Guide to the Collection
Representative digitized documents from this collection:
This collection consists of manuscripts and family papers relating to several African American families, the DeGrasse, Howard, Downing, and Asbury families. It also includes correspondence, newspaper clippings, photocopies of published sources, and research notes about various individuals in those families collected by Rev. Howard DeGrasse Asbury, a descendent.
Isaiah George DeGrasse
Isaiah George DeGrasse (1813-1841) was a minister. He was the son of George DeGrasse and Maria Van Surley DeGrasse and was born on 19 July 1813 in New York. Isaiah DeGrasse attended the New York African Free School. He was ordained a deacon on 11 July 1838 by the bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in St. Phillips Church, New York City. DeGrasse worked as a missionary in Jamaica, where he died on 11 January 1841.
John Van Surley DeGrasse
John Van Surley DeGrasse (1825-1868) was a medical doctor. He was born in New York in June 1825, the youngest son of George DeGrasse and Maria Van Surley DeGrasse. He took some academic courses at a college in France, studied medicine with Dr. Samuel R. Childs in New York City in 1845, and finished his studies at Bowdoin College in May 1849, where he passed the required exams and received a Doctor in Medicine degree. In 1849, DeGrasse toured hospitals in France, England, Italy, and Switzerland.
DeGrasse married Cordelia L. Howard on 5 August 1852 in Boston and, two years later, established a medical practice there. When he was elected to membership in the Massachusetts Medical Society on 24 August 1854, he became the first African American to belong to a medical association in that state. He was the first African American medical officer in the U.S. Army. He was mustered in on 18 May 1863 and served as an assistant surgeon for the 35th Regiment of U.S. Colored Infantry (the First Regiment, North Carolina, Colored Volunteers). He and his wife had one daughter, Georgiana Cordelia DeGrasse, born 5 December 1855. He died in Boston on 25 November 1868.
Edwin Clarence Howard
Edwin Clarence Howard (1846-1912) was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents were Edwin Frederick Howard of Boston and Joan Louise Turpin Howard of New York City. (Edwin C. Howard was the nephew of Cordelia L. Howard DeGrasse.) He attended Liberia College in Monrovia from 1861-1865, but withdrew from the program before receiving a degree. In 1866, Howard attended Harvard University Medical School and graduated in 1869. He practiced medicine in Philadelphia and distinguished himself during the 1870 smallpox epidemic. He was a member of the Philadelphia County Medical Society, the Pennsylvania State Medical Society, and the American Medical Association. He was a visiting physician at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and lecturer and chairman of the Nurses' Training School. Dr. Howard never married. He was buried in Eden Cemetery in Darby, located outside Philadelphia.
George T. Downing
George T. Downing (1819-1903) was a civil rights leader and successful businessman. He was born in 1819, the son of Thomas Downing. He married Serena Leanora DeGrasse on 24 November 1841, and they had four daughters and three sons. George T. Downing was an abolitionist, actively worked towards school desegregation, and was a spokesman who urged politicians to support the Civil Rights Bill. Downing lived in Newport, R.I., where he had a catering business, owned real estate, and made contributions towards civic improvements.
Howard DeGrasse Asbury
Howard DeGrasse Asbury (1907-1978) was minister of the St. Paul Methodist Church in Jamaica, New York. Interested in African American history, he actively collected information and manuscripts about his ancestors, who included members of the DeGrasse, Howard, Downing, Gardner, and Asbury families. (Asbury was the great-grandson of John Van Surley DeGrasse and Cordelia L. Howard DeGrasse.) He loaned materials to various institutions (including the Brooklyn Public Library, New York Cultural Center, and Museum of Afro American History in Boston, Mass.) for exhibitions about African Americans. He was a member of the Negro History Associates.
The DeGrasse-Howard papers consist of two boxes of manuscripts and family papers relating to several African American families, the DeGrasse, Howard, Downing, and Asbury families. The collection also includes correspondence, newspaper clippings, photocopies of published sources, and research notes about various individuals in those families collected by Rev. Howard DeGrasse Asbury, a descendent. The collection is arranged in five series, DeGrasse family papers and related materials, Howard family papers and related materials, Downing family papers and related materials, and Rev. Howard D. Asbury papers.
The collection includes materials relating to medicine: an account book, 1852-1855, kept by John Van Surley DeGrasse, a doctor who lived and practiced medicine in Boston; papers relating to DeGrasse's service in the Civil War as a medical doctor in the 35th Regiment, North Carolina Colored Infantry; and a journal, 1865, kept by Edwin Clarence Howard while he was a medical student at Liberia College. The collection includes correspondence to and from George T. Downing about civil rights issues. Also contained in the collection are clippings and letters documenting Reverend Howard DeGrasse Asbury's research activities and participation with exhibits about African American history.
