All posts by Monica Pelayo

“Abandoned His Duty”: Uncovering the 1919 Boston Policemen Strike

By Nina Rodwin

In the fall semester, my HIST 600 class had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative project between UMass Boston and the Boston Police Department Archives. We were tasked with documenting the lives of the officers involved in the police strike of 1919. Policemen had demanded a higher yearly salary, adopting the slogan “$200 or nothing” (Puleo, 143). When their demands were ignored, 1,400 police officers walked out. From September 9th to the 11th, Bostonians rioted and reacted violently (often towards the striking officers). President Wilson found the found the strike so disturbing that he described it as a “crime against civilization” (Puleo, 155-156). The police head clearly felt the same, firing all striking officers with no chance of re-employment. The men’s duty cards, which detailed each officer’s employment history, were stamped with a large “abandoned his duty, September 9th 1919.” These duty cards lay in the BPD archives for years, largely forgotten. It was only by chance that a former BPD archivist discovered these cards and was immediately filled with questions: who were these men and what happened to them after the strike?

Image of Hugh P. McGuire’s Duty Card

The scale of the project required collaboration, not only between UMass Boston and the BPD archivists, but also volunteers, the police officers’ descendants, and finally, my own class. While we entered the project in order to learn genealogical research skills, it was gratifying to see that our small contribution helped in a large-scale project. Each student was instructed to pick an officer and fill in vital information into a worksheet. We used public records to uncover these men’s lives, searching through the census, birth and death records, military records and newspapers. To me, the most engaging records were the census records, as they not only reflected a specific officer’s life, but also larger changing trends in America.

Image of Hugh P. McGuire from the 1901 “The Officers and The Men The Stations Without and Within of The Boston Police.” This book’s yearbook format was a great source for photographs of the striking BPD officers.

I choose Hugh P. McGuire, who seemed to have a relatively good life before the strike: he lived in his rented house with his wife and four children and had been on the police force since 1896. However, his whole family was drastically affected by the strike. Just one year later, McGuire was working as a watchman for a lumberyard. His eldest son and daughter, then in their twenties, continued to live in his house. These two children may have stayed home to contribute to family finances, as both were employed. By the 1930 census, it is clear that he was experiencing still more trouble: he was now unemployed, and while his sons seem to have left home, his two daughters remained as the sole breadwinners in his household.

By 1940, Hugh McGuire was 74 years old. According to census records, he was “unable to work.” His eldest daughter, Anna, now 40, continued to care for her parents as a secretary for the Veterans Bureau. As the sole breadwinner, she received a yearly salary of $1,980, which in today’s money ($34,500) would relegate the McGuire family to the lower class. However, this census information has its drawbacks: even though it offers us Anna’s yearly income, we don’t know, if McGuire’s sons contributed to the household, if McGuire received Social Security benefits, or if the McGuire family saved money before Hugh lost his job. In other words, the whole family may have been struggling to make ends meet.

Image from the United States Census, 1940.

The census records also leave out vital information about McGuire’s wife. Was she unemployed because she was fulfilling the stereotypical duties of white women at the time, or did her lack of education (she only completed the further grade) shut her out of the scant opportunities women could obtain? As much as the census can aid researchers, it will never be able to answer these compelling questions, and may often leave researchers with more questions!

Image from the United States Census, 1930. In the “Home Data” section, it asks the family to report if they own a radio set.

While census records offer the bare facts of an individual’s life, they are quite useful to demonstrate large-scale changes in health, education, immigration and even leisure through their questionnaires. For example, in both the 1900 and 1910 census, participants are asked to list the number of children born, as well as the number of children living. This distinction reflected the high child mortality rate during the time; Hugh’s wife was quite lucky that all four of her children survived. However, by the 1920s, efforts to combat childhood diseases increased, and the census no longer included this category. The most amusing category was in 1930s census, which included a category simply titled “radio set” reflecting the growing number of families with radios, including the McGuire family. This category disappeared by the next census in 1940, reflecting both that radio sets were no longer novelties and the assumption that most households owned a radio.

