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: 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.

In the Archives: A Peek Beneath Boston

Black-and-white photo of workers standing inside Sumner Tunnel

“Shield in Final Position.” Here is the Sumner Tunnel tunneling shield in its final position after breaching the Boston Vent Shaft. Presumably, that means it was all set and ready to start digging under Boston Harbor. These men were standing at the back of the shield. You can see how the tunnel was constructed behind it as the shield moved on.

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

Our Sumner Tunnel collection consists of a fascinating set of photographs and papers. It doesn’t only offer us information about the Sumner Tunnel. It gives us a visual understanding of underground and submarine construction work. It shows us the economics and geography considered in the 1930s improvement of Haymarket Square. It lets us peek at the architecture of Boston at the beginning of the twentieth century. Many of these compelling photographs show us extant and extinct buildings, ranging in location from Haymarket Square up to Clark Street. Other photographs give evidence of the different kinds of supports that buildings and streets needed while the tunnel was being constructed beneath them. Still more show Boston’s streets with a bird’s eye view.

My favorite pieces of the collection show the construction of the tunnel and buildings related to its use. When I started writing this blog post, I had no clue how underwater tunnels were created. Through research, I learned that the Sumner Tunnel was created with something called a tunneling shield. This is a cylindrical piece of machinery inspired by a type of boring worm. Mechanical constructions push the large tube through dirt, soil, or sand and create a pathway. Workers mine the dirt that comes in from the holes in the flat shield at the front of the tube and place supporting structures in the tunnel behind the tube as it moves. Compressed air at the front of the tunneling shield helps to make sure that the tunnel doesn’t collapse (1). With our photograph collection, we get a strong idea of how this worked for the creation of the Sumner Tunnel. We’ve included some photographs of the Sumner tunneling shield at the end of this post.

I was also intrigued by the photographs of the construction of above-ground buildings. Our collection shows the origins of the Traffic Tunnel Administration Building at the very end of the tunnel (where they originally started digging) and the North End Sumner Tunnel Ventilation Building between Clark and Fleet Street. The photographs show the process of constructing the Administration Building and give us a peek at the tunnel’s exit. They also show the tunneling shield entering into a large rectangular concrete vent. After the shield moved on towards the Harbor, workers built a structure over that vent that pumps poisonous air out of the tunnel and fresh air in. This building is still in use today, and you can see it as you walk along North Street. 

Be sure to check out the collection and its finding aid. I’m sure that they will inspire you to learn a little bit more about our incredible city! If you’d like to learn more about the Sumner Tunnel as it is today and its upcoming centennial restoration project, click here.

All images shared here are courtesy of the University Archives and Special Collections Department, Joseph P. Healey Library, University of Massachusetts Boston: Sumner Tunnel (Boston): construction photographs.


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Tunneling shield.” Encyclopedia Britannica, May 11, 2011.

Robert C. Hayden Interviews the “Knights of the Rail”: An Oral History of Black American Railroad Workers in Boston

A page from the Knights of the Rail exhibit guide with a photo of George Pullman

A page from the “Knights of the Rail” exhibit guide, which tells the history leading up to the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Author: Shay Park, Archives Assistant

At Boston’s Back Bay Station, there is a statue and a permanent exhibit commemorating civil rights and labor organizer A. Philip Randolph. Randolph’s activism began in the early twentieth century and continued through the Civil Rights Era. Notably, he was a co-organizer of the March on Washington on August 23, 1963, one of the largest political rallies in history. He also organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union for railroad porters of the Pullman Car Company, in 1925. The Brotherhood’s Boston members are the focus of the Back Bay exhibit, titled “Knights of the Rail.” The exhibit takes the form of six porcelain panels mounted on walls inside the station.

Within our Special Collections are the exhibit guide and transcripts of interviews of retired Pullman employees and former Brotherhood members. Browse digitized copies of those materials and the finding aid for the collection. The interviews were conducted by historian Robert C. Hayden as part of the research process for the exhibit. The guide contains reproductions of each of the panels, as well as text written by the late historian and labor activist Dr. Jim Green that recounts the history of the Pullman porters leading up to the formation of the Brotherhood and the gains they made under Randolph’s leadership.

Though the statue, exhibit, and exhibit guide highlight the immense contributions of A. Philip Randolph through the Brotherhood, the interviews also provide rich insight into the lives of the railroad workers. Following the Civil War, there was a mass migration of newly freed Black Americans to northern cities. Job prospects were limited due to segregation and racism, which meant that the Black workforce quickly became one that was easily exploited as cheap labor, and Black workers were forced into a finite range of job positions. 

The Pullman Car Company, which had a virtual monopoly on the manufacture and operation of sleeper rail cars, took advantage of these circumstances by hiring an almost exclusively Black staff, from cooks to waiters to cleaners to porters. Wages were low and working conditions were poor, but it presented an opportunity to make a living for many who had few other choices. By the 1920s, the Pullman Company was the largest employer of Black labor in the United States.

Pullman porters made multiple failed attempts to organize before approaching A. Philip Randolph for his help. Under his leadership, the Brotherhood finally formed, with demands such as a 240-hour work month and a minimum monthly wage of $150. However, it wasn’t until more than a decade later in 1937 that the Pullman Company recognized the Brotherhood after a long battle attempting to bust the union. Randolph successfully negotiated many of their demands, and their victory made them the first national Black union to bargain effectively with a major company. 

