Erika Slocumb, Scholar, The Black Holyoke Project
What is history? And who gets to tell it? What stories are validated? Why? Within traditional frameworks of educational systems and institutions, history is viewed as past events that have been thoroughly documented, and validated through research and primary or secondary sources. Much of the history of the city of Holyoke has been white-washed, focusing on the narratives of city’s founders, white-factory-owning-men and European immigrant communities, and their cultural industrial contributions to the city. More recently, stories of Puerto Rican migration and Puerto Rican culture and community have been shared and documented. The inclusion of these stories has helped to broaden the conversation about the city’s diverse communities. However, the history of the Black community here in Holyoke has been obscured and often times excluded from the larger narrative. With the support of members of the Black community in Holyoke, Wistariahurst Museum and grants from MassHumanities, I have embarked on a journey of uncovering and documenting the history of Black Holyoke through Black perspectives.
Over the past year I have been working to record the history of Holyoke’s Black community through oral histories, archival digs, and readings of historical texts and documents. This process has been arduous, because the story of historic Black Holyoke has been poorly documented. This is, however, no fault of the community. What I have found is that many people have preserved their family and community histories in different ways, several of which have been private and unavailable to the general public until now.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the work of Ella Merkel DiCarlo, a community historian and journalist. In the 1974, DiCarlo wrote The Black Community in Holyoke:1770s to 1970s, as well as a series of newspaper articles highlighting the Black community members in Holyoke. Through the work that she did with the organization Advancement for the Improvement of Minorities (AIM), the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, archival research and the relationships she built with members of the Black community she was able to collect and document narratives of the Black Holyoke that had not existed in a formal way. But I do not believe this history was widely spread, or documented beyond the city. I want to change that. I want to change the way the city’s history has been told as well has make connections to broader conversations of the country’s history. As one of the first intentional industrial cities in the United States, Holyoke has a national legacy grounded in the country’s Industrial Revolution. A church town, Holyoke also has a history rooted in resistance and a fight for equity for many of its residents who were not allowed the decency and respect of basic human rights. These are stories that need to be told.
What I realized I needed to do was to read the history of Holyoke as it has been documented in order to understand where Black people were missing from the history. In my effort to better understand the history of Holyoke, I spent much of my days this past summer reading books about the history of Holyoke. Many of the books neglected the narratives of Black people in the community, and others neglected to identify Black entrepreneurs, land owners, and community members when their experiences were in the history. This, I believe, is not the fault of historians who have only documented what was readily available to them at the time. I must work with the community and the archives to rewrite the history of Holyoke to include this population of people.
I have had the pleasure of building relationships and having conversations with Black people from the area. In order to understand the history for myself, and to bring what I’m learning to the public, I have worked Wistariahurst to attain a grant to do an oral history project. In preparation for the project I not only read about the history of Holyoke but I have also read about the fundamentals of oral history, and I participated in a day of oral history training with Dr. Annie Valk, assistant director for Public Humanities and history lecturer at Williams College. The work that I have done with the community over the past year enabled me to apply for a grant through MassHumanities, with the help of Wistariahurst.
The experiences that I have had over the past year have been phenomenal. I have learned so much about Holyoke, and though it is not my home I have felt welcomed by this community. As a scholar, my responsibility is to be a vessel for the community, to tell the stories they want told and to make this history known. Throughout the rest of this year, and with additional funding from the Holyoke Local Cultural Council, I will host events at Wistariahurst to bring the community together, to educate about the contribution of Black people to the Holyoke community, these events culminating in the opening of an exhibit of the history of Black Holyoke in September.
If you have any information or if you would like to contribute information, stories, photos, or documents to the Black Holyoke collection please do so by emailing [email protected] or by filling out this form here. If you would like to donate to the Black Holyoke project you may do so through PayPal at paypal.me/blackholyoke or on the Wistariahurst website by marking your donation as restricted to the Black Holyoke project.