Remembering Local African American History through Google Books

Researchers Emily Donaldson Field and Jamie Huff explore the importance of digitization for preserving history

By Google Arts & Culture

First Cemetery sign

Nestled on the campus of Bridgewater State University where we teach is a quiet cemetery of the type so common in New England, ringed by an old stone wall. An aged sign boasts that it is the “First Cemetery” of Bridgewater, established 1716. Its gravestones are in various stages of decay; many of them feature the creepy skulls common in the eighteenth century rather than the sentimentalized willows that would become popular in the nineteenth.

We had walked past this graveyard casually until a tidbit of history drew us into studying its inhabitants. Perusing cemetery records, we discovered that many people of color were buried on its margins, including a formerly enslaved man named Cuff Ashport. In Massachusetts, we like to brag of our moral rightness: we founded the world’s greatest nation based on freedom for everyone, after all, and nurtured the abolitionist movement. But our history is much more complicated, and as professors here, we felt it important to remember the often-obscured history of local people of color.

Cuff Ashport’s gravestone (far left)

We wanted to know more than the tidbits we had found about Cuff Ashport and others. Although staffed by knowledgeable, enthusiastic volunteers, the Old Bridgewater Historical Society is only open a few hours a week, hardly the time needed to pore over volumes looking for needles in archival haystacks.

Handwritten copy from 1912 of original town record of Cuff Ashport’s death. Bridgewater State University Archives.

That’s where Google Books came in. Simple searches resulted in a wealth of digitized books from the 1880s–1910s, when the Commonwealth committed itself to preserving its history. We discovered, for example, The Vital Records of Bridgewater. From these “vital records,” we were able to assemble a list of over 300 people of color who lived in Bridgewater before 1850. Sometimes they are racially marked as “blacks,” “Indian,” “colored,” or placed in a miscellaneous section at the end of the record called “Negroes, etc.” We could now see the outlines of these people’s lives: when they were born, whom they married, how many children they had and often lost, to whom they were enslaved, when they died, and where they might be buried.

What we gleaned from Google Books helped us start putting the pieces together. Consider the case of Cuff Ashport, who is described at his marriage as “Nathan Mitchels negro man.” This is a New England euphemism for slave, as was the expression “Negro servant.” Ashport was enslaved to Nathan Mitchell, one of Bridgewater’s most prominent residents. A large memorial is dedicated to Mitchell in the cemetery, whereas Ashport is buried in a far corner. Ashport married Elizabeth Quay, who is described as a “Mollatto Girl.” The two had multiple children and grandchildren. In Ashport’s death record, someone saw fit to write, “an honest and faithful black.” Perhaps one “faithful” act was his service in the Revolutionary War, for which his widow was granted a pension in 1836.

This research is ongoing, and we hope it will result in meaningful avenues for the community to memorialize the lives of people of color spent here. But before we can memorialize a history, we need to know what it was, a pursuit in which Google Books has been an invaluable ally. Now turning to hard copy archival materials, we do so armed with the knowledge gained from Google’s electronic treasure chest.

Credits: Story

Emily Donaldson Field, Associate Professor of English, and Jamie Huff, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, MA

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