Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Related to African American History

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An Overview



This guide is an overview of the Massachusetts Historical Society collections that contain information by or about African Americans.


Within the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) reside manuscripts, books, printed materials, photographs, and artifacts by and about African Americans. This overview is intended to guide historians, researchers, genealogists, teachers, and others to the type and depth of information available for the study of African American lives, institutions, and history at the Society. It does not represent a detailed inventory of all collections, but rather a preliminary survey of cataloged manuscripts, photographs, and artifacts by or about African Americans.

The scope of this overview is defined as: (1) manuscripts, photographs, and material culture (i.e., paintings, artifacts) created by African Americans and African American institutions and community organizations; and (2) manuscripts and material culture that specifically identify or describe African Americans. An example of the former would be Phillis Wheatley's manuscript poems, while the account books of Boston enslaver Hugh Hall represent the latter. Correspondence between Horace Mann and Charles Sumner regarding the latter's anti-slavery speeches in Congress are not included. While related to the anti-slavery movement, this correspondence is not by or specifically about individual African Americans, but rather is about a political event.

As late as the nineteenth century, many of the persons described in these collections were born in Africa. However, as it is often difficult to establish individuals' origins from brief mentions in documents, all citations related to persons described as "Negro," "of color," "colored," or African are included in this overview. The overview does not specifically deal with Native Americans, although they also may be described in some of these records. Finally, individual manuscripts are not listed except by way of example.

The materials are presented chronologically in three sections. The colonial period (1630-1783) covers the period 1630, through the Revolution, to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783. The national period (1784-1865) encompasses the early growth of the nation through the Civil War. The modern period (1866-present) represents Reconstruction through the present. Collections that extend through two periods are included either in the period most strongly represented in the papers or mentioned twice.

To find more information on these resources or to request materials described in this overview, readers may consult several MHS resources. The Society's online catalog, ABIGAIL, available at, contains collection-level descriptions of the Society's manuscript collections and most of the photograph collections. Published and unpublished manuscript and photograph collection guides contain more detailed information than the descriptions found in ABIGAIL. Many of the collection guides are fully searchable at the MHS website (, and more are added on a regular basis. The collection-level records in ABIGAIL also indicate if there is a collection guide available for the collection. Copies of the paper collection guides that have not yet been converted to electronic format are available in the MHS reading room.

The manuscript card catalog contains descriptions of approximately 320,000 individual items; very few of these appear in ABIGAIL. The published Catalog of Manuscripts of the Massachusetts Historical Society (G. K. Hall, 1969; 1980 supplement), available in more than 150 U.S. libraries, consists of photocopies of these item catalog cards. Although almost all of the collection-level descriptions in the Catalog have been revised or superseded in ABIGAIL, the published catalog remains a useful guide for descriptions of more than 300,000 individual manuscript items. The MHS card catalog, now available on microfiche in the Society's reading room, contains the cards in the published Catalog, as well as many additions and corrections.

The MHS has also digitized and transcribed 117 items from the collection relating to African Americans and the end of slavery in America. This website, available at, contains images and searchable transcriptions of manuscripts, broadsides, artifacts, and other primary sources related to the African American experience in colonial Massachusetts.

Detailed Description

Slavery, Plantations, Manumission

Africans, African Americans, and Their Families

The MHS holds a significant collection of papers and artifacts related to only one African in the colonial period, Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784). Wheatley was a contemporary of the men who founded the MHS, so these early collectors gathered her poems, books, broadsides, letters, table, and likeness. Wheatley manuscripts can be found in the Andrews-Eliot papers, Hugh Upham Clark papers, Cushing family papers, Thomas Jefferson papers, Miscellaneous and Miscellaneous bound manuscripts, Oliver papers, Robie-Sewall papers, Thomas Wallcut papers, and Benjamin Whitwell autograph collection. The MHS owns the December 15, 1773 broadside for Wheatley's "An elegy, to Miss. Mary Moorhead..." and three editions of her book, published in 1771, 1773, and 1784. A table said to have been used by Phillis Wheatley and attributed to Benjamin Frothingham, Jr. (1734-1809) is also in the Society's collections.

The MHS has resources containing vital records of Africans and African Americans in colonial Massachusetts such as birth, marriage, church membership, tax, and death records. The most comprehensive of these is the Boston African-American Database Project (BAAD). BAAD is a computerized database of 4,000 records of Black Bostonians from a variety of colonial records sources, and is a subset of the much larger "Thwing index" of Boston residents between 1630 and 1800. Researchers may access the database at the Massachusetts Historical Society or from Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston 1630-1800, a joint CD-ROM publication of the MHS and the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), available from the NEHGS. Users can search by last name, first name, birth date, death date, parents, spouse, occupation, or simply on the code "A" to access all 4,000 African American records of the subset BAAD.