This research was so engaging that I chose to volunteer my time to help the project further. While completing the worksheets of three more policemen, I learned a valuable lesson about genealogical research: researchers should not always trust their internet searches. When attempting to find the birth records for a man named Owen Katon, I was unable to discover his information. It was only with the aid of UMass Boston archivist Joanne Riley that I noticed there had been a transcribing error between the physical documents and the online search results. When I searched for Owen Katon, I had only found one record for “William Katon” and promptly assumed it couldn’t be the correct person. However, Riley taught me an important lesson: never assume that the online search results are always correct. When I actually looked at the scanned records for “William Katon,” I discovered that the records were really for Owen Katon after all! This is not to say that websites are untrustworthy; rather, researchers must be aware of these human errors, and conduct their research accordingly.

The BPD Strike Project still continues, with the goal of completion by the 100th anniversary on September 9th, 2019. If you are looking to improve your genealogical skills, for your own personal or scholarly projects, I strongly I strongly recommend getting involved.

Reference

Puleo, Stephen. Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 2004.

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Is It Mine To Tell?: Protecting Privacy in Public History Practice

By Ashlie Duarte-Smith

My first instinct as a public historian is to interpret and translate historical facts into a language that anyone can access–to carve out a navigable path for public consumption. Those instincts were tested when I accepted an internship for the National Park Service at the Kalaupapa National Historical Park in Hawaiʻi. Privacy laws concerning Kalaupapa prevented me from knowing what my subject matter would be, so all I knew was that I wanted to create a short film. However, I found myself in an interesting predicament that forced me to reflect deeply on my professional responsibilities as an historian, and my personal responsibilities to any subject matter I may have. I thought, what gives me the right, as a historian, to make public any select portion of history? In my case, a dear family that I came to love as my own? I was in search of a project to propel myself forward, and yet it includes this family’s pain, joy, and trials? What do I need to know and prepare myself for in order to take on the responsibility of an oral history?

Molokaʻi, Hawaiʻi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The town of Kalaupapa is located on the island of Molokaʻi in Hawaiʻi, and is a former “leprosy colony.” Thousands of residents of Hawaiʻi were forcibly exiled there from the years 1866 to 1969 when they were found to be “guilty” of having leprosy, today known as Hansen’s Disease. Originally an act under the Hawaiian Kingdom, the law continued into the 20th century, extending ten years after American statehood. The town is now a national park where the remainder of patients can live out the rest of their lives in peace, or leave if they wish. To protect the safety and dignity of its residents,

Pali or cliff faces above Kalaupapa, Molokaʻi.

Kalaupapa is off-limits to the uninvited, and receives a cap of 100 people per day, both tourist and visitor alike. The only way to get there is by prop plane, or a two-hour hike up and down a steep trail along a sheer cliff face–making it one of the most beautiful but isolated places in the world.

As a colony, Kalaupapa was meant to separate those who were suffering from Hansen’s Disease from the general population. The disease is actually a degenerative bacteria that dissolves the joints and breaks down the human body leaving sufferers, if untreated, deformed and dying. Thousands of families were torn apart over the years for the safety of the many. Even when a cure was determined in the 1941, the patients remained legally incarcerated until 1969. It was not until the National Park Service was invited to care for the town, the land, and its history in 1981, that those who wanted to preserve the patients stories were permitted to go and do their best.

During my internship, I became fast friends with a wonderful young woman who had also become an intern in the park. She shared stories about her life and memories of Kalaupapa, expressing her deeply rooted genealogy to the town and its people. Not only did she allow me to listen, but she also offered me the privilege to record her family’s history for my project. Their individual stories are long, multifaceted, and so complex that it gave me pause. Who was this history for? If it was only for my sake, and doing nothing for the greater good, then is it even my business to hear? To know? I am a child of Hawaiʻi, born and raised on the island of Oʻahu.

