MCLA Professor Receives Third Major Grant From the National Endowment for the Humanities


NORTH ADAMS, MASS. - Frances Jones-Sneed., Ph.D., a history professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), last week was awarded a third major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to continue her exploration of African-American history in the region.

Jones-Sneed will lead "The Role of Place in African-American Biography." The project involves a four-week summer institute for 25 college and university faculty who, in June 2011, will travel to MCLA from across the country to explore local African-American history.

Among the Berkshire County African-American figures they will study are Samuel Harris, civil war soldier; W.E.B. Du Bois, civil rights activist; Elizabeth "Mum Bett" Freeman, who legally obtained her freedom from slavery; and Agrippa Hull, a patriot of the American Revolutionary War.

After attending the institute, "The professors will go back to their own communities and find their own local figures whom they can link to national themes in the same way we've done here in the Berkshires," Jones-Sneed said. "They are coming to see our models so they can replicate them."

Sponsored by MCLA, the 2011 NEH Summer Institute is a collaborative effort with Williams College and the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail. In addition to Jones-Sneed, project directors will be Robert Paynter of UMASS-Amherst and Richard Courage of Westchester Community College.  

Guest faculty will include Charles Dew and Leslie Brown of Williams College, Joanne Pope Melish of the University of Kentucky, James T. Campbell of Stanford University, David Levinson of the African American Heritage Trail, Gary Nash of UCLA, Gretchen Holbrook-Gerzina of Dartmouth College, Jerrianne Boggis of the University of New Hampshire, Dennis Dickerson of Vanderbilt University, Pulitzer Prize winner David Levering Lewis of New York University, Deborah Willis of New York University, Amritjit Singh of Ohio University, and Emilie Piper of the Berkshire Athenaeum. 

A number of these scholars are nationally recognized. Nash is the director of the National Center for History in Schools. He also co-chaired the National History Standards Project from 1992 to '96. Willis was a MacArthur fellow in 2000, a Guggenheim fellow in 2005, and is a recipient of the NAACP Image Award. Campbell is the award-winning author of "Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005." And, Levinson and Piper co-wrote "One Minute a Free Woman: Elizabeth Freeman and the Struggle for Freedom." 

Jones-Sneed is part of the Upper Housatonic African American Heritage Trail Project (UHAAHT), which deals with African American people, their lives and their cultures, from the headwaters of the Housatonic River in Pittsfield, Mass., through the northern portion of Connecticut.   

More recently, Jones-Sneed helped to form The African American Heritage Project in the Northern Berkshires (AAHNB), which consists of a group of educators, students, community members, local historians and librarians. Together, they research, write and publicize the role of African Americans in the northern Berkshires, from Colonial times through the 20th century.

Last year, MCLA students learned about African Americans from their own back yard as they searched North Adams census records from 1790 to 1930. The students then took that research to trace the histories of local African Americans over time as they discovered who they were, where they lived and what kind of occupations they held.

Notable individuals from the northern Berkshires 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, who had an illustrious history in Williamstown, according to Jones-Sneed.

In May, the students presented a program entitled "African American Heritage in North Adams, Massachusetts, 1790-1930" at the North Adams Public Library. Their topics included 19th century interracial marriage, William G. Massey, African American occupations, African Americans servants in post-emancipation Massachusetts, and "African Americans in North Adams 1790-1930: An Overview."

In conjunction with their 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.

"This project is a collaboration of partners and supporters whom without, this research wouldn't be possible," said Jones-Sneed. "Sharing this work and these gems with a national audience was our goal from the very beginning." 

Institutional partners with MCLA for "The Role of Place in African-American Biography" are the Williams College Africana Studies Program, Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail and UMass-Amherst Libraries. Academic supporters include David Katzman of the University of Kansas, Donald Worster of the University of Kansas, Peter Crow of Ferrum College, MaryNell Morgan of SUNY-Empire State College, Alex Willingham of Williams College, Patricia Sullivan of the University of South Carolina, Jay Schafer of UMass-Amherst, and Shanti Singham of Williams College. Community partners include Rachel Fletcher and Bernard Drew of AAHT and Elaine Gunn of Friends of Du Bois. 

The $194,347 NEH grant will pay for travel and housing expenses for visiting faculty of "The Role of Place in African-American Biography." Successful applicants will receive a stipend of $3,300 each to help defray travel and housing expenses.

Jones-Sneed has taught and researched local history for over 25 years. She is the co-director of the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail, and a board member of MassHumanities and the Samuel Harrison Society. She has directed two other National Endowment for the Humanities grants, "The Shaping Role of Place in African American Biography," in 2006, and "Of Migrations and Renaissances: Harlem/NY and South Side/Chicago, 1915-75," in 2008. Both were "We the People" projects.

For more information, go to neh.