Other African American vital records may be found in the records of the First Parish Church in Dorchester, First Church Hingham, English and Indian Church in Natick, King's Chapel in Boston, the Roxbury Tax Assessment Lists (1697-1804), Census of Massachusetts (1777), and the Chelsea papers. The Boston Overseers of the Poor records contain "warning out" books (1745-1770, 1771-1773) that record the name, town of origin, when persons were residents of Boston, and the date they were "warned out" of Boston. The diary of Robert Love, a justice of the peace appointed in 1765-1766 to carry out the "warning out" process, complements the overseers' records.

Other colonial period documents by or about African Americans can be found in Miscellaneous manuscripts and Miscellaneous Bound manuscripts, which consist of individually cataloged documents. The majority of these manuscripts are legal documents, such as recognizance bonds, testimonies, and affidavits from the greater Boston area. Several of these documents relate to other MHS collections. While the Jeffries family papers contain a letter from John Usher, John Saffin, and others to enslaver William Welstead relating instructions to secretly import a group of enslaved individuals in 1681 at Nantasket, the Miscellaneous Bound manuscripts contain the bill confirming the delivery, costs, and disposition of these enslaved individuals. Similarly, John Saffin's agreement of June 26, 1694 for emancipation of his captive, Adam, started the controversy that resulted in the publication of Samuel Sewall's The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial (Boston: Printed by Bartholomew Green and John Allen, 1700). The only copy of this publication in existence, as well as Sewall's correspondence and diaries, are owned by the MHS.

Slavery, Plantations, and the Slave Trade

The individuals documented in these collections are, in the majority of cases, Africans or the descendants of Africans forcibly brought to North America as enslaved persons. The Winthrop family papers, especially John Winthrop's journal, chronicle some initial slave-trading voyages of the Massachusetts Bay colony from 1638 through 1645. The journal was originally published as A Journal of the Transactions and Occurrences in the Settlement of Massachusetts and the other New-England Colonies... (Hartford: Printed by Elisha Babcock, 1790), with later editions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as The History of New England from 1630 to 1649. Various journal entries record the arrival in 1638 of the ship Desire with enslaved persons from Providence Island (in the Caribbean), as well as the misfortunes of early Puritan enslavers. Correspondence discussing enslavement of both Africans and Native Americans is also scattered throughout the collection.

More importations of enslaved people are documented in the William Pepperrell papers, Miscellaneous Bound manuscripts, the Jeffries family papers, the Hugh Hall papers, and the Peter Faneuil papers. The Pepperrell papers contain several letters regarding slave-trading voyages to Africa in which William Pepperrell (1696-1759) had a financial interest. The Jeffries family collection contains the seventeenth-century papers of various Jeffries family members and those of John Usher (1648-1726), treasurer and receiver general of the Territory and Dominion of New England under Sir Edmund Andros. These papers contain correspondence relative to Usher's participation in the trafficking of enslaved people, the disposition of enslaved people sold in Boston, and references to individuals enslaved by Usher, the Jeffries family, and others.

Hugh Hall (1693-1773) was born in Barbados in 1693, raised in Boston, and educated at Harvard College. After several years training in Barbados and London, he returned to Boston as a merchant. His account book (1728-1733) records shipments of enslaved people arriving in Boston, their names, and to whom they were sold. The Moses M. Hays papers contain the New York merchant's letterbook, which records references to transactions regarding the trafficking of enslaved people (1769-1771).

Two decades after the arrival of the Winthrop fleet, Boston had become a hub of Atlantic trade. Merchants offered provisions to ships trading in the Atlantic; agents for British firms traded foodstuffs to the Caribbean; and craftsmen built and repaired trading vessels. This included ships plying the Transatlantic African Slave Trade. Boston-based businesses had family members or associates throughout the Caribbean, and many of these families owned West Indian plantations and enslaved Africans or African Americans. These collections of colonial-period family papers contain one or more of the following document types relative to free or enslaved Africans and African Americans: bills of sale with the names of enslaved individuals; receipts, letters, and accounts for medical attention, clothing, or hiring out; indentures or agreements; family probate and estate records containing lists of enslaved individuals, value, expenses related to the enslavers' funerals (most often clothing), and disposition; letters or agreements regarding cost for upkeep of enslaved individuals; receipts for rent; descriptions of behavior, appearance, or attitude; and manumission or freedom agreements.

