Reflections from a John Winthrop High School Student Fellow

By Sahai Virk, Milford High School, 2023 MHS John Winthrop Student Fellow

Today, I want to share my experience as a student fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) and how it helped me explore the effects of social welfare on low-income minorities in 19th-century Massachusetts. Buckle up for a journey through the past, filled with insights, surprises, and a few head-scratching moments!

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this fellowship was diving deep into the historical records of almshouses because while I’ve read passages from primary resources in school, I had never tackled the entire primary resource in detail. These public institutions aimed to help the poor, elderly, and disadvantaged. Unearthing menus from almshouses like Ward’s Island and Randall’s Island gave me an understanding of the food disparities among inmates. It made me wonder if low-income minorities received equitable nourishment compared to others. An exciting find was John Stanton Gould’s report comparing food in almshouses and prisons, showing some prisons offered a more varied and nutritious diet.

However, the journey wasn’t all smooth sailing. The most challenging part was dealing with the limitations of historical records, which often lacked specific details about minority experiences in these institutions. This made it difficult to gauge the healthcare needs to be met for minorities living in almshouses. I could extensively research and answer my original question if I had more time. My research question was broad and hard to tackle, so if I had a couple more months, I could find more details and evidence by examining more sources.

I also explored other avenues to approach my research question, like homes for the elderly, which were established specifically for aging individuals lacking familial support. Comparing the Home for Aged Colored Women to others that excluded people of color revealed disparities in healthcare provisions. For example, some homes had multiple physicians working free of charge, while others only had one nurse. It made me ponder the impact of socioeconomic factors on healthcare access for low-income minority communities during that time.

My initial research question evolved and became more nuanced during my research journey. I wanted to explore the legacy of social welfare institutions on healthcare and understand how these establishments shaped the modern healthcare system. However, the limited historical records challenged me to find other avenues to understand the reactions of minority communities to healthcare laws and procedures. 

As I conclude my fellowship, I am grateful for the eye-opening experience that brought me closer to the struggles and triumphs of low-income minorities in 19th-century Massachusetts. It’s a constant reminder that we still have work to do in addressing healthcare disparities for all communities, and the legacy of social welfare institutions continues to impact our healthcare system today.