MHS Programs Explore Aspects of African American History
By Gavin Kleespies, Public Programs
This past November, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar spoke at the MHS about their new book The Annotated African American Folktales. This publication presents nearly 150 African American stories, among them familiar Brer Rabbit classics, but also stories like “The Talking Skull” and “Witches Who Ride,” as well as out-of-print tales from the 1890s’ Southern Workman. Professor Gates’ reflections on how folktales weaved into his own personal history made the power of these stories very real, while professor Tatar helped place these stories in historical context and as a part of the American literary tradition.
Both Gates and Tatar are faculty members at Harvard University. Professor Tatar is the John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures. She chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology, where she teaches courses in German Studies, Folklore, and Children’s Literature. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, a literary scholar, a journalist, a cultural critic, and an Overseer and long term friend to the MHS.
For the audience, it was a captivating opportunity to hear new tales and revisit some familiar stories. These folktales are so full of wisdom, humor, whimsy, and intelligence that anyone who reads or hears them must understand that they should hold a prominent place in the Western literary canon. However, the personal stories of when these tales were first heard or memories of them being shared made the evening truly special.
Kicking off African American History Month, we have made this program available to all on our website. Over the course of the month we are hosting several programs that explore aspects of African American history.
February 8 - 6:00 pm
Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America with Douglas Edgarton (Le Moyne College)
One of the most treasured objects belonging to the Society’s collection is the battle sword of Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of the courageous 54th Massachusetts infantry, the first black regiment in the north. The prominent Shaw family of Boston and New York had long been involved in reform, from antislavery to feminism, and their son, Robert, took up the mantle of his family’s progressive stances, though perhaps more reluctantly. In this lecture, historian Douglas R. Egerton focuses on the entire Shaw family during the war years and how preceding generations have dealt with their legacy.
$10 (free for MHS members)
February 20 - 6:00 pm
Growing Up with the Country with Kendra Field (Tufts University)
Following the lead of her own ancestors, Kendra Field’s epic family history chronicles the westward migration of freedom’s first generation in the fifty years after emancipation. Field traces their journey out of the South to Indian Territory, where they participated in the development of black towns and settlements. When statehood, oil speculation, and segregation imperiled their lives, some launched a back-to-Africa movement, while others moved on to Canada and Mexico. Interweaving black, white, and Indian histories, Field’s narrative explores how ideas about race and color powerfully shaped the pursuit of freedom.
$10 (free for MHS members)
February 26 - 6:00 pm
Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court with Paul Finkelman (Gratz College)
The three most important Supreme Court Justices before the Civil War—Chief Justices John Marshall and Roger B. Taney and Associate Justice Joseph Story—upheld the institution of slavery in ruling after ruling. These opinions cast a shadow over the Court and the legacies of these men, but historians have rarely delved deeply into the personal and political ideas and motivations they held. In Supreme Injustice Paul Finkelman establishes an authoritative account of each justice’s proslavery position, the reasoning behind his opposition to black freedom, and the incentives created by his private life.
| Published: Monday, 5 February, 2018, 12:00 AM
This Week @ MHS
Welcome back to another events round-up! Here is what is happening at the Society in the week ahead:
- Tuesday, 6 February, 5:15PM : Join us for an Early American History seminar with current MHS-NEH Fellow Laurel Daen, and commenter Cornelia Dayton of the University of Connecticut. Between 1790 and 1840, Americans deemed to be cognitively disabled lost the right to vote, marry, immigrate, obtain residency, and live independently. "'We all agree to exclude...those of unsound mind': Disability, Doctors, and the Law in the Early Republic" charts these legal developments in Massachusetts as well as how disabled people used the courts to negotiate these contraints. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. To RSVP: email email@example.com or call (617) 646-0579.
- Wednesday, 7 February, 12:00PM : This week's Brown Bag talk is titled "John Winthrop, Benjamin Martin, & Worlds of Scientific Work." Pierce Williams of Carnegie Mellon University relates how Benjamin Martin was regarded by natural philosophers of his age as a showman and peddler of pseudo-scientific trinkets. At the same time, John Winthrop was working to elevate the North American colonies in the topography of learned culture. This project attempts to understand Winthrop's puzzling choice of Martin to refurbish Harvard's scientific instrument collection after the college laboratory burned to the ground in 1764. This talk is free and open to the public.
- Wednesday, 7 February, 6:00 PM : In "Reconsidering King Philip's War," two historians reexamine the narrative of one of colonial America’s most devastating conflicts. Lisa Brooks, Amherst College, recovers a complex picture of war, captivity, and Native resistance during the “First Indian War." Christine DeLucia, Mount Holyoke College, offers a major reconsideration of the war, providing an alternative to Pilgrim-centric narratives that have dominated the histories of colonial New England. The program will include short presentations by both scholars followed by a conversation. This talk is open to the public, registration required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members and Fellows, and EBT cardholders). We have exceeded the seating in our main room. Audience members registering on or after February 1st will be seated in overflow seating.