Collections which contain at least one of these documents are: the Barker-Edes-Noyes family papers, William Baylies ledgers, Jeremy Belknap papers, Bromfield and Clarke family papers, Bowdoin-Temple portion of the Winthrop family papers, Dalton family papers, Nathan Dane papers, Caleb Davis papers, Dolbeare family papers, Frederick Lewis Gay collection, Benjamin Goodwin papers, Christopher Grant papers, Samuel A. Greene papers, David Stoddard Greenough family papers, Hancock family papers, Henry Knox papers, Lee-Cabot papers, Cotton Mather papers, Metcalfe family papers, Murray-Robbins family papers, James Otis, Sr. papers, Robert Treat Paine papers, Oliver Partridge papers, Elizabeth Porter correspondence (1754-1755) in the Bulfinch family papers, Robie-Sewall family papers, John Rowe diaries, Thomas Saunders papers, Samuel Phillip Savage collection, Sayer-Gilman papers, Sedgwick family papers, Samuel Sewall papers and diaries, Shrimpton family papers, Smith-Carter family papers, Ward family papers, Watts family papers portion of the Chelsea papers, and Charles M. Whelden papers.

The Dolbeare family papers are a good example of the content to be found in these collections. The collection contains various bills of sale for enslaved individuals executed by the Dolbeares and their in-law Dr. William Clark. The deaths of James and Sarah Dolbeare within several years of one another in the 1740s occasioned detailed estate accounts, including the altering of a jacket for an enslaved person named Fortune; rent paid to the estate by Scipio, "a free negro man"; and the granting of the enslaved individuals to various relatives. The papers also contain Dr. William Clark's agreement with Ebenezer Griggs of Dudley to take, keep, and maintain an enslaved "infirm Negro man Robin."

The account book of Dr. Joseph Warren, a Boston physician (and Bunker Hill hero) who treated many enslaved patients, contains detailed accounts of each visit, the name of the patient or parent/enslaver, and occasionally the reason for treatment. The Boston Conveyances, although prepared by Nathaniel I. Bowditch in the nineteenth century, contain detailed reconstruction of property and information about inhabitants dating back to the colonial period. For instance, in a North End conveyance record, he traces the ownership of property through Zipporah Potter, a seventeenth-century African American woman.

The Dolbeare, Greenough, and Shrimpton family papers also contain manuscripts related to their West Indian plantations. For example, a plantation in Antigua is first recorded in the Shrimpton family papers managed by Shrimpton son-in-law and Antiguan lieutenant governor John Yeamans. The plantation passed to his son Shute Shrimpton Yeamans through subsequent owners until 1818, when David Stoddard Greenough (1752-1826) sold it. Of particular note are the plantation accounts for 1775-1818. The Dolbeare family owned a plantation in Jamaica. The Cary family papers, while predominantly relevant to the national period, contain the papers of patriarch Samuel Cary (1742-1812), a Chelsea, Mass. native who made his fortune on a plantation in Grenada. The Daniel Axtell account book documents the management of a plantation in South Carolina from 1699 to 1707.

African Americans in the Revolution

Africans and African Americans served in the Revolutionary War on both sides of the conflict. Black historian and activist William Cooper Nell (1816-1874) gave both the flag and the medallion of the Bucks of America, an African American Revolutionary War unit, to the Historical Society in 1862. Little is known about the Bucks of America. However, Nell described the presentation of the flag to the Bucks of America by Governor John Hancock in his book The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons: To Which Is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition and Prospects of Colored Americans (1855). The "Proceedings of the American Commissioners of Inspection during the British evacuation of New York," contained in the Adams family papers, includes copies of the "Inspection Roll of Negroes." These rolls detail the names, ages, physical descriptions, former "owners," status, and history of black individuals who boarded British ships in New York on their way to Nova Scotia. Many of these individuals were emancipated from colony plantations by British troops during the Revolutionary War. Other collections that contain one or more documents relative to Black participation in the Revolution are the William Heath papers, the Henry Knox papers, the George Metcalf papers, and the John Rowe diaries.

Freemen, Abolitionists, Colonization, and Slavery

The Society's collections relating to African Americans in slavery and freedom are most extensive in the national period, due in some part to the founding of the Society in 1791. Many MHS members were abolitionists, so they were the "history makers," as well as the collectors of the records of these movements and events.

African Americans and Their Families in the National Period

There are several collections of African American family papers at the Society. The DeGrasse-Howard papers contain the family papers and photographs of the DeGrasse, Howard, Downing, and Asbury families. Of particular interest are the medical account book kept from 1852 to 1855 by Dr. John S. V. DeGrasse (1825-1868) and a carte-de-visite photograph of Dr. DeGrasse by the well-known African American painter and photographer Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901).

