Exploring Black & Indigenous Hidden Histories

25 Feb 2024 in


In this blog post from 2020, former Assistant Archivist Jules Thomson shared thoughts that eventually culminated in the creation of the Black and Indigenous Research Guide. That guide was created by Dr. Richard Boles in 2021 and allows users to locate material at the Congregational Library & Archives about Black and Indigenous Congregationalists that can often be difficult to find. We invite you to explore the newly-updated guide on our website. It is a living document, updated when new material is published in New England's Hidden Histories.


Hidden Histories. Untold Stories. Behind the Veil.

These are the titles of some archives-based history projects with which my colleagues or I have been involved. A simple internet search will produce hundreds of similarly arcane-sounding names. Hopefully the first one rings a bell - as in New England’s Hidden Histories (NEHH), the CLA’s flagship project focused on digitizing and publishing colonial-era church records sourced from across New England.

But what about these names? Why this emphasis on uncovering, unveiling, and bringing to light? By now, the litany of historical exclusion is largely familiar, even to non-historians: the experiences of women, people of color, the enslaved, Indigenous, the working poor, and LGBTQ people, among others, are generally understood to have been minimized or ignored in historical writings before the latter half of the twentieth century.

In archives, libraries, and museums, the remediation of historical oversights can take many forms. On the archivists’ end, it can entail improved cataloguing, descriptions, and subject-tagging to highlight hitherto buried materials. It can also be accomplished via the production of new source narratives, such as those recorded during oral history project interviews, and more generally by a broadening of the pool of statistical data available to researchers, allowing for the extrapolation of demographic trends that would otherwise remain invisible. The internet has facilitated this by allowing for the confederation of collections which are physically held in separate geographic locations.

There are obvious implications here for New England’s Hidden Histories, which hosts a panoply of records, containing both quantitative and qualitative data, sourced from myriad churches and cultural institutions across New England. Church record books and their associated vital statistics are a mainstay of our church-based collections. On the qualitative side, there are personal accounts such as those described in relation of faith documents (formalized confessions written to gain church membership), which offer insight into many under-documented populations, including women, children, Indigenous people, slaves, and indentured servants.

Both types of records in the NEHH collections were utilized by Dr. Richard Boles of Oklahoma State University in his research into African American and Native American church membership in colonial New England. Richard presented this research in his lecture, “Interracial But Not Integrated: Colonial Churches,” hosted by the CLA and the Old South Meetinghouse in 2019.

Nonwhite church members were racially identified in church records - albeit subject to shifting vocabulary as race was continually conceptualized and re-conceptualized by those in power. This practice of racial identification, while born out of a distasteful ideology of exclusionism and white supremacy, has had the positive effect of making people of color visible in the historical record. As part of his research, Richard compiled a broad geographical array of statistical records, particularly baptisms, to determine membership demographics. He was able to demonstrate a steady continuity of minority Black and Indigenous membership, to pinpoint cases where slaves attended different churches than their owners, and to measure the effects of the Great Awakening on church attendance by people of color, among other things. The picture that emerged was one of much more diverse church membership than is usually assumed:

“For too long, many educated people and historians have written about colonial churches as if there were no Black [people] or Indians present. On the contrary, most Congregational and Anglican churches in New England included people of color in the 18th century. They participated in these churches as attendees, and through rituals of baptism and communion.”

In support of the latter point Richard also cited personal documents such as the relation of faith by Cuffee Wright (1773), an enslaved man owned by Rev. Sylvanus Conant, minister of the church in Middleborough, MA. Cuffee’s testimony, which is included in the digitized NEHH collections, appears to be a genuine personal account of both his worldly and spiritual life, though Richard was quick to point out that, prior to abolition, it is impossible to know how much enslaved people participated in church life of their own free will, versus how much they were compelled to do so by force, threats, or persuasion. This was particularly fraught when one’s owner was the minister of the church in question.

Richard was, however, able to cite some convincing examples of enslaved people who seem to have found genuine comfort in church life and the opportunities it provided for community and education. These same members also increasingly used scripture to establish a case for the abolition of slavery. Among other qualitative evidence, Richard cited the correspondence of Phillis Wheatley and Obour Tanner, and the record of a sermon preached by an enslaved Black man named Greenwich, who made a biblical case for abolition in the Canterbury, CT Separate Congregational Church in 1754 while his owner, who was also a church member, presumably looked on. (Thirty-seven years later, Jonathan Edwards, Jr. echoed parts of Greenwich’s phrasing to make the same point about the spiritual necessity for abolition. Better late than never?)

I encourage you to watch Dr. Boles’ full lecture. It serves as a good example not only of NEHH records being utilized for new and exciting research, but also of how more personal, subjective records can be married with plentiful data points to create a more holistic understanding of the past.