The DeGrasse-Howard papers were inherited by Mrs. Shirley Asbury Downs of Austin, Texas, from her father Reverend Howard DeGrasse Asbury, who assembled many of the documents in the collection. Mrs. Downs placed the collection on loan to the Museum of Afro American History, and the Museum of Afro American History deposited it at the Massachusetts Historical Society in July 1998. In November 2012, the collection was given to the Massachusetts Historical Society by Mrs. Downs' son Robert Downs.
Detailed Description of the Collection
I. DeGrasse family papers and related materials, 1776-1968digital content
This series consists of materials relating to the DeGrasse family, including a document, 31 [September] 1776, approving provisions used by officers on board the L'Intrepide, signed by Le Comte de Grasse; and John Van Surley DeGrasse's account book, 1852-1855, relating to his work as a doctor in Boston and listing the names of his patients, medical services provided, and charges assessed. This series also contains materials relating to John DeGrasse's enrollment in the 35th Regiment of the North Carolina Colored Infantry during the Civil War, including a letter, 9 May 1863, from Lt. Col. James C. Beecher to DeGrasse about when he was to report for duty, as well as a photocopy of his muster roll. This series includes a typescript of a letter, 23 December 1866, from Charles Sumner to John DeGrasse and autobiographical statements written by John DeGrasse and his brother Isaiah DeGrasse. This series also contains newspaper clippings, copies of vital records, and photocopies of secondary sources about the DeGrasse family and their spouses.
II. Howard family papers and related materials, 1852-1965digital content
This series is primarily comprised of documents relating to Edwin Clarence Howard, including the journal he kept while attending Liberia College in 1865. The journal has two pagination sequences and includes entries about his activities (descriptions of visits to patients, mixing medicine, church attendance) between 9 February and 27 June 1865; some of the journal is written in code, and the journal also contains some transcriptions of poems and notes about medical treatments. Additional materials relating to Howard's education found in this series include: autographs of faculty and students at Liberia College, lecture admission cards for classes he attended while a student at Harvard University, and a copy of the commencement program in 1869. This series also contains newspaper clippings, copies of vital records, and photocopies of secondary sources about the Howard family and their spouses.
III. Downing family papers and related materials, 1830-1925digital content
This series is primarily comprised of correspondence to George T. Downing regarding his activities promoting equal rights, as well as family correspondence between members of the Downing family. The correspondence sent to George T. Downing include two typescripts of letters (29 May 1855 and 8 April 1872) from Charles Sumner about equal rights, one letter (23 March 1869) from Charles Lenox Remond lending support to a new newspaper in Washington, and one letter (15 December 1885) from John Boyle O'Reilly thanking Downing for sending a written argument about civil rights. Other letters include one (13 Feb. 1866) from James Lynch (later Secretary of State for Mississippi) asking Downing to write for the Christian Recorder and two letters (12 October 1870 and 9 November 1870) from Ebenezer Bassett, U.S. minister to Haiti, describing his recent trips to the United States. This series also contains newspaper clippings and photocopies of published sources about members of the Downing family, including articles about Downing's presence at the side of Charles Sumner when he died in 1874.
IV. Rev. Howard D. Asbury papers, 1950-1976digital content
This series consists of materials relating to Reverend Asbury divided into four subseries: correspondence, exhibitions, activities, and research materials. The correspondence includes letters to and from Asbury regarding his ancestors and from researchers wishing to publish manuscripts owned by him. The exhibitions folders contain clippings, press releases, and photographs documenting how Asbury loaned materials to exhibitions about African Americans at various institutions. The activities subseries includes newspaper clippings and programs documenting Asbury's participation at meetings and commemorations. The research materials include a typescript, "State of Massachusetts Negro Soldiers and Sailors of the American Revolution," prepared by Asbury from the Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, and photocopies of images, printed materials, and notes about various African Americans. (Please note: Research materials specifically relating to the DeGrasse, Howard, Downing families are located in the previous series in this collection corresponding to those families, Series I, II, and III.)
A. Correspondence, 1958-1973, undateddigital content
B. Exhibit participation, 1961-1971digital content
Included are newspaper clippings, programs, and other papers.
Included are newspaper clippings, programs, and other papers.
C. Activities, 1950-1969digital content
Included are letters and clippings.
D. Research materials, 1968-1976digital content
Photographs Removed from the Collection
Photographs from this collection were removed to the DeGrasse-Howard photographs, ca. 1861-1976. Photo. Coll. 36.
DeGrasse-Howard papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
This collection is indexed under the following headings in ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Researchers desiring materials about related persons, organizations, or subjects should search the catalog using these headings.