The Mary Hartford papers in the Jeremy Belknap papers contain late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century documents on Boston African Americans and papers related to the living arrangements and support of Mary Hartford, an African American servant in the Belknap family.

Within other collections are papers and accounts of African Americans from the first half of the nineteenth century. From western Massachusetts, the Sedgwick family papers contain an account of the life of Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman of Stockbridge written by author Catherine Maria Sedgwick, a miniature portrait, and her necklace. Freeman's landmark 1781 lawsuit seeking freedom effectively led to the end of slavery in Massachusetts. Another Stockbridge collection is the typescript about Agrippa Hull (1759-1848), the African American Revolutionary War orderly of Polish Brigadier General Tadeusz Koscuiszko (1746-1817), and a photograph of Hull's second wife Margaret Timbroke Hull.

The William Lloyd Garrison papers contain documents related to and/or correspondence of William Cooper Nell and Sarah P. Remond (1826-1894), as well as their photographs. The Theodore Parker papers include a letter from William Craft (1824-1900). The Horace Mann collection contains correspondence from Peter Randolph ([1825]-1897) of Philadelphia and several African American anti-slavery groups. The Society also owns an engraving of "Am I Not a Woman and a Sister" by Patrick Henry Reason (1816-1898), an African American engraver, lithographer, abolitionist, and fraternal order leader from New York.

Other collections which contain one or more documents regarding individual African Americans are: the Adams family papers, Andrews-Eliot papers, Boston Conveyances, Peter Brooks's farm journal and wastebooks, Jared Curtis's notebooks, Henry Herbert Edes collection, Emerson family papers, David Stoddard Greenough family papers, Groton (Mass.) historical papers, Israel Keith papers, Miscellaneous manuscripts, Harrison Gray Otis papers, Robert Treat Paine papers, Joel Parker papers, and George Frederick Tufts travel journal. The Horace Mann collection, the G. W. Norcross autograph collection, and the Spaulding-Fearing papers all contain correspondence related to African American education and schools. Information on African American seamen is contained in the Boston Port and Seamen's Aid Society records, Jonathan Ingersoll Bowditch papers, William Jenks papers, and Miscellaneous Bound manuscripts. In addition, vital records regarding African Americans can be found in the Boston Overseers of the Poor records, First Church of Hingham records, Roxbury Almshouse records, Joseph Thomas papers (Nantucket), and the records of Boston's Trinity Church.


It is generally agreed that slavery in Massachusetts ended in 1783 through legal rather than legislative action. No one act or case set all enslaved people free on a specific date, but rather individual agreements and legal actions executed throughout the Commonwealth culminated in de facto freedom for Africans and African Americans enslaved by Massachusetts residents. The Jeremy Belknap papers contain his famous correspondence with St. George Tucker (1752-1827) of Williamsburg, Va. regarding the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. Belknap circulated Tucker's queries among the white and Black communities, and some of their responses are part of the collection. Copies of petitions to the legislature by Prince Hall (1735-1808), African American community leader and founder of the African Masonic Lodge in the United States, and others in the Black community are also in the Belknap papers.

The emancipation of enslaved people immediately raised legal and societal issues regarding the status and protection of emancipated people. Disagreements between towns and former enslavers over responsibility for the support of destitute or aged emancipated people found their way into the courts and town records. The Adams-Morse papers, Boston Overseers of the Poor records, Francis Dana papers in the Dana family papers, Miscellaneous Bound manuscripts, and Sedgwick family papers all contain documents related to these disputes and warnings-out. The status of enslaved individuals brought to free states from enslavement states is discussed in the Theodore Parker papers and the Sedgwick family papers.

Slavery, Plantations, and the Slave Trade After the Revolution

In the late 1780s, many states banned the importation of enslaved people from Africa, but these laws were generally ignored. The importation of enslaved people into the United States was made illegal in 1808 after the passing of the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves. However, throughout the late eighteenth century, and even after 1808, New England's mercantile community continued to participate in the illegal Transatlantic Slave Trade, as well as the interstate trafficking of enslaved people. The Ebenezer Burgess papers, Nathaniel Cutting journal and letterbooks, Moses M. Hayes papers, Benjamin Joy papers, and Thomas Handasyd Perkins papers document legal and illegal trafficking of enslaved people from Africa to the U.S., Brazil, and Cuba in the national period.

