‘Reliquaries of Blackness:’ Documenting Holyoke’s Black Past

“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.

What 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.

– Mohammad Ataie

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