- Thursday, 8 February, 6:00PM : The second author talk this weak features Douglas Egerton, Le Moyne College, and his recent work Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America. One of the most treasured objects belonging to the Society’s collection is the battle sword of Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of the courageous 54th Massachusetts infantry, the first black regiment in the North. The prominent Shaw family of Boston and New York had long been involved in reform, including antislavery and feminism, and their son, Robert, took up the mantle of his family’s progressive stances, though perhaps more reluctantly. In this lecture, historian Douglas R. Egerton focuses on the entire Shaw family during the war years and how following generations have dealt with their legacy. This talk is open to the public, registration required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members and Fellows, and EBT cardholders).
- Saturday, 10 February, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Tour is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Yankees in the West.
| Published: Sunday, 4 February, 2018, 12:00 AM
History by the Numbers: A Gomes Prize Ceremony conversation between 2017 recipient Tamara Thornton and MHS President Catherine Allgor
By Alexis Buckley, Research Department
In 2016, the MHS founded the Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize, awarded annually for the best book on the history of Massachusetts. The prize honors the memory of the Reverend Professor Gomes, a Harvard scholar and a respected and beloved Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society for almost thirty-five years. Peter Gomes believed in the transformative power of engaging with the past, and held an especial fondness for the history of his native state. He extolled the role of the imagination in creating a better world.
About two centuries earlier, another Massachusetts native himself set out to create a better world. His name was Nathaniel Bowditch, and above all he believed in the power of numbers. Thus it’s only fitting that the 2017 Gomes Book Prize was awarded to historian Tamara Plakins Thornton for her biography, Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life. Thornton brings to life the Atlantic-facing maritime world of Bowditch’s hometown, the bustling port of Salem. She also reveals Bowditch’s role in creating the numbered and sorted bureaucratic society familiar to us today, from creating navigational tables, to organizing the collections of Salem’s East India Marine Society—now the Peabody Essex Museum—and the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company, to introducing a numerical grading system at Harvard. As Thornton demonstrates, Bowditch took his faith in numbers and transformed the world.
Thornton joined us at the Society on Thursday, Jan. 25, to receive the 2017 prize. Like any good historian, she came in early to spend the day in our reading room, diving into the research for her next project. (Not to mention using collections well numbered and sorted! Our library staff would make Bowditch proud.) Come evening, after Ellis Hall had been transformed for the award ceremony, she received her award check and a certificate beautifully framed and matted with century-old French endpaper. She then took to the stage to commence a conversation on what it means to be a historian and a biographer.
Who better to join Thornton in this conversation than our new president, Catherine Allgor, another historian cum biographer? Allgor’s biography of Dolley Madison followed her work Parlor Politics, on the founding women of the early republic, much as Thornton’s biography of Bowditch followed her monographs on handwriting and the making of country life by the nineteenth-century Boston elite.
Fortunately for those too far away—or too cold!—to attend the program, the conversation was filmed and is now available for you to watch online. Allgor and Thornton spoke about transitioning from writing monographs to writing biographies, and the advantages they had in having already written books that made them familiar with their subject’s world: in Dolley Madison’s case, it was Washington D.C. and all its politicking; for Nathanial Bowditch, it was the surprisingly cosmopolitan city of Salem. More specifically, Bowditch lived in a world of merchants and shipping, where—instead of the Latin and Greek needed for Harvard—young men bound for occupations as clerks and navigators learned math and penmanship. Of course, Thornton and Allgor continued, writing biography also means considering the role of inborn personality and temperament in relation to the influence of the subject’s era.
MHS President Catherine Allgor and Gomes Prize recipient Tamara Thornton, in conversation.
Thornton and Allgor also discussed their efforts to find points of familiarity with their subjects while keeping in mind that the past remains a foreign country. Allgor enjoyed taking a fresh look at Washington politics in its infancy through Dolley Madison, and considering how the politics we know today are contingent on so many nineteenth-century choices that people such as Madison made. Thornton described the uncategorized society that Bowditch transformed, with numbers and forms, into the world we live in today.
And, of course, the two biographers discussed Bowditch’s love of numbers. He was inspired by the rules and regularity of the solar system, and sought to recreate that wherever he could. He saw the world, Thornton said, in “pluses and minuses.” He loved the certainty of numbers. If you were incorrect, inaccurate, immoral, wrong: all of these things were the same to him.
There is more to be heard on the video, about finding sources and excluding them, about Bowditch’s views on the places he sailed to around the world, and about strange and unexpected discoveries in the archives! But I will keep this entry short enough to fit on one of Bowditch’s blank forms, and merely suggest that you watch the video, then pick up Tamara Thornton’s award-winning book and take your own trip to Nathaniel Bowditch’s ordered world.