New England families had many blood and business ties to Slave States and the West Indies. The Society's collections contain business records and accounts of plantations, including the Atkins and Tidd-Lord-Henchman-Carret family papers (Cuba), John H. Cabot papers (Tennessee), Cary family papers and Samuel Cary papers (Grenada), Fay-Mixter family papers (Georgia), Francis Russell Hart collection (Antigua), Hubbard-Greene papers (Guyana), Jackson family papers (Savannah), Thomas Jefferson and Lamb family papers (Virginia), Pemberton collection (South Carolina), Winthrop Sargent papers (Mississippi), Vaughan family papers (Jamaica), and the Frederic Augustus Eustis papers, which include three volumes of detailed documentation regarding those enslaved on three Sea Island cotton plantations: the Eustis and Gibbes plantations on Ladies Island (S.C.) and the Fuller plantation on Wassaw Island (Ga).

New Englanders also traveled in the South, the Caribbean, and South America during the national period and wrote descriptions and impressions of plantations, auctions of enslaved people, and slavery. Mrs. William Nye Davis's journal (Cuba & West Indies), William Richards Lawrence letterbooks (the South and Cuba), Horace Mann collection (Tennessee), Henry Pierce family papers (Brazil), George Cheyne Shattuck papers (South Carolina & Georgia), Rinaldo R. Taylor letters (Louisiana), and Wheelwright family papers (Cuba) all provide some record of these enslavement societies. The Theodore Parker papers contain correspondence describing the Washington, D.C. slave market and manumission techniques. The Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge papers, which are part of the Coolidge-Lowell family papers, include twelve "Negro Stories" that she heard from enslaved people at Monticello and include her reminiscences of religious practices, fables, and favorite tales.

The Edward Lillie Pierce volumes chronicle his oversight of freedmen working the Port Royal, S.C. plantations during the Civil War; the Peirce family papers contain a reminiscence of teaching these same freedmen; and the Noyes family papers include documents regarding Edward J. Noyes's administration of the Routhwood Plantation in South Carolina in 1866 after emancipation.

The Colonization Movement

Not long after the American Revolution, movements began to support the relocation of freed Black people to the West Indies and Africa, and later Kansas, Canada, Florida, and the American West. Known broadly as "colonization" movements, there was initially support within both the Black and white communities. The Ebenezer Burgess papers and Miscellaneous Bound manuscripts contain documents related to the colony in Sierra Leone. Burgess's papers also chronicle the early identification of Liberia as a potential colony site. The Massachusetts Colonization Society's records document the organization's mission to send free Black citizens of the United States to Liberia. The records of the Trustees of Donations for Education in Liberia contain correspondence and other materials (1842-1927) regarding Liberia College, and the DeGrasse-Howard papers contain the papers of Edwin Clarence Howard (1846-1912), who attended Liberia College from 1861-1865.

The papers of George E. Ellis, Charles E. French, William Lloyd Garrison, Amos Adams Lawrence, Amos Lawrence, Horace Mann, Harrison Gray Otis, Theodore Parker, and Thomas Walcutt all contain documents regarding the African colonization movement and/or the Canadian colonization settlements, including letters of Josiah Henson (1789-1883) and Nathaniel Paul ([1793]-1883). The papers of abolitionist attorney and Massachusetts Civil War governor John A. Andrew (1818-1867) include correspondence about Florida and Colorado colonization initiatives. New England Emigrant Aid Company records chronicle an organization that supported freemen settling in Kansas, as do portions of the John A. Andrew papers and the Amos Lawrence papers.

Abolition, Freedom Seekers, and Resistance

Massachusetts, especially the cities of Boston and Salem, were destinations for freedom seekers because of their active free African American communities. The Hancock family papers, Horace Mann collection, Miscellaneous manuscripts, Harrison Gray Otis papers, and Saltonstall family papers all contain correspondence regarding freedom seekers. The Wormsley-Latimer papers contain a manuscript biography of freedom seeker Peter Byers (b. ca. 1800) of Virginia.

Massachusetts lawyers were actively involved in a number of freedom-seeking cases in the 1840s and 1850s, including those of the Amistad captives, Anthony Burns (1834-1862), George Latimer, Shadrach Minkins ([1800]-1875), and Thomas Sims. John Quincy Adams defended the Amistad captives in the period 1838-1842, and his correspondence and diaries are in the Adams family papers. The Noyes family papers II contain an 1840 account of the Amistad trial. Henry Ingersoll Bowditch (1808-1892) defended George Latimer in 1842, and his papers are contained in "Papers related to the George Latimer case." Additional items related to the Latimer case can be found in the Bowditch and Channing family papers. The surety bond for Thomas Sims, captured in 1851, is found in Miscellaneous Bound manuscripts, and reaction to the case can be found in the Daniel Foster papers and Horace Mann collection. The John H. Clifford papers contain materials related to the case of Thomas Sims, the Fisher-Leighton case (1854), and the Samuel C. White case.

