In the Archives: Preserving Memory through Oral Histories

Author: Jack Ott, Archives Assistant and graduate student in the American Studies MA Program at UMass Boston

Oral histories and recollections can provide priceless and often otherwise transitory narratives about the politics and emotional labor invested in belonging to a community. Organizations such as the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, Cumann na Gaeilge i mBoston (The Irish Language Society of Boston), and The South End Seniors recognize and celebrate the importance of personal interaction while conducting historical research, and UMass Boston is proud to include oral history projects sponsored by these groups, as well as many others, in its digital archives.

UMass Boston’s University Archives and Special Collection is fortunate to hold a range of oral history projects and collections, and a full list and brief descriptions of each collection can be found here. Through video and audio interviews, as well as written transcripts, researchers can explore personal histories shared by members of the UMass Boston community, the greater Boston community, and beyond. In these personal histories, we can learn not only about the Cape Verdean community in Roxbury and North Dorchester in the post WWII years from the Neighbor Voices project, for example, but also about how that past has been internalized, remembered, and shared with future generations.

Adalberto Teixeira wearing a cap and jacket with buildings in the background
Adalberto Teixeira, November 21, 2016. Teixeira was born in Fogo, Cape Verde and moved to Roxbury in 1976 where he got a job as a welder at the Quincy shipyard and as a teaching aide at the Madison Park Public School before becoming a community organizer and constituent services worker for the city.

From humorous anecdotes such as Inishbarra, Ireland native Johnny Chóilín Choilmín’s first taste of a hot dog on his 1955 transatlantic voyage to America (he was expecting a breakfast sausage…and was unimpressed), to the resilience and ingenuity of Alice Inamoto Takemoto crafting homemade buttons from peach pits as a 15-year-old interned in the Santa Anita assembly center in 1942, the oral histories in this collection transform historical records into vivid and deeply personal narratives. In so doing, oral histories testify to the epistemological value of reflection and challenge dominant standards of who controls how history is recorded and preserved. State records may tell us how many Japanese Americans were relocated to assembly centers and then moved on to internment camps, but oral histories such as Alice Inamoto Takemoto’s ensure that memories like lying in an army cot as it sinks into freshly poured tar melting in the California summer heat are not lost to posterity.

Alice Setsuko Inamoto Takemoto sitting at a piano, smiling with her hands folded in her lap
Alice Setsuko Inamoto Takemoto, June 24, 2011. Takemoto was born in Garden Grove, California. A lifelong musician, she attended Oberlin College on a full scholarship after being released from the Jerome interment camp.

In the Archives: Education on Thompson Island

Author: Jack Ott, Archives Assistant and graduate student in the American Studies MA Program at UMass Boston

A large group of young male students playing band instruments, including a bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, a trombone, a trumpet, French horns, tubas, and others. A conductor raising his arm stands in front of the group on the right.
Farm School Band by John Wipple, 1862. Thompson Island hosted the first student band in the country.

UMass Boston’s Columbia Point campus may only extend as far into the Boston Harbor as our lovely Harborwalk, but less than a mile out to sea, across the Squantum Channel, lies Thompson Island, the insular home of a fascinating chapter in Boston’s agricultural and educational history. Continuously housing charitable, vocational, or educational institutions, Thompson Island has been an offshore repository for both Boston’s disadvantaged youth and its aspiring social elite. Since 1814, the island has been home to the Boston Asylum for Indigent Boys (1814-1832), the Boston Farm School (1832-1835), the Boston Asylum and Farm School (1835-1907), the Farm and Trades School (1907-1955), Thompson’s Academy (1955-1975), Thompson Island Education Center (1975-1986), and Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center (1986 to the present). The University Archives and Special Collections department holds the records of these institutions and our Thompson Island collection chronicles this history, with the bulk of our archival materials focusing on the years 1814 through 1977.

A group of male students stands together. Some are holding gardening hoes with long wooden handles.
Students of the Boston Asylum and Farm School ready for farm chores. Date unknown, circa 1900.

The digital collection contains nearly 150 photographs of students and faculty members of the various school as well as student scrapbooks, student records, school newspapers, and correspondences between legal guardians and administrators. For further research, please take advantage of the collection’s finding aid. Anyone interested in accessing the physical collection should email library.archives@umb.edu.

In the early years of the Boston Asylum for Indigent Boys (BAIB), most of the boys who arrived on Thompson Island were between the ages of 3 and 12. As the years progressed, subsequent institutions placed a greater emphasis on education and kept boys into their teenage years, yet as in the days of the BAIB, many were still the sons of widows who were unable to financially support their children. Separated from their families and physically isolated on the small island, these boys were seen as in need of social reform and were the subject of what historian Trisha Posey describes as a rigorous “moral cultivation.”[1] Speaking specifically about the Boston Asylum and Farm School (BAFS), Posey explains that ideologically, the school idolized an agrarian past. Yet, as Posey notes, the BAFS was largely unsuccessful in shaping most of its students in their image; of the 500 boys who entered the school between 1833 and 1849, only 136 graduated to become farmers or apprentice tradespeople, the majority had run away (277), died (29), or gone to sea (9).[2]

Two photographs on the page of a scrapbook. The top photograph shows a person standing in front of a small airplane. The lower photograph is a portrait of a young man in front of a brick wall with "Bob [illegible]" written in pencil underneath.
A page from a student scrapbook displaying a shock of uncontrolled hair mirroring the potential freedom and defiance symbolized by the advent of air travel. Date unknown, circa 1921-1928. 

