Category Archives: Public History

Black Codes: 1731 Document from Suffield Town Records

Suffield Academy’s American Studies class learned from Hezekiah Spencer Sheldon’s May 1885 Windsor Locks Journal article that colonial Africans were buried in the northwest corner of Suffield’s first churchyard, which is the Old Center Cemetery. While trying to learn why colonial Africans were buried in the northwest corner, the class found the following vote in Suffield’s Town Record Book.

Many towns in the Connecticut River Valley had similar practices for colonial Africans. Do you know of any other records that shed light on this colonial custom in Suffield? Please connect with the display case’s blog: http://amielpzakdisplay.wordpress.com and create a comment.

In the recently published African American Connecticut Explored, which is a collection of essays, Tamara Verrett’s essay explains the origins of the Talcott Church in Hartford. African Americans in the early nineteenth century were tired of sitting in galleries and began gathering on their own in the conference room of the First Church of Christ, now Center Church in Hartford. From these meetings emerged the Talcott Church, the first African American Church in Hartford.

Below is an image of the Suffield’s Town Record Book entry for May 17th, 1731. This is a transcription of the 12th entry:

12th. Voted, to allow ye [the] masters of negroes, and free negroes, a liberty to, for them to make a seat for s [said] Negroes at ye [the] Norwest corner of ye [the] Meeting House, upon ye beams.

May.1731.Town.Rec

Can you Decipher the Last Word at the End of the December 23 Entry?

Please click on the comment thread and offer any suggestions or insights on transcribing the December 23rd line entry. Bob Romer’s Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts as well as Joseph Carvalho’s Black Families in Hampden County, Massachusetts 1650-1865, 2nd Edition both capture a moment in Reverend Ballantine’s Journal when he describes in February of 1767 Sylvia’s “bitter aversion” to a possible negotiation for sale from the Gay family. Interestingly, Reverend Ballantine, fellow minister from Westfield, was a rare example of a Connecticut Valley minister who did not own slaves. Nevertheless, he did have Sylvia in his home as Reverend Ebenezer Gay lent her out to the Ballantine family. Sylvia also sought refuge with the Ballantine family on a previous occasion in November 8, 1763.

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We are fortunate to have Reverend Ebenezer Gay’s Almanac for the year 1767. The almanac does not mention Sylvia in the month of February, but the entry for December 23rd does have Sylvia’s name on it. Thus, the two journal entries of Ballantine and Gay do cross-reference for the 23rd of December. Nevertheless, the last word after Sylvia’s name is hard to decipher. Can you read the last word after her name? Please click on the comment thread and offer any suggestions or insights for that word and the whole line. Feel free to comment on the absence of Sylvia from the February entries as well.

Telling the Story of Dinah, Manumitted Slave

Top line notes Genny, Dinah, and Titus were manumitted in 1812

While many in town know the story of Old Ti, who was a slave for the Gay family and then manumitted with his two sisters in 1812. Legend, lore, and history tell his story well in town including Joseph Pease’s account book that lists the 5 dollar fee for his coffin in Old Center Cemetery. Because this year’s class focussed on women’s history, classmates discovered a great deal of information about Old Ti’s sisters. We discovered great information about Jenny who lived and worked at the Parson’s Tavern in Springfield, MA. Now we just recently discovered potential pieces of her narrative puzzle in documents from the Watkinson family history. Again, our starting source was this blog post from the winter: https://caisctpbl.wordpress.com/2019/01/26/african-slavery-in-suffield/

If anyone knows another angle of this narrative, please share by commenting below or reaching out to us on Twitter. Thx!

Can you please help us understand the value of this gift?

Our schools’ two piece high chest left; on the right high chest attributed to Eliphalet Chapin, East Windsor, Connecticut, 1771–1795

The class began wondering about the value of this antique gift that resides in our school’s beautiful Cone Lounge. (See more in our slides here.) Our athletes sign commitment letters to their future schools there. Other students have met there because they are part of clubs who have a special event there or perhaps they observed a special Passover Seder ritual feast there. One of the intriguing goals for the class was to find out more about this piece of antique furniture that stands between the two doors of Cone Lounge. Another dimension of our inquiry became the project to write about the social history fo our community asset that is in plain sight. Some call this hidden history; for project-based learning classes, this type of public history is an authentic way to spread the learning outside the classroom walls, and writing and sharing to our community will help students leave a more meaningful footprint of learning behind. In order to appreciate the value of these high chests in colonial culture, the class read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “Furniture as Social History: Gender, Property, and Memory in the Decorative Arts.” We also enjoyed reading (great reading quiz scores) Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains; Chapters 4-5 animate the cultural context of such a high chest. Along with appreciating the value and roles these cultural artifacts played in colonial culture, the opening chapters also answered many great student questions. As we were coming to terms with researching colonial slavery and making new discoveries about the lives of slaves in our historic homes on main street, students pondered deeply the dynamic among slaves and slave owners. What was slavery really like here? How did New England owners keep slaves from running away? What were the conditions of indentured servants? Imagining the fears associated with running away in colonial times did help us imagine a world of colonial paths which when we stripped away highways, railroads, and canals, only had wagon ruts and horse traffic added to the distinctions that served when they were Native American trails. We read chapters in the seminal text for Connecticut History, Complicity, and learned about the violence whims the owners of Venture Smith and his wife’s owners had on their lives. Now as we prepare for our upcoming community presentation on April 23rd, we want to learn who made this piece of furniture and try to explain the context in which Dorothy Fuller Bissell (class of 1916) made this gift. Can you please help? Feel comfortable connecting with us on the class Twitter account: https://twitter.com/caisct_pbl or just by commenting on this post. Thanks!