The Dana family papers contain information on the Shadrach Minkins case (1851), as do the John A. Andrew papers and Horace Mann collection. The Andrew and Dana collections also contain files related to the Anthony Burns case, with letters from Burns to Dana. Miscellaneous Bound manuscripts hold correspondence about the efforts to free Burns, including a letter from Leonard V. Grimes (1815-1873), pastor of the African American Twelfth Baptist Church. The Charles Cushing Barry papers have the records of the Pine Street Anti-Slavery Society and the financial papers, including cancelled checks arranging the purchase of Anthony Burns. The Tracy Patch Cheever journal has reaction to this case. The Society also owns a number of broadsides related to freedom seekers.

While some freedom seekers were able to benefit from the legal system of free states, many others were unable to escape to free states and organized resistances to free themselves by force. Such resistances are documented in the Beck-Alleyne family papers (Barbados), the Nathaniel Cutting journal and letterbooks (Santo Domingo), the Ralph Bennet Forbes correspondence (Port au Prince), and the Eben William Sage papers (Cuba).

The Society has an extensive collection of manuscripts and printed materials related to the anti-slavery movement, but this overview focuses on manuscripts that provide information or insight into the condition, identification, or lives of free and enslaved African Americans. New England's abolitionists, both Black and white, worked actively to protect freedom seekers who had escaped to New England and to free or purchase those still enslaved. The Boston Vigilance Committee minutes are found in the Henry Ingersoll Bowditch papers. Later, Bowditch founded the Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League, whose records and artifacts are also owned by the Society. The Theodore Parker papers contain correspondence regarding help given to freedom seekers and offers to sell enslaved individuals by their enslavers. The Nathaniel T. Allen papers document his activities related to the anti-slavery movement, the Underground Railroad, and the education of women and African Americans. The Belcher-Jennison-Weiss papers contain the diary and papers of Reverend John Weiss and anti-slavery broadsides related to freedom seekers. The Luman Boyden journals describe missionary work in East Boston, Mass. and assistance to the city's poor, including Protestant, Irish Catholic, African American, and immigrant families. Some entries relate to fellow missionary Armeda Gibbs, another abolitionist who helped freedom seekers. The papers of the Adams family, John A. Andrew, Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch, the Dike family, Thomas Bradford Drew, William Lloyd Garrison, Amos Adams Lawrence, the Lee family, Horace Mann, and Harrison Gray Otis all contain correspondence and other materials related to efforts to free and protect African Americans. The Society also holds records of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS), which was actively involved in the case to free "Little Med." The John A. Andrew papers also contain tokens and a seal of BFASS.

African Americans and the Civil War

Massachusetts was the first northern state to raise African American troops after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and Massachusetts abolitionists were actively involved in raising other African American units. The John A. Andrew papers, Norwood Penrose Hallowell papers, Amos Adams Lawrence papers, Lee family papers, Miscellaneous manuscripts, and the broadside collection all contain information on the recruitment of African American troops. Massachusetts's African American troops are chronicled through documents, artifacts, and/or photographs in the following collections: Raymond family letters (4th Regiment Volunteer Cavalry); Edward J. Bartlett correspondence and Patrick Tracy Jackson family papers (5th Regiment Volunteer Cavalry); records of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Edwin Gittleman research materials, Lee family papers, and Robert Gould Shaw letters (54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry); and records of the Association of Officers of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Charles Barnard Fox papers, Fox family papers, Norwood Penrose Hallowell papers, Edward W. Kinsley papers, David Thayer papers, and Wolcott papers (55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry). Engravings of the battles fought by these troops are found in the Society's engraving collection.

The Atkins-Forbes papers, Lee family papers, and Miscellaneous manuscripts contain documents related to fundraising for and the construction and dedication of the Robert Gould Shaw monument on Boston Common. The N. Penrose Hallowell scrapbooks document reunions of the 5th Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry and the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantries. In addition, the Lee family papers have information relative to the construction of the Crispus Attucks monument.