The adolescence chafing against the yoke of discipline and previous generations’ sensibilities can be traced directly in the collection. Photographs of early airplanes or mothers back home preserved in scrapbooks and student newspaper articles about baseball or Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Edmundson’s race to the South Pole offer glimpses into the youthful masculinity performed by these students physically removed from their hometowns. Thus, this collection contains both the evidence of a ruling class’s evolving pedagogical platforms of reform, as well as the excitement and bravado felt by young men in a contained homosocial space coming of age in a new, industrial world.

A young man stands on a dirt road facing a field with wire fencing at its fore edge. He is wearing a suit and dress shoes.
A student of the Farm and Trades School stands next to a wire fence on Thompson Island in formal attire while facing the camera, 1936.

References

Posey, Trisha. “‘Little Tanned Agriculturalists’: The Boston Asylum and Farm School for Indigent Boys.” Massachusetts Historical Review 16 (2014): 49–72.


[1] Trisha Posey, “‘Little Tanned Agriculturalists’: The Boston Asylum and Farm School for Indigent Boys,” Massachusetts Historical Review 16 (2014): 64.

[2] Ibid, 60.

Black History Month: Massachusetts Hip-Hop, Lecco’s Lemma, and Dance Slam

Author: Kayla Allen, Archives Assistant and graduate student in the History MA Program at UMass Boston

Happy Black History Month! Black History Month is celebrated during the month of February every year as a way of celebrating important people and events from across the African diaspora. Here at UMass Boston, we have many collections about the Black history of Boston and our campus. Over the course of the month, we will be highlighting some of these collections and stories.

Photograph of cassette tape with Lecco's Lemma written on it in marker

Cassette recording of Magnus Johnstone’s Lecco’s Lemma radio show from August 8, 1987

One of our most significant digital collections is the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive. This archive is mostly made up of digitized audiocassettes from the Magnus Johnstone and Willie Alexander: Lecco’s Lemma collection, though there are a number of materials currently being processed, including recordings, photographs, videos, and interviews. The first set of audiocassettes in the Lecco’s Lemma collection, originally held by Magnus Johnstone, was donated to us by UMass Boston professor Pacey Foster in 2015. The second set was donated by Willie Alexander in 2016. These audiocassettes feature mixtapes and recordings of the Lecco’s Lemma radio program, a show that ran from 1985-1988 first on MIT’s WMBR (88.1 FM) and later on Boston College’s WZBC (90.3 FM).

Image of the side of a cassette tape with writing in marker

Cassette recording of Magnus Johnstone’s Lecco’s Lemma radio show from March 8, 1986

Lecco’s Lemma was hosted by Magnus Johnstone and featured music that wasn’t usually played by mainstream radio stations at the time. This included new, interesting, and undiscovered artists, rap music, and local groups. Johnstone would accept demos from Boston-area artists and play them on air. He would even ask these groups to play live performances on his show.

Over the three years he taped, Johnstone collected about 300 mixtapes from local artists, which are now part of our collection. The rest of the audiocassettes in the collection are recordings of the actual Lecco’s Lemma shows, taped by Boston’s “Godfather of Punk,” Willie “Loco” Alexander, on his home boombox. These tapes include ephemera like j-cards, notes, photographs, and lists of artists and songs.

The online collection of the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive also includes a video recording of “Boston’s first black dance-music-video television show,” Dance Slam, from the Tony Rose and Yvonne Rose collection. We are currently building the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive and welcome donations from graffiti artists, producers, promoters, musicians, DJs, break-dancers, and fans so we can further document and preserve the vibrant hip-hop culture of our area. If you have original and unique materials related to hip-hop in Boston and Massachusetts that you think should become part of the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive, you can contact one of our archivists by emailing library.archives@umb.edu.

To see more from our Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive and listen to Johnstone’s and Alexander’s tapes, check out our digital collection. If you’d like to learn more about Magnus Johnstone, Willie Alexander, and Lecco’s Lemma, be sure to look at their collection’s finding aid.


University Archives & Special Collections in the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston was established in 1981 as a repository to collect archival material in subject areas of interest to the university, as well as the records of the university itself. The mission and history of UMass Boston guide the collection policies of University Archives & Special Collections, with the university’s urban mission and strong support of community service reflected in the records of and related to urban planning, social welfare, social action, alternative movements, community organizations, war and social consequence, and local history related to neighboring communities. To learn more, visit blogs.umb.edu/archives.

