By Monica Haberny
In fall 2016, I completed internship early at the Boston City Archives (BCA). My project combined research, access and outreach. My goal was to identify and digitize interesting material related to African American history and women’s history in Boston, then create a few compelling posts for Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March). I loved this project so much I ended up writing one post for every day of each month (read my posts on BCA’s blog every day!) To read more about my experiences each week, check out the class blog for internships: Archives In Turn: Interns in Archives.
On my first day, Marta Crilly, the Archivist for Reference and Outreach, gave me a tour of the BCA and introduced me to the collections. During that first month, I began making connections and “discoveries.” I unearthed the story of Julia Harrington Duff–a teacher who fought for the rights of Irish-American, female teachers–in the teacher qualification records. But I also found info about Julia in the city documents, as she served on the Boston School Committee in the early 1900s.
In September, I encountered a few research dead ends. I’d hoped to write an in-depth post on Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African-American woman to become a physician in the United States. Crumpler lived in and operated an office in Beacon Hill in 1869, and moved, with her husband, to Hyde Park in 1880. Searches for her tax records (using her maiden name, her husband’s name, a mention of a black doctor, female doctor, or any combination) returned no information. But by the end of the month, I’d made progress in other areas. I wrote a compelling post on William Monroe Trotter, a newspaper editor and civil rights activist, listed in Hyde Park’s graduation exercises from 1860. I wrote posts on seven other African Americans who shaped Boston’s history.
In October, I utilized three tricks to help me track down people of interest in Boston’s past.
First, I searched for alumni of Boston Public Schools. I found well-known individuals from the high schools of South Boston, Girls’, and Hyde Park. Some graduation records were missing, but it was helpful to know who attended which school. I used photos and documents from the schools’ records to enhance blog posts about alumni who went to those schools, like community and civil rights activist Melnea Cass who attended Girls’ High School. Cass remained remained active in many community projects and volunteer groups in the South End and Roxbury and helped found the Boston local of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Second, I used digitized photographs on BCA’s Flickr page as documents or sources of valuable information. The John F. Collins album provided a wealth of rich material and allowed me to write about Bobbi Gibb and Katherine Switzer, the first women to run the Boston marathon, and many more topics and persons of interest.
The third trick I learned entailed using records of city officials to uncover material about individuals or topics. In November, Marta and I found folders in the John Collins’ papers that documented key events from the civil rights movement. These documents included Collin’s reaction to violent attacks on civil-rights demonstrators by state police outside of Selma, Alabama; letters from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) about housing inequality in Roxbury, and documents from the NAACP. I learned that, in some cases, searching records from mayors uncovered far more information than looking for topics directly.
There were some surprises in my research. For instance, I found the eulogy for Melnea Cass and documents from Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s Special Olympics in Mayor Kevin H. White’s records. I also found significant material pertinent to women’s issues in White’s records.
My favorite aspect of my internship was the sleuthing it allowed me to do. For instance, I found the name, “Ida M. Hebbard” on an application to use Faneuil Hall from the Housekeepers League, a group for which she served as president. I discovered that the league consisted of wives and mothers who were concerned about the prices of household goods in the 1910s. Hebbard was an early advocate of consumer rights and led the group in boycotting goods to protest unfair pricing. Their potato boycott helped lower the cost of of potatoes from 70 cents to 35 cents a peck. The League advocated for the Bob Veal Bill, which prohibited the sale of calves weighing less than sixty pounds. Hebbard also called attention to violations in the way cold food was stored in Boston. Though extremely influential in Boston at the time, Hebbard is, today, barely remembered by Bostonians. The fact that I brought back her memory is something I’m extremely proud of.*
I found inspiration in my research into the men and women of color in Boston’s history. I learned about the creator of the Drop-a-Dime hotline, Georgette Watson and the first Black female firefighter, Karen Miller. I also discovered the teaching record of Grace Lorch who was a white escort for the Little Rock Nine.
One of my favorite items and most interesting discoveries came from the Town of Dorchester records: the military enlistments from the 5th Regiment Massachusetts Colored Volunteer Cavalry during the Civil War.
Massachusetts had three African American regiments during the Civil War: the 54th Infantry Regiment, 55th Infantry Regiment, and the 5th Colored Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. The 1989 movie Glory starring Mathew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes and Morgan Freeman documents 54th Infantry Regiment–a Massachusetts military unit that was one of the first units in the Union Army composed entirely of African-Americans. The records for the 5th Colored Cavalry are lesser-known but fascinating! Included among the enlistees from Dorchester were Stephen Jacobs and Betsey Smith. Jacobs and Smith enlisted together but his form said he had originally come from Virginia, whereas Smith’s listed her home as Africa. I found out that she went into the war as a private and left with the rank of private.
Marta told me that she had expected me to write two or three blogs per week for Black History Month and Women’s History Month, but by the end of my internship I had written a post for every day in February and March to honor the admirable men and women of our city in Black History and Women’s History Months.
While working at BCA, I monitored the research room, so I gained experience watching researchers and making sure everyone handled documents correctly. I also had the chance to answer some reference queries. I realized while doing these tasks that I really enjoyed acting as a bit of a detective for the public.
By working at the Boston City Archives, I learned how to become a better writer, what working in an archive entailed, and how to serve the public. I began to see myself there and enjoyed going there. While the idea of what career I want is still foggy, I do know that wherever I end up working needs to involve archives or some aspect of it.
* These are some published articles about Hebbard:
“Coal Dealers Put the Blame on Mine Men.” Boston Evening Globe, May 29, 1917.
“15,000 Women Banded in Fight Against H.C.L.” The Boston Globe, May 12, 1917.
“Potato Boycott by Housekeepers.” The Boston Globe, January 27, 1917.
“To Start Probe of Cold Storage Foods.” Boston Post, December 5, 1916.
“Watch on Legislators.” Boston Post, March 17, 1917.
“Women Who Let Fight For ‘Bob Veal’ Bill” The Boston Globe, February 22, 1917.