Beacon Street Diary blog

The making of our expanded BIPOC Finding Guide

by Jules Thomson, associate archivist and social media manager

As an archivist and history buff, I've always found my work with New England's Hidden Histories and the in-house archival collections at the CLA to be extremely rewarding. After many years of residing and working in the UK heritage sector I was a relative newcomer to primary American sources, and have been fascinated by the new learning opportunities. But perhaps my favorite project so far has been assisting with the creation of a finding guide for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) within our Hidden Histories records.

Dr. Richard Boles of Oklahoma State University, author of Dividing the Faith: The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North, had previously kindly provided us his own research guide, a carefully compiled and comprehensive list of references to Black and Indigenous members of various New England congregations, identified in the preliminary batch of digitized NEHH church records. (When the new guide was created, this list became the foundation of the "BIPOC in majority-white church records" section.)

Dr. Boles's list-style finding aid was already hosted by the Congregational Library's website, when in summer of 2020 Hidden Histories director Jeff Cooper floated the idea of a more significant expansion. With the blessing of CLA's directorship, we got in touch with Richard to ask if he would be willing to create contextualizing introductions to the newly digitized and identified materials. Between the three of us and our preexisting institutional familiarity with the NEHH materials, we were also able to identify the most pertinent collections to showcase.

Meanwhile, I set about identifying the top categories of our BIPOC-related records in order to split the guide up into more easily-navigable sections, and working within the parameters of our website to format these. We eventually settled on 5 categories, in addition to an introduction and bibliography, each with their own page.

Section one, Firsthand Writings by BIPOC, is a compilation of own voices material including clerical writings by America's first fully-ordained Black minister, Rev. Lemuel Haynes, and a number of relation of faith documents from African American and/or Indigenous congregants who had composed these semi-autobiographical accounts in order to solicit full church membership. These documents represent an unusually intimate glimpse into the spiritual lives of "ordinary" early Americans, rivalled only by diaries and personal correspondence.

The second category, BIPOC Churches and Institutions, showcases historical Black and Indigenous Congregational churches, including churches founded within missionary-established "praying towns". These, along with Black congregations, which were often birthed from a need to escape prejudice within majority-white churches, were relatively few and far between, and the existing records we do host are consequently of great importance.

Indigenous-Focused Records mainly comprise early missionary writings and observations by clergy adjacent to Native communities and churches, such as Rev. William Homes's diary entries mentioning the Wampanoag church and community on Martha's Vineyard. While sadly lacking in firsthand Native voices, this section nonetheless offers up exclusive historical information about several New England tribes. We also decided to include an external link to the already-digitized Mamusse wunneetu-panatamwe Up-Biblum God, John Eliot's translation of the bible into Wôpanâak, a physical version of which the CLA holds in our rare book collections.

BIPOC in Majority-White Church Records, as aforementioned, is primarily the fruit of Dr. Boles's examination of church record books containing racial identifiers next to the names of congregants. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, this practice, despite its origins in white-supremacist gatekeeping, has provided modern researchers with a better demographic picture of church attendance and an insight into lived experiences of people of color in early America, where they might otherwise remain invisible.

In Antislavery and Abolitionist Materials, there is (thus far) only a single manuscript collection - the records and minutes of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society. However, we decided to round out the category with an extensive number of catalog links to antislavery print materials held physically in the Congregational Library collections. Though these fall outside the purview of the NEHH digitization program (because they are printed rather than handwritten), many of them have been transcribed with the text available online.

The guide was finalized in consultation with Dr. Christopher Cameron of UNC Charlotte and Dr. Jean O'Brien (White Earth Ojibwe) of the University of Minnesota, two of the foremost experts respectively on African American and Indigenous experience in the colonial American mileue. It continues to be a work in progress, intended to evolve as more digitized collections are added to Hidden Histories.

The Congregational Library & Archives, while it certainly holds outsized significance for researchers and genealogists, is nonetheless a relatively small nonprofit institution. The fact that we were able to produce this guide on a relative shoestring via targeted networking and top-down prioritization of staff time is encouraging. My hope is that our guide might inspire other small and mid-sized cultural institutions to produce similar research tools. Such highlighting of historically marginalized communities is the low-hanging fruit of the heritage sector, and frankly a bare minimum, but it's at least one place to start.