Every year, the MHS selects one or more high school students for our John Winthrop Student Fellowship. This award encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant collections of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Applications for the 2022 Student Fellowships will open in November 2021. Learn more and apply!
This year, our 2021 John Winthrop Student Fellow Laasya Chiduruppa of Lexington High School has been researching the history of slavery and abolition in Massachusetts with the support of her teacher mentor Michael Egbert. Laasya has created an educational blog with articles on her research into the history of significant court cases on the road to ending slavery. Visit Abolition in Massachusetts to learn more and follow along with Laasya’s research!
As an American aware of deep-rooted systemic racism and as someone interested in contributing to moving our nation towards social justice, I have a keen interest in educating myself and others on historic injustices. So, when I came upon the Massachusetts Historical Society, I was thrilled to read about the John Winthrop Student Fellowship, seeing the research opportunity as a venue to educate myself and others on the importance of representation of unheard voices and recognition of our country’s painful past. With the resources provided, I dove into research focused on the early court cases credited with abolishing slavery in Massachusetts, and I created an educational blog focusing on these historic milestones to equality.
During initial conversations with Kate Melchior, an MHS historian who guided me through this process, and Mr. Egbert, my history teacher, I highlighted how I was interested in anti-slavery movements in the local area, regardless of date, era, or the laws they were protesting. However, through my research and their guidance, I soon realized that I needed to focus my topic into a much more specific time period and theme, ending slavery in Massachusetts, in order to have the clearest narrative in the educational blog I wanted to create. It was through this guidance that I was able to narrow down my research to a series of court cases in the 1780s, legal action ultimately resulting in the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.
Early on in my research journey, the collection of the notes from Judge William Cushing’s legal notebook, stood out to me. Cushing had presided over the series of cases known as the Quock Walker case, which had ultimately found that the existence of slavery contradicted with the Massachusetts Constitution, and therefore couldn’t be supported by Massachusetts state courts. Through the quickly written notes, I not only was able to find a clear narrative of testimony on both sides, especially during the criminal indictment of Quock Walker’s owner for battery, but was also able to see the beginnings of his thought process behind his ultimate decision and instruction to the jury.
In my research process, I struggled to narrow down my research into specific fields. Due to the plethora of documents and primary sources available in the MHS catalog, I often found myself diving into antislavery records written decades after the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, or identifying historical ads from the Civil War era. Through the use of key words and case studies, I was able to keep my research focused. In the writing process for my blog, I also initially had difficulties with finding the correct tone to highlight what I had found. Ultimately, after reading through historical entries in the Beehive Blog, the MHS’s historical blogging website, I was able to hone in on a format which used historical documents and a casual tone to develop a narrative.
If you plan on taking on this research opportunity in the future, don’t go into it with a strict cemented vision of what your end product, or even your research, will look like. Start the process by diving into materials which are related to your focus and importantly, are genuinely interesting or fascinating to you. As you move along further in the research process, these documents will guide you to the ultimate direction your final project will take on. As I was in the earlier stages of my research process, I started with the list of documents which I had highlighted in my application, as well as the list of resources provided by the MHS historians working alongside me. I used these accounts as starting off points, narrowing my focus to key figures like Mumbet, Quock Walker, and Anthony Burns. I then used these case studies to identify key words and further my research, ultimately allowing me to narrow my research down into a clear narrative.
Also, take full advantage of the resources, both in the archives and over email, available to you. The MHS historians are so thoughtful in their guidance, and their suggestions. Check-ins were imperative in molding the final direction my project took on.
From the blog that I have written, I hope to teach my peers and fellow members of my community that the journey to equality was a long and difficult one, and one that didn’t start and end with the Civil War. I hope to highlight underrepresented and disenfranchised voices and underline the physical and legal struggles these direct actors faced. Most importantly, however, I hope that the research and writing that I have done encourages others to diversify their knowledge of local history and the struggles on the road to freedom.