Duarte-Smith in Kalaupapa National Historical Park

Growing up there, I have come to realize that we are very protective of our history because it is often misrepresented or exploited. Even though I had never been to the island of Molokaʻi before this internship, I still hold a kinship with the people there. I was terrified when I decided to apply for a position there, because sadly there is still a stigma attached to Kalaupapa. There is a misguided fear of a disease that not many in my generation can really understand. But for my mother and grandmother’s respective generations, Kalaupapa was very real and very scary place. Certainly not a place for a child to know about when she faced no danger to go there herself. So, as an adult, and as the potential historian for a part of this history, I was scared, and continue to be uneasy about sharing what I am entrusted with.

Toward the end of my time in Kalaupapa, I became very protective of its people. I befriended many of the kōkua, the non-patients that help to run the town, and the patients themselves. I worked in their repository and archives where I witnessed through objects and documents the inhuman moments these people experienced. I also handled some of the physical artifacts that those events left behind. The enormity of my responsibility to these people–to my friends–struck me. I am now personally involved. I have a personal stake in the decision I make regarding my finished project, what I do with it, and to whom I reveal it. These are not just people I casually scheduled an interview with; they became my family. I ate meals and laughed with them. I cried and held them in my arms. Those actions seem so innocuous, but they are overloaded with meaning, especially for those whose touch was actually scorned for the majority of their lives. I want to protect them, but then I remembered that my subject encouraged me to do it, she trusted me, and most of all, everyone involved gave me their blessing.

Duarte-Smith (left) with Jessica “Kanani” Sanchez and Ivy Kahilihiwa.

Anything that I choose to do or to write about with this information is an invasion of my subjects’ privacy no matter what. I have to consider that; it is important. No matter how well meaning my intent, or how open my subjects are, I am entering a sacred place in someone’s life that was never intended for public knowledge. Before conducting my interview, I was terrified of messing it up. But my subjects told me that they were happy I was so visibly shaken. My confusion must have been easy to read because they all explained that my fear was good, it would keep me humble and respectful. There is a fine line between public and private history in this project, a line that is present in all aspects of historical practice. I think that as historians whose main focus is the education of the public, it is critical that we are conscious of that line and how we navigate it. We must remember that any history we partake of is an honor to record, and a privilege to share.

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Exploring Portsmouth through Craftsmen’s Eyes

By: Judith Marshall

I began my master’s degree at UMass Boston with a vague understanding of public history. I knew that it gave me the opportunity to pursue my passion for history outside of the academic world. However, I did not have any real experience doing public history and I was a little uncertain and nervous about my choice. I was quickly immersed into this world, gaining experience not only in public history but also in archives. At UMass I have had the opportunity to attend conferences, volunteer with public history projects, and collaborate with community organizations in course practicums. The most rewarding, however, has been my internship with Historic New England.

This internship has been an invaluable part of my public history education, giving me the ability to gain hands-on experience in the field. In spring 2015, I started my internship at Historic New England, an organization that aims to preserve and interpret New England architecture and material culture. I was eager to start this internship for a couple of reasons. First of all, I value their capacity to use historic houses as a means of interpreting everyday life in the past. Second of all, I appreciate their dedication to making New England’s culture engaging and accessible to the public—both through their historic houses and their wonderful public programs.

My internship project required that I research the men who were involved in building one of Historic New England properties—the Rundlet May House, a 19th century history home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire—and then write an interpretation proposal based on that research.

Rundlet May House, a federal-style house in Portsmouth New Hampshire, built in 1807.
Rundlet May House, a federal-style house in Portsmouth New Hampshire, built in 1807.

This project immediately interested me. Traditionally, historic homes have focused on the wealthy families who lived in them. However, recent public history practices have started to change how historic homes interpret regional histories. Some historic institutions have now begun to include the histories of marginalized populations, using the homes to discuss the lived experiences of enslaved people and servants. Researching and interpreting the lives of the men who built the Rundlet May House would be a continuation of this trend to include everyday people in the interpretation of historic homes. Serendipitously, James Rundlet, the merchant that built the house, left a detailed work schedule and account book. These documents offered me an accurate picture of the men involved, the supplies they used, the time it took them, and the wages they received. In other words, I had a fascinating window into the lives of the craftsmen.