Other African American units are recorded in the Edward Atkinson papers (1st South Carolina Volunteers), John O. Sargent papers (2nd Louisiana Native Guards), Benjamin Butler collection (5th Corps, United States Colored Troops [USCT]), Charles Henry Calhoun Brown diary (7th USCT), Vendig (unprocessed) photograph collection (8th Corps de Afrique), DeGrasse-Howard papers (35th USCT), Henry Hedge Mitchell papers and John Owen, Jr. papers (36th USCT), Daniel Foster papers and J. A. Munroe supply vouchers (37th USCT), Henry M. Green military papers (86th USCT), and Warren Goodale papers (114th USCT). The MHS also holds the diaries (1862-1865) of William Benjamin Gould, a freedom seeker and sailor who served in the Union Navy during the Civil War on the armed steamer Cambridge and the steam frigate Niagara. The diaries are published as Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor, edited by William B. Gould IV (Stanford University Press, 2002).

Union Army officers often recorded their impressions of slavery and plantation life, Confederate treatment and movement of the enslaved, and their opinions of freemen and African American troops. The Dwight Emerson Armstrong letters, Joseph Lincoln Brigham family papers, Lorin Low Dame papers, William H. Eastman letters, Ebenezer Hunt correspondence, Orville W. Leonard military papers, Charles F. Read papers, Malcolm Sillars diary, Charles M. Whelden papers, and Henry Mitchell Whitney correspondence all contain some mention of African Americans in their letters or journals. The Algernon Coolidge papers, contained in the Coolidge-Lowell family papers, describe the "contraband" families living in Newport News, Va. in 1862 and the African American population in Richmond after the war in 1865. "Twelve days 'absence without leave' and what came of it" is Isaac Harris Hooper's manuscript account of his escape from Libby Prison in Richmond, Va. to Union lines in Williamsburg, Va. with the help of free and enslaved African Americans and Native Americans in Virginia.

Artifacts and Photographs

Some impassioned abolitionists actively documented the realities of slavery by collecting items emblematic of bondage. Slavery artifacts are found in the collection of Governor John A. Andrew and Henry Ingersoll Bowditch's memorial cabinet created for his son Nathaniel Bowditch (1839-1863). In 1920, John A. Andrew's children donated several artifacts collected by the governor, including an iron yoke collar found on a young New Orleans plantation captive, whips, and an embossing seal. The MHS also holds a branding iron, a piece of an enslavement auction block, and several artifacts related to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, such as the imposing stone for his newspaper The Liberator and several banners he used at anti-slavery gatherings. Links to online presentations of the Andrew artifacts, Garrisonian banners, and other artifacts, graphics, and printed materials related to the anti-slavery movement are available in this browsable list at the MHS website.

The artifacts collection also includes the pen used by Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, which was presented to abolitionist George Livermore through Senator Charles Sumner.

The numismatics collection contains several items of interest, including a badge commemorating the service of Miles Moore, the drummer boy of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment; a ca. 1838 token issued by the American Anti-Slavery Society; and several copies of a medal designed by Major General Benjamin F. Butler to honor the African American troops under his command at New Market Heights outside Richmond, Va. on September 28-29, 1864.

Several of the Society's Civil War photograph collections contain images of African American soldiers, but the photographs and carte de visite album of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment comprise the bulk of the images. The Society also holds several photograph collections depicting African American families in Massachusetts: the DeGrasse-Howard photographs, Miller-Wright family photographs, Anne Penrose photograph album, and Watson-Wolfe family photographs.

African Americans, Organizations, and Civil Rights

African American Lives

Papers and descriptions of African Americans in the second half of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century are found in the DeGrasse-Howard papers; Jarrett family letters; letters to James Wormley, the Black proprietor of Wormley's Hotel in Washington, D.C.; letters to William C. Gannett regarding a dispute over African American students at Harvard in 1922; Sarah Pananty's writings and bibliographies related to the South End and Boston during the 1930s; the Emerson P. Dibble papers, including encounters with a formerly enslaved person and other African Americans in South Carolina; and "Reminiscences of a country doctor" by Alfred E. Worcester, which describe the Dixie Hospital's training school for African American nurses. The George Frisbie Hoar autograph collection contains letters of Frederick Douglass and Frederick Douglass, Jr. (1842-1892), and the Benjamin Whitwell autograph collection has the autographs of Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and Phillis Wheatley. The Amelia Peabody photographs contain an album of photographs, possibly taken by Frank Everett Peabody, of African American children and workers on an unidentified farm in the South. An anonymous laborer's diary (1878) documents the life of an itinerant laborer and includes his reflections on African American workers. Volume 11 of Sarah Gooll Putnam's diaries, 1871-1873, contain Putnam's sketches of African Americans during a trip to the South. The MHS also owns a portrait by Cloyd Lee Boykin (b. 1877), a Boston African American artist. The Bruce G. Wright World War I memoir details the military experiences of an African American soldier serving in the Massachusetts National Guard and the 372nd U.S. Infantry, a segregated regiment.