If you’ve published a book on Massachusetts history copyrighted in 2017, we invite you to submit your work for consideration to receive this year’s Gomes Prize, and we look forward to telling all of you what the 2018 competition brings!
| Published: Friday, 2 February, 2018, 10:09 AM
Barbara Hillard Smith’s Diary, January 1918
By Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services, and Intern Lindsay Bina
A new year means a new serialized diary here at The Beehive, where for the past three years we have showcased a diary from the collections written one hundred years ago (you can read the 2015, 2016, and 2017 series in our archives!). This year’s diary was transcribed by intern Lindsay Bina.
The diary for 2018 is a tiny line-a-day diary kept by teenager Barbara Hillard Smith. Smith was born on 16 July 1903 and was fourteen in January of 1918 when she began keeping her diary. Before she began to record her daily activities, Barbara carefully completed the “Identification” page in the front of the diary, noting that her weight was 126, her height 5 feet, 6 ½ inches, her shoe size a 7, her hosiery 10 ½, and her gloves 6 ¼. Her telephone number was Newton West 193-M and her physician was an H.W. Godfrey. She was a student at Newton High School.
Image from The Newtonian (1920) yearbook. Barbara was captain of her basketball team senior year and is depicted in the center holding a basketball.
Without further ado, we bring you January 1918 through the eyes of a Newton teenager.
* * *
TUES. 1 JAN., 1918 NEW YEAR’S DAY
Muriel’s. Skating at Bulloughs. Women Club Play
Went over to Aunt Mabels.
Mother went to New York. Aunt Mabels.
School. Took care of the baby.
School. Basket Ball.
Sick with cold. Peg hurt her back
Sick with cold. Had Dr. Godfrey.
Cold Better. Mother came home
In the house. Down street.
Church. Sunday School. Service flag unfurled. Skating in back yard. Sick
School. Stayed for algebra. Pegs skating
School. Stayed for geometry. Pegs.
School. Stayed for French. Skating in front yard.
School. Skating at Pegs. Concert at the Seminary
School. Down to Rosa’s. Watched swimming class.
Shampoo at Miss Mitchells. Sewed on my dress. Down town
Sunday School. Hung around
School. Took care of the baby.
School. Basketball. up to Mrs. Reed’s
School. Took care of baby.
School. Camp Fire. Swimming.
Skating with Mrs. Moody. Pegs. Mother Carey’s Chickens.
Church. S.S. Skating at Pegs. [Havene] here. Fell down and hurt my back
Home with my back. Felt kind of weak
Home with my back. Took care of sonny. Father died.
School. Took care of sonny.
School. Basket Ball. Symphony and Mischa Elman.
* * *
If you are interested in viewing the diary in person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.
*Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original. The catalog record for the Barbara Hillard Smith collection may be found here.
| Published: Wednesday, 31 January, 2018, 12:00 AM
This Week @ MHS
It's time, once again, to see what public programs are coming in the week ahead here at the MHS:
- Monday, 29 January, 6:00PM : Martha McNamara of Wellesley College and Karan Sheldon of Northeast Historic Film discuss the selection of essays they recently edited titled Amateur Movie Making: Aesthetics of the Everyday in New England Film, 1915-1960, which illustrates how early twentieth-century amateur filmmaking produced irreplaceable records of peoples' lives and beloved places. In this converation, McNamara and Sheldon highlight three examples: the comedies of landscape architect Sidney N. Shurcliff, depictions of pastoral family life by Elizabeth Woodman Wright, and the chronicles of Anna B. Harris, an African American resident of Manchester, Vermont. This talk is open to the public, though registration is required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members/Fellows or EBT Cardholders). Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM, followed by the speaking program at 6:00PM.
- Tuesday, 30 January, 5:15PM : The seminar this week comes from the Modern American Society and Culture series, and features the work of Anne Gray Fischer of Brown University, with Brandeis University's Michael Willrich providing comment. "'Momentum Toward Evil Is Strong': Poor Women, Moral Panics, and the Rise of Crime-Fighting Policing in Depression-Era America" explores the dramatic shift in public perception of American law enforcement between Prohibition and World War II by studying the changing practices of Depression-era morality policing in boston and Los Angeles -- specifically, the police enforcement of moral misdemeanors, including vagrancy, disorderly conduct, lewdness, and prostitution, which disproportionately targeted poor women on city streets.
Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. To RSVP, e-mail email@example.com or call (617) 646-0579.
- Wednesday, 31 January, 12:00PM : Stop by at noon for a Brown Bag talk with short-term research fellow Angela Hudson of Texas A&M University. "Indian Doctresses: Race, Labor, and Medicine in the 19th-century United States" focuses on women who worked as Indian doctresses and the clients who sought their care. They study strives to more fully integrate indigeneity into fields of study from which it is often absent, most notably labor history and the history of medicine. This talk is free and open to the public
- Saturday, 3 February, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute, docent-led walk through the public spaces of the Society's home at 1154 Boylston St. The tour is free and open to the public with no need for reservations for individuals and small groups. Those wishing ot bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley in advance at (617) 646-0508 or firstname.lastname@example.org. While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Yankees in the West.
| Published: Sunday, 28 January, 2018, 12:00 AM