Officers from the Boston Police Department standing beside school buses. Photo from the 1975 Hyde Park High School yearbook.

Fighting Fire & Segregation: A Semester at the Boston City Archives

By: Connor Anderson

Officers from the Boston Police Department standing beside school buses. Photo from the 1975 Hyde Park High School yearbook.

I decided to complete my internship at the Boston City Archives (BCA) in West Roxbury thanks in part to the experience I had there during our Digital Archives class in spring 2016. In that class, we worked with Marta Crilly, the Archivist for Reference and Outreach, to create exhibits for the class’s Omeka site, “Stark and Subtle Divisions,” which explores the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools.

My internship included many small projects but, primarily, I focused on digitizing materials from the desegregation collections housed at the City Archives, and inputting metadata onto their digital repository, Preservica, for future use. This project builds upon the work of Lauren Prescott, a recently graduated student from our program.

I started off in September digitizing materials from the Mayor Kevin H. White records, specifically feedback notes from the various “coffee klatches” the Mayor held throughout the city. Some of these notes mentioned the residents’ concerns about the busing situation. I then moved onto some materials from the Louise Day Hicks papers and the Fran Johnnene collection, two ardent opponents of desegregation, or “forced busing,” as they dubbed it.

A map of neighborhood schools with accompanying geocodes found in the Louise Day Hicks papers.

The Louise Day Hicks material featured interesting content that Marta thought researchers would love.

I was really hoping that I would have the chance to scan images while at the BCA. I am familiar with digitizing still and moving images from my internship in the audiovisual archives at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and I really enjoy working with that medium. So when I heard that there were some negatives in the Kevin H. White records that needed scanning, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. We encountered some setbacks and I ended up only scanning a few negatives. In hindsight, that’s good since there were many other projects for to do.

After working there a few weeks, Marta mentioned that some of the materials from the Cocoanut Grove Night Club fire needed scanning.

In November 1942, Cocoanut Grove, a night club in Boston, caught fire. The blaze claimed the lives of almost 500 people making it the deadliest nightclub fire in the world at that time. The Boston City Archives has three collections which contain material about the fire: the Boston City Hospital collection, the Law Department records, and the William Arthur Reilly collection. The materials are fascinating, with items ranging from death certificates to samples of the fabric that caught ablaze (see below).

A sample of fabric that caught fire at the Cocoanut Grove Night Club Fire.

This detour turned into one of my favorite projects of the semester, and I learned more about the privacy restrictions of some collections. The biggest issue we faced with this material involved HIPAA regulations that protect the privacy of medical records. After consulting with an attorney for the City of Boston, we were cleared to publish the names and other information about the victims online, because (long before HIPPA was enacted) the Boston Post had already published the names in a “List of Dead.”

A page from the Boston Post featuring names of the victims of the Cocoanut Grove Night Club fire.

The materials in these collections reflect the fire’s immediate impact on the city and its long-lasting national legacy. For instance, the Boston City Hospital (BCH) records document procedures and treatments used on Cocoanut Grove fire victims. The approaches and practices used at BCH established a modern treatment of burn victims that hospitals across the country soon followed. The materials from the Law Department document the city’s creation of new safety and fire codes.  Many of the codes Boston created in response to Cocoanut Grove were later adopted nationwide.

After scanning materials related to the Cocoanut Grove Night Club fire, I returned to desegregation, this time focusing on yearbooks. I focused on two high schools in neighborhoods which busing significantly affected: Charlestown High and Hyde Park. I soon found out, to my surprise, that Hyde Park High School already enrolled a number of non-white students before busing started in the Fall of 1974. Charlestown High School, on the other hand, enrolled very few non-white students prior to the Fall of 1974. This began a troubling trend of white Charlestown residents sending their children elsewhere for school.

A Hyde Park High School Senior sporting some groovy hair.

In total, I scanned twenty-three yearbooks between the two high schools. Needless to say, the fashion trends of the 1960s and 1970s puzzle me after going through the yearbooks.

MODS metadata
Some lovely metadata using a MODS template by yours truly.

For each object I scanned, I needed to complete the metadata on that object as well. In my internship, I created metadata that provided detailed information about the digitized content. Marta set up a Google spreadsheet to organize all of my metadata, which was a huge help since I scanned almost 350 objects. The metadata I was responsible for were–Title, Record Identifier, Date Created, Creator Name, City, Neighborhood, Description, Collection Name and Number, Location of Originals, Type, Language, Conditions Governing Access, Conditions Governing Reproductions, Library of Congress Subject Headings, Description Standard, Pages.

Thankfully, the Boston City Archives has a set of controlled vocabulary to help with the process. I also found that a lot of the Library of Congress Subject Headings, dates, creators, and locations could be repeated. Still, it took me around 15 hours to complete all of the metadata alone during my internship.

I benefited a lot from my semester at the Boston City Archives. I learned technical skills that I will use in my future career and also got a view of how a municipal archive operates. Some of these skills include redacting documents, digitizing documents, different metadata formats, and working with a digital repository. There are many more that I probably do not realize I acquired yet as well. I am excited to take the valuable experience and these skills with me as I begin my career! To read more details about my experiences each week, check out the class blog for internships: Archives In Turn: Interns in Archives.


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