African American Organizations

The modern period is characterized by collections related to philanthropy by and for African Americans and their organizations. In 1860, an interracial group of concerned citizens opened the Home for Aged Colored Women on Beacon Hill to care for elderly African and African American women. Many of these women had been previously enslaved, and the Home's records, which date from 1843-1949, contain small biographies of each, as well as notes at their deaths. The Roxbury Neighborhood House Association meeting minutes reflect the problems faced by the African American community in Roxbury from 1939-1951. The MHS has records of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society, originally the Educational Commission, which oversaw the teaching of freedmen in the South. The William Lloyd Garrison papers include letters regarding funds for emancipated captives in the South.

The records of the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others in North America contain correspondence between the Society and individuals involved in the education of African Americans after the Civil War at industrial and other schools, such as the Tuskegee Normal School and Institute, Hampton Institute, Calhoun Colored School, and Claflin University. The Robert Treat Paine papers II also include letters from the Tuskegee Normal School administration and students. The Samuel May papers document the Holley School, a charitable school for Black children at Lottsburgh, Va. founded by reformers Abigail Kelley Foster (1811-1887) and Sallie Holley (1818-1887). This collection also contains a number of photographs of the exterior and interior of the school and its students. The Nathaniel T. Allen papers include records of the West Newton English and Classical School (also known as "the Allen School") that document the education of its African American, Latin American, and Japanese students. African American students included children of several Reconstruction officials, such as P. B. S. Pinchback and C. C. Antoine of Louisiana and Robert Smalls of South Carolina. Several of these students are depicted in the Nathaniel T. Allen photographs. The Lend a Hand Society records contain information and photographs of African Americans in the South.

Liberia remained an interest of Bostonians into the twentieth century. The previously mentioned Massachusetts Colonization Society records and Trustees of Donations for Education in Liberia correspondence continue into the twentieth century. The Daniel Dulany Addison collection documents the American Mount Coffee Association, which underwrote the relief work of Jane E. D. Sharp in Monrovia, Liberia, and Liberia College in the period from 1895-1919. The Lend a Hand Society records also contain information on the American Mount Coffee Association.

Civil Rights

The Society's late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century collections contain records related to civil rights, including the Boston Central Labor Union records, Gamaliel Bradford papers, and records of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), Massachusetts Chapter. The ADA records contain papers related to Senator Edward W. Brooke (b. 1919). The Society also holds the papers of Moorfield Storey, a civil rights activist and founding president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1909-1929. In addition to papers documenting Storey's interest in anti-imperialism and civil service reform, the collection contains scrapbooks related to Native American and African American civil rights.

The fight for equitable civil rights for African Americans in the U.S. is an evolving and ongoing movement, and the MHS continues to make an effort to collect and preserve those histories.

Preferred Citation

When using the items described in this guide, researchers should cite the collection containing the item.

Access Terms

For information about the collections and items described in this guide, consult ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society.


African American abolitionists--Biography.
African American criminals.
African American families.
African American soldiers.
African American soldiers--Photographs.
African American women--Charities.
African American women poets.
African Americans.
African Americans--Bibliography.
African Americans--Biography.
African Americans--By name.
African Americans--By name--Wheatley, Phillis.
African Americans--Caricatures and cartoons.
African Americans--Civil rights.
African Americans--Colonization.
African Americans--Colonization--Africa.
African Americans--Colonization--Liberia.
African Americans--Economic conditions
African Americans--Education
African Americans--Education--Southern States.
African Americans--Employment.
African Americans--History.
African Americans--History--1863-1877.
African Americans--History--Sources.
African Americans--History--To 1863
African Americans in literature.
African Americans--Legal status, laws, etc.
African Americans--Massachusetts--Boston.
African Americans--Photographs.
African Americans--Pictorial works.
African Americans--Political activity.
African Americans--Politics and government.
African Americans--Religion.
African Americans--Social conditions.
African Americans--Songs and music.
African Americans--Southern States.
African Americans--Suffrage.
Fugitive slaves.
Slave bills of sale.
Slave rebellions.
Slave trade.
Slavery--Africa, North.
Slavery and the church.
Slavery--Great Britain.
Slavery--Law and legislation--United States.
Slavery--South Carolina.
Slavery--Southern States.
Slavery--United States.
Slavery--United States--Controversial literature.
Slavery--United States--Speeches in Congress.
Slavery--Washington (D.C.).
Slavery--West Indies.
United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Participation, African American.