Interview Planning and Oral History Methods

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Interview Planning

In the future to help create history and gain more insight into women’s history and Suffield history, I would like to interview Elaine Sarsynski and keep a record of our interview. I have made a list of questions which I will double check with Mr. Yuan again to make sure they are all ok. I plan on asking her about many questions related Suffield, Women’s history, and maybe a bit of her personal life to shed some further detail on the whole topic. I will make a detailed list of questions and go through them with Mr. Sullivan, the class, and Mr. Yuan before the interview. The main question that I want to answer is what hardships did she encounter on her journey to the top. First, I want to know what hardships she faced because she was a woman when she was young, and in high school and college. Then I want to know if it was harder for her to make her way in the workforce because she was a woman. Then if being a mother complicated her career path more. Then, I want to know why she made the decision to leave the corporate life to make her attempt at politics, did this have anything to do with promoting women’s rights? When she was running for First Selectwoman, what challenges did she face. What challenges did she face just because she was a woman? After winning the position of First Selectperson, what initiatives did she implement were any of them aimed at promoting women’s rights? Are the political parties in local politics much different than the political parties in national politics?

Oral History Methods

Oral history is not folklore, gossip, hearsay, or rumor. Oral historians attempt to verify their findings, analyze them, and place them in an accurate historical context.

Process:

  1. Formulate a central question or issue.
  2. Plan the project. Consider such things as end products, budget, publicity, evaluation, personnel, equipment, and time frames.
  3. Conduct background research.
  4. Prepare questions for interviews
  5. Review questions with classmates and teacher
  6. Interview.
  7. Process interviews.
  8. Evaluate research and interviews and cycle back to
    step 1 or go on to step 7.
  9. Organize and present results.
  10. Store materials archivally.

The Story Behind the Plaque of Parson’s Tavern

Through some valuable information from Springfield Museums, our class found that Ginny Gay was later named Jennie Gay. Due to this discovery, it made things much easier for us to uncover more. We have sources that provided us with the knowledge that Jennie Gay worked at the Parsons Tavern when she was in her teens. Jennie was born in 1777, and worked for Eleazer Williams at the Parsons Tavern. Jennie worked as a cook here, which was a very uncommon job amongst African-American women. Jennie likely worked that this hotel/tavern for over ten years – until the early 1800’s. Our previous hypothetical ideas of Jennie working at the Massasoit House (A hotel for runaway slaves in Springfield), is lacking evidence. Jennie working at this underground railroad hotel is not impossible, but there is a lack of evidence depicting that she worked here as she was not part of the consensus. Jennie would have been in her mid-sixties by the time the Massasoit House was built in 1843 (after the railroad made its way through Springfield). Jennie passed away at the age of 83 due to “lung fever” one January 16th, 1860. This hotel clearly had great significance with its location as it was on route from New York to Boston; it housed president George Washington for a night whilst he was on his way to Boston; a year later, president James Monroe also stayed the night there. Now, we will be looking more into the Parson’s family and try to uncover more information on them as a whole. Also, I personally will be attempting to make a statement to rewrite the plaque written in commemoration of the tavern. I will need to

This is the current plaque in the spot that commemorates the Parson’s Tavern that I will be attempting to rewrite in order to depict more historical significance.

See Below – This is the Twitter conversation we had with multiple historians in order to find more information on Jennie Gay and the Parson’s Tavern.

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African Slavery in Suffield

This xerox copy (click here for the pdf copy of this source) of this article from the Windsor Locks Journal was given seven years ago to our teacher, Mr. Bill Sullivan, by a member of the Suffield Historical Society. We know that H. S. Sheldon’s notes of the article are located in the archives of the Kent Memorial Library, but we have to wait some more months before the library restoration project is complete. The notes are essentially a handwritten draft of the article. The Windsor Locks Journal archival copies of 1885 at the Windsor Locks Historical Society are missing. Therefore, we have done our best of transcribing all of the text of the original article. We also learned from some librarians that the 1885 editions for this newspaper are also not online. Perhaps they have been added to some digital collection, yet we have not seen that resource online.

This year’s #PBL American Studies class is focusing on Women’s History in Suffield, and we want to learn more about the female slaves listed in the article. We are intrigued about Rose and her claim to be a native-born African Princess. The evidence for her claim was the fact that her back was tattooed the whole length, which was tradition for African Princesses. This part of her story reaching back to Africa resembles Venture Smith’s tale, and that loose comparison has made us more curious to find out more information on her story. We also hope that we can find more information on Dinah and Ginny because they may be found somewhere in the 19th-century records. The story of Tamar’s life piques our interest as she experienced three different owners; two in Suffield and finally sold to Solomon Smith of Haddam, Connecticut in 1798.

So we now begin our research in different locations online as well as asking historical societies and libraries about their resources and documents that are not online. Please comment on this blog thread if you have any suggestions or advice for our work ahead.

Update 1/30/19

Could Comfort Smith possibly be a woman? An article titled “The Smith Family Remains” in the historical Hartford Courant leads us to ask the question:

Written for the CourantJ, R. B. (1876, Jul 04). The smith family remains. Hartford Daily Courant (1840-1887) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/553926457?accountid=46995


Death notice in Hartford Courant of the daughter of Comfort Smith, 17, reads:

Late Thursday afternoon the dwelling-house of Mr. Daniel Leonard, of Feedinghills was struck with lightning. A daughter of Capt. Comfort Smith, of Suffield, 17 years of age, who was on a visit at Mr. Leonard’s, was almost instantaneously killed by the shock.


Article 7 — no title. (1795, Aug 31). Connecticut Courant (1791-1837) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/548488239?accountid=46995

Venture Smith family tree including the marriage of Tamar Loomis (sold by Comfort Smith) & Solomon Smith: