conducted outreach to cultural institutions that could be potential partners with each park in commemorative efforts for the centennial.
These cultural and institutional partners presented potentially substantial opportunities for the NPS to share authority in the creation of narratives about the significance of the Nineteenth Amendment conveyed in park interpretation. All three of the park units I researched maintained some kind of partnership with organizations established long before the creation of each specific park: Both Harriet Tubman parks are run in close partnership with other organizations created earlier in the twentieth century to interpret Tubman’s legacy, and FRST’s constellation of sites scattered throughout Delaware are cooperatively managed with other organizations that have long operated them as individual historic sites. Yet it was unclear to what extent these efforts to share authority were the product of necessity, or of a sincere collaborative philosophy. The reality is probably somewhere in between. Limited resources and staff at these parks necessitate that the NPS establish connections to lean on partners as parks “get off the ground,” so to speak. But such partnerships are also the product of a genuine desire to mediate between local and national narratives about the historic sites and places encompassed by the national park system, contributing to the process identified by John Bodnar whereby local and personal pasts are incorporated into a national public memory. 
It was these local and personal pasts—the voices, stories, and lived experiences of suffragists—that I was asked to draw from in establishing the ways all three parks were bound together in the broader history of the suffrage movement. The basic structure of this charge from the NPS, to seek out the materials needed to justify and strengthen a particular historical narrative, should be familiar to public historians. Often we are asked in our role as public-facing scholars, preservationists, and historians to connect the dots laid out by whatever agency, organization, or institution we happen to be working for as they pursue their own interpretive agenda. The particular dots I was to connect— HATU, HART, and FRST— initially seemed disparate and dissociated from one another in their geographic locations and historical themes. Researching the vast histories associated with each park was daunting enough, let alone attempting to connect all of them.
There are obvious reasons to feel apprehensive about this approach: putting ourselves to work towards a potentially uncritical or celebratory agenda risks reinforcing the silences in the archive I first noticed in the DHS. In its concern not to alienate potential audiences and work within the stringent parameters of a federal agency, the NPS can err on the side of caution. For example, in recounting suffragists’ split over the enfranchisement of black men through the Fifteenth Amendment, one NPS article couched Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s racist jeremiads against black enfranchisement and the ensuing fallout with Frederick Douglass as a simple “disagreement with their friend.” The cautionary reticence to unpack the racist history of the suffrage movement embodied by this article is understandable. But at the same time, I worried my research could be put towards reaffirming the entrenched silences around the complex racist history of the mainstream suffrage movement, much like the line of ink that struck out the presence of black suffragists in Delaware’s suffrage movement.
Despite my initial reservations about forging links among these three parks, there were genuine connections they all shared with one another and I was given wide latitude to research whatever and whomever I wanted. Most obvious was the presence of Harriet Tubman at all three park sites; as she moved back and forth between Auburn, New York, and Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman led formerly enslaved runaways through Delaware by way of Thomas Garret’s home in Wilmington. Likewise, the national organizational infrastructure of the suffrage movement brought suffragists associated with each park into the same physical and institutional spaces as one another. The 1896 founding meeting of the National Association of Colored Women brought Delaware suffragist Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Tubman together in the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. in the same way that the Congressional Union and National Woman’s Party linked other suffragists together across space and time.
Suffragists at each park were tied together in much more complex ways as well. As they fought for their right to vote, suffragists constructed a usable past they deployed to justify their activism. But, as the document I stumbled across in the DHS archive suggests, the ways in which suffragists constructed historical narratives about themselves and their movement intersected with the virulent antiblack racism leveled by white suffragists against black enfranchisement. Black suffragists at all three parks were forced to not only weather these attacks from white suffragists, but also navigated the limits and constraints of state violence and neglect, residential segregation, and economic instability. When Harriet Tubman spoke at suffrage events, she rarely spoke about women’s right to vote. Instead Tubman used the suffrage platform to promote her Home for the Aged, an institution she established to provide for indigent and elderly black people in the absence of state provisions for their care. Black suffragists like Tubman maintained a firm belief that access to the vote would not only provide them with increased social and political capital, but more autonomy over their own bodies and wellbeing.
At the conclusion of my internship, I was faced with another scenario experienced time and again by public historians: turning over my research to my immediate supervisors. This particular part of my experience raised pertinent questions about what it means to be a public historian. While I could ultimately draw as many conclusions as I wished about the connections all three parks shared to the suffrage movement, in the end it is the NPS that shapes how my research is fused with interpretation. This realization was initially uncomfortable: as university-based scholars, we rarely have to worry (or think) about the ways our research and conclusions will be framed in the final product—we are typically the ones framing them! But as employees of a federal agency, there are more limitations on what NPS employees can or cannot say. At the end of the day, the NPS is also inherently a public agency. My research thus feeds into national initiatives to engage with public audiences, a widely shared goal amongst public historians that impacts far more people than a single journal article or scholarly monograph.
Nor does the NPS shy away from the sticky realities of commemoration; as I was coached early on before meeting with potential park partners, the NPS is commemorating the Nineteenth Amendment’s centennial in all its complexity and uncomfortable reality, not celebrating some imagined harmonious vision of a unified movement. Despite whatever reservations I had at the beginning of my internship, the NPS does maintain a sincere commitment to critically engage in serious and sometimes discomforting conversations about our nation’s past. It is not a question of if the NPS will hesitate to utilize my research, but rather how the NPS will put it towards a critical reflection of a social movement as complex as women’s suffrage.
Commemorations like the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment provide space to reflect on the complicated trajectories of social movements like the struggle for women’s suffrage. These commemorative initiatives inherently ask us to reflect on our contemporary moment—we look backward at the same time we look forward to the work that remains to achieve any kind of lasting social, political, and racial equity. In this way, public historians can provide success and cautionary tale in equal measure, helping us navigate our present political moment and, in the process, uncovering silences in the archive along the way.
 John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
-Brian Whetstone, Ph.D. Student, Department of History, UMass Amherst