By: Sarah K. Black
When I entered the public history graduate program at UMass Boston, my experience in the field of history was strictly academic. One can only imagine how anxious I felt when I received the syllabus for HST 625, Interpreting History in Public: Approaches to Public History Practice. Under the instruction of Professor Jane Becker and in partnership with Joe Bagley at the Boston City Archaeology Program, my colleagues and I were tasked with uncovering the history of those who lived and worked at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls (ISFG) during the 1860s and delivering those stories to the public in a way that was both appealing and accessible.
The ISFG was established in 1853 by several women who sought to educate and train destitute young girls in the field of domestic service. Once deemed ready by the staff, the girls would be placed in homes to work as servants. Our class was required to connect our biographical sketches with artifacts retrieved during Bagley’s excavation of the site in Summer 2015, and construct a website to ensure our interpretations could reach the widest possible audience. I was extremely intimidated by the project because, unlike writing a paper, we were working with a client (Bagley) and producing a tangible product. Who knew that the ISFG project would become the most exciting, informative, and meaningful experience of my entire academic career.
There were two main phases of the project—the first of which required each of us to conduct extensive biographical research on one staff member and one student. But how do we construct narratives for women who spent much of their lives on the fringes of society? And what does the middle ground of meticulous research and writing for a popular audience look like? These were just a few of the many questions we had to grapple with when we began producing these histories. We had to learn how to effectively weave facts and relevant context into a story that was both informative and accurate, as well as include elements that readers could connect with.
Like several of my classmates, the beginning of my research was defined by countless hours working with genealogy sites and other online resources. Once we made it through the initial frustration of uncovering subjects so elusive in the historical record, we found that each had a unique and captivating story to tell. Some narratives featured immersive details of mischief, international travel, and death, while others concluded with more questions than they started with.
While conducting my research, I was fortunate enough to travel to the American Baptist Historical Society, located at Mercer University in Atlanta. There I found a collection of letters written by the ISFG matron, Mary S. Daüble, while she served as a missionary in India. Whether working as a missionary in India or a matron at multiple institutions, Mary devoted her life to education and religious teachings. After some intensive genealogical investigation, I was able to shed light on Daüble’s life and experiences. I even located a blueprint of her home and added her to my own family tree on ancestry.com.
The story of Margaret (Maggie) Hasson was quite different. An Irish orphan who entered the institution at just 8 years old, Maggie found herself placed as a domestic servant in 10 different homes between 1860 and 1864. Mischievous to say the least, she ran away several times and even eloped with an African American Civil War soldier. After a police officer located and returned Hasson to the Industrial School for Girls, the school sent her to the Bridgewater Almshouse.
The second phase of the project was centered on group work. Our class was divided into three groups: website design and introduction, social media and marketing, and annotated transcription the ISFG’s 1860 annual report. As a member of the introduction group, I was responsible for contributing to the overall design of the website and drafting the text for the site’s landing pages.
Once again, we were met with challenges: How do we create an interface that is both informative yet engaging? How can we stand out against the plethora of webpages that characterize the digital age in which we live? Just as it was difficult to condense hours of biographical research into 1000-word narratives, our team struggled with determining what information was essential for each of the site’s main pages. These sections had to be brief enough to capture and maintain the reader’s interest, but also paint the fullest possible picture of the school, the archaeological dig, and the project.
This experience gave my peers and me the opportunity to develop and improve skills in biographical research and historical interpretation in a digital age. We also learned the value of collaboration—not only with one another, but also with our professor, our client, and other cultural institutions. And finally, the project prompted us to retrieve voices that may have otherwise remained silent, gave us the chance to tell history from the bottom-up, and helped us to see the extraordinary value in uncovering the “ordinary.” The ISFG project proved to be the perfect introduction to turning public history theory into practice.
Sarah K. Black is earning her M.A. in History with a specialization in Public History. She currently also works as an editorial assistant for The New England Quarterly.