Black History Month: Robert C. Hayden Oral History Collection

Author: Maci Mark, Archives Assistant and graduate student in the Public History MA Program at UMass Boston

Happy Black History Month! Black History Month is celebrated during the month of February every year as a way of celebrating important people and events from across the African diaspora. Here at UMass Boston, we have many collections about the Black history of Boston and our campus. Over the course of the month, we will be highlighting some of these collections and stories.

Image of a white sheet of paper with typed text on it. It is a transcription of Robert C Hayden’s interview with Adolphus Bollock.

Transcript of an interview with Adolphus G. Bullock, circa 1988-1989

The Robert C. Hayden: Transcripts of Oral History Interviews with Boston African American Railroad Workers collection highlights some unique Boston history. This collection is made up of 27 oral histories that Robert C. Hayden conducted with retired Boston African American railroad workers. These oral histories show the livelihoods of these men and women who worked on the railroads, the opportunities the work gave them, and what their lives looked like in the 1920s/1930s as Black people in Boston.

In the 1920s/1930s Boston was an important destination for African Americans moving northward from the South. This move was part of the Great Migration and spanned from just after the Civil War all the way through the 1970s. Boston provided employment opportunities, one of them being working on the railroads. The railroad positions were good jobs at the time, as Adolphus Bollock, one of the interviewed railroad workers, discussed how they paid more than the Post Office.

These oral histories were originally conducted as research to support an exhibit being done by Robert C. Hayden and James Green for the Back Bay MBTA Station about A. Philip Randolph and Boston’s African-American Railroad Workers: A Public History Commemoration, Knights of the Rail. The interviews capture the lived experiences of Boston’s African American railroad workers that extend beyond just the railway.

Image of the “Knights of the Rail” exhibit program which depicts photos of railway workers, Phillip Pullman, and more overlaid over text.

A guide to “Knights of the Rail,” an exhibit about A. Philip Randolph and Boston’s African-American railroad workers, 1991

Robert C. Hayden (who recently passed away on January 23, 2022) was one of the most prominent scholars of his time, focusing on the history of Black Bostonians. He worked with UMass Boston professor James Green to develop a permanent exhibit for the Back Bay MBTA Station featuring the African American railroad workers who started the Pullman Union, the first Black union of its kind. These interviews were conducted by Hayden over a two-year time period. James Green was the Head of the History Department at UMass Boston and donated this collection to University Archives and Special Collections in 1992.

To read the transcripts of these oral histories the best place to start is with the finding aid, or you may search for the collection within our Oral History Collections. All the oral histories within the collection have been transcribed and are available as PDFs. 

For more information, please email library.archives@umb.edu.


University Archives & Special Collections in the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston was established in 1981 as a repository to collect archival material in subject areas of interest to the university, as well as the records of the university itself. The mission and history of UMass Boston guide the collection policies of University Archives & Special Collections, with the university’s urban mission and strong support of community service reflected in the records of and related to urban planning, social welfare, social action, alternative movements, community organizations, war and social consequence, and local history related to neighboring communities. To learn more, visit blogs.umb.edu/archives.

In the Archives: William A. Cowles and the Civil War

Author: Kayla Allen, Archives Assistant and graduate student in the History MA Program at UMass Boston

Daguerreotype portrait in a gold frame of William Cowles in uniform from the waist up

William A. Cowles in uniform. Sitting recorded in Cowles’ diary: 06/02/1863, New Orleans

If you want to learn more about the Civil War or see some handwritten sheet music from the 1800s, you need look no further than our William A. Cowles papers, 1834-1905. William Cowles was a young man during the Civil War and he served in the Union Army twice with the 42nd Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers. On his first tour, Private Cowles played the French horn in the band of the 42nd Regiment while they were stationed in New Orleans. Later, Cowles served as a corporal in the same regiment. During both of his tours, Cowles had to leave behind his young wife, Josephine Lewis. Luckily, Cowles survived the war and was able to return home to Josephine and father two children.

After Cowles’s and Josephine’s deaths, his papers made their way into the possession of author and historian Anthony Mitchell Sammarco, who donated them to the Healey Library’s University Archives and Special Collections. The digitized part of this collection includes images (such as daguerreotypes and tintypes) of Cowles, Josephine, and at least one of their two daughters. It also consists of war-time documentation like Cowles’s furlough card, discharge papers, and a muster call. In addition, there are obituaries and funeral information for both Cowles and Josephine, Cowles’s medals and ribbons, and his tuning fork. Some of the larger objects in the collection are Cowles’s sewing kit and portable writing desk (which he would have had with him on his tours), his journals documenting his experiences during the war, and his small book of music containing all of the pieces he played while on active duty.

Please feel free to take a moment and “thumb” through the pages of Cowles’s journals and music book. We also have a typed transcript of some of his writing that might be helpful. When you’re ready, you can check out the digital collection and the physical collection’s finding aid.