After transcribing the schedule and account book, I researched the craftsmen, a challenging task. I knew relatively little about the craftsmen, besides their names and the fact that they were in Portsmouth between 1807 and 1808. This problem was compounded with the fact that so many men in New England had the same name, making the research particularly tricky. For instance, when looking for information about James Folsom, a carpenter who worked on the Rundlet May House in 1807, I found census records that included James Folsom I, II, III, IV, V, and VI. These records were even more difficult to discern when you include the fact that pre-1840 census records only documented the names of the head of the households. All other persons in the household, from a certain age range, were only numerically counted. It became difficult to determine which one of these James Folsoms was the joiner who worked on James Rundlet’s house.

 

James Folsom from Exeter New Hampshire (note: NOT the James Folsom who worked on the Rundlet May House) posted this message in the newspaper in 1812. Even he was annoyed with having the same name as so many others! “Owing to the frequent mistakes made by there being a number of persons of the name JAMES FOLSOM in this town, the subscriber, son of Benjamin Folsom, late of Newmarket, respectfully requests his friends and others having occasion to direct letters, etc. to him, to call and consider him by his real name. James B. Folsom.” Source: Constitutionalist (Exeter, NH), August 4, 1812. Volume: II, Issue: 7, Page: 1.
James Folsom from Exeter New Hampshire (note: NOT the James Folsom who worked on the Rundlet May House) posted this message in the newspaper in 1812. Even he was annoyed with having the same name as so many others! “Owing to the frequent mistakes made by there being a number of persons of the name JAMES FOLSOM in this town, the subscriber, son of Benjamin Folsom, late of Newmarket, respectfully requests his friends and others having occasion to direct letters, etc. to him, to call and consider him by his real name. James B. Folsom.” Source: Constitutionalist (Exeter, NH), August 4, 1812. Volume: II, Issue: 7, Page: 1.

The interpretive proposal, at first, felt like uncharted territory. I had some experience with public interpretation, but it was still relatively new to me. This part of my internship became the most rewarding and exciting aspect. Initially, I thought I would plan a house tour that examined each room from a different craftsman’s eyes. In each room I would give a biography about a craftsman and link his work to Rundlet’s house. However I thought that this would be a disjointed tour, with nothing linking the rooms together. I scratched the idea and I started to think about different avenues of interpretation.

During my research, I uncovered a wealth of information about the craftsmen themselves. I discovered that many of them had a robust political life, including some of who were elected municipal officers. I also learned that some were involved with societies such as the New Hampshire Mechanics Association. I wanted to find a way to include all these facets of their lives into my interpretation so I developed a proposal for a walking tour. I thought that a walking tour would be a great way to reveal the craftsmen’s lives to the public. I could discuss not just their work at the Rundlet May House, but also their political activities, the societies they belonged to, and the other houses they helped construct.

The walking tour gave me the opportunity to interpret history spatially instead of just thematically. While it is my instinct to organize historic evidence in thematic terms, so that each story flows smoothly to the next, this kind of narrative form is not logistically possible within the format of a walking tour. The organization of walking tours depends on the geographical location of a site; tour participants would not be happy to walk from one side of Portsmouth to the other just so I that could connect two complementary sites thematically. Looking at interpretation in terms of space meant that I had to reorganize my frame of thinking.

Before I knew it, the semester was over. Yet there was so much more I wanted to do with the tour. After all, I had only created a brief proposal. After discussing it with staff at Historic New England and my mentors at UMass Boston, I have decided to use my proposal as the foundation for my capstone project. This semester I am building on the work I did for my internship, conducting more research on the craftsmen and creating a full tour script. Most excitingly, I will have the opportunity to give a trial run of the tour. I am thrilled to see this project through to the end.

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