Surrounded by history



Like other students across the nation in February, those who attend elementary school in central and southern Berkshire County studied famous African Americans for Black History Month. But unlike most students, thanks to the efforts of MCLA history professor Frances Jones-Sneed, these local students had the unique opportunity of learning about African Americans from their own back yard.

Four years ago, Jones-Sneed published her book, "African American Heritage in the Upper Housatonic Valley," which chronicles the histories of more than 100 African Americans who lived between Pittsfield and northern Connecticut.

"Pittsfield has done a really great job as a result of the publication of the book," Jones-Sneed says. "I worked with Silvio O. Conte Community School in Pittsfield all last year. Every one of their grades, from Kindergarten to the fifth grade, studied the unit on African American history that connected to the local setting."

Soon, with the help of Dr. Jones-Sneed's students at MCLA, and others at Williams College in Dr. Leslie Brown's history class, young people in Northern Berkshire County should have a similar educational opportunity as the histories of African Americans who lived in North Adams and Williamstown are discovered.

A new project, African American Heritage Project in the Northern Berkshires (AAHNB), will gather the histories of African Americans living in the Northern Berkshire County for a second book and to extend the "African American Valley Heritage Trail." The project will feature African Americans who played key roles in local, state, regional and national life, as well as ordinary people as a means to identify, preserve, share and celebrate African American heritage.

This semester, Jones-Sneed's students are looking at census records from North Adams from 1790 to 1930. Students in Brown's class are doing the same in Williamstown. Both classes will take that research and start the story of tracing the histories of local African Americans over time - finding out who they were, where they lived and what kind of occupations they had.

Already, Jones-Sneed is aware of some notable individuals from the northern Berkshires. They include baseball player Frank Grant of Williamstown; Robert Hawkins of Adams, who was the first African American to promote golf to other African Americans around the late 1890s; Thomas of North Adams who worked as a Pullman porter on the trains in the region; and Abe Bunter of Williamstown, whom Jones-Sneed says had an illustrious history in Williamstown.

"What we're seeing is there were a number of black businessmen, owning barbershops, transportation businesses, catering companies. It seems they didn't work directly for the factories, but had their own small businesses. That's kind of unique," said Jones-Sneed.

After North Adams and Williamstown, Jones-Sneed will look into the towns of Adams, Cheshire, and the rest of the northern Berkshire communities.

In conjunction with the census research, Jones-Sneed and her students are collecting the oral histories of some of the older African Americans living in the area from a growing list of names. In a couple of years, she hopes to have a healthy line-up of African Americans to highlight.

AAHNB consists of a group of educators, students, community members, local historians, and librarians. The group includes MCLA librarian Sue Denault, who is gathering information on Hawkins, who lived in her town of Adams.