Exhibit guide page with photos and quotes from the Pullman Porters interviews

The “Knights of the Rail” exhibit guide contains reproductions of the panels mounted at Back Bay Station. Each panel includes photographs and quotes from the interviews conducted by historian Robert C. Hayden.

The interviews showcase the variety of jobs employees on Pullman cars held. While the Brotherhood unionized the Pullman porters, there were other workers such as those in the dining cars who were not organized until later. The interviews provide details of daily life on the railroads, experienced through long hours on trips that took them away from home. Many appreciated the opportunity to travel and the steady job, while lamenting the fact that supporting their loved ones meant spending long periods of time away. Some recounted kind or reasonable supervisors, though they still experienced discrimination—if not from their employers then from the patrons they served. Others described the frequent lack of formal training, with some learning on the job with little to no former experience, whether it was as a cook or as an engine repair person. Overall, in spite of grievances or hardships, most stated that they enjoyed their jobs.

Along with diversity in job types, the workers themselves had diverse life experiences. The majority of the workers interviewed moved to the Boston area from Southern states, but Fidel S. Barboza, who worked first as a cook and then as a porter until he was laid off in 1957, was an immigrant from Mexico. Though he struggled because he did not speak English at first, he was considered a good worker and promoted several times. Frances E. Rideout, one of two women interviewed, described her time as a waitress. When she began working in the 1930s, it was rare for a woman to work on railroads, but over the course of her nearly four decades on Pullman cars, she did experience working with an all-woman crew.

Interviewer Robert C. Hayden and Dr. Jim Green, author of the exhibit guide, wrote in a joint article about the interviews that they “show that Randolph’s movement was composed of rank-and-file workers of many political persuasions, people who also deserve recognition.” They foreground the individual lives of those for whom the Brotherhood and later union organizations advocated. It provides these workers the ability to tell their own stories and ensure their personal experiences are included in the history of the larger movement.

Those who are interested in other relevant holdings in our University Archives and Special Collection may consult the James Green papers. Dr. Green taught history and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, creating and then directing its Public History graduate program. His papers cover nearly fifty years of research and activism among other kinds of materials and activities. Dr. Green also provided a video interview for the UMass Boston Mass. Memories Road Show on May 2, 2014, describing the activism he took part in on UMass Boston’s campus over the years.

References and further reading

“Pullman Porters Helped Build Black Middle Class.” NPR, 7 May 2009,

Green, James R. and Robert C. Hayden. “A. Philip Randolph and Boston’s African-American Railroad Worker.” Trotter Review, vol. 6, no. 2, 1992, 20-23. Internet Archive. Web.

McWatt, Arthur C. “‘A Greater Victory’: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in St. Paul.” Minnesota History, vol. 55, no. 5, 1997, 202–216.

Collections document history of the Vietnam War, local activism, and community groups

University Archives & Special Collections (UASC) in the Joseph P. Healey Library at the University of Massachusetts Boston is pleased to announce that six collections of previously unavailable archival material are now open for research. This is the fifth of a series of posts to announce newly available collections, toward the goal of making all of UASC’s collections, both processed and unprocessed, open for research. Collections that have not been processed, or that are minimally processed, will be made available upon request to researchers in approximately two to three weeks, depending on the size and complexity of the collection. Contact for more information.

To learn more about the collections that were made available this week, click the collection title in the list below.

  • Voice of Women records, 1962-1993: The Voice of Women organization was founded in 1960 to protest the Vietnam War and continued afterwards to advocate for disarmament. The organization collected materials related to other peace organizations in Massachusetts, and members conducted teach-ins, sit-ins, and protests in Newton and Boston. Peak activity was in the 1960s-1970s with women also running the Peace Boutique, a craft and gift shop of peace-related items that also served as a meeting place. These records document the interests and activities of the Voice of Women. Materials consist of reports, correspondence, notes, pamphlets, flyers, newsletters, correspondence, magazines, publications, clippings, and articles. Topics include Vietnam and other countries in conflict, such as Cambodia, as well as disarmament, peace movements, children and women in conflict zones, and American civilian and government official reactions.
  • Karen Turner Ho Chi Minh Trail papers, circa 1959-1999: Karen Turner is a historian at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her research interest developed during her time in college in the 1970s and focuses on the study of gender and its intersections with violence, particularly in the Vietnam War and published on topics relating to East Asia, and on gender in relation to law and politics.

    Two black and white photographs depicting Vietnamese women soldiers, date unknown

    Photographs from the Karen Turner Ho Chi Minh Trail papers, circa 1959-1999

    Karen Turner has made multiple trips to Vietnam and has conducted oral histories with women soldiers from the Vietnam War. These papers collected by Turner document the Ho Chi Minh Trail experience during the Vietnam War. Materials consist of translated manuscripts, photographs, and printouts. The images depict Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War, and the text describes the experiences of people there.

  • Coalition for Community Control of Development, 1986-2015: The Coalition for Community Control of Development (CCCD) was a local activist organization in the 1980s and 1990s with the goal of helping communities in Boston create ways to control the development of their neighborhoods. Some of the issues they helped address included tenant advocacy, strategies for helping communities organize, and environmental concerns within neighborhoods. One area of importance in which the CCCD helped communities strategize was how to advocate for or against real estate development. Materials consist of meeting records, articles, correspondence, notes, pamphlets, flyers, clippings, photographs, contact sheets, negatives, and questionnaires on topics relating to the organization, its activities, and the tenants and neighborhoods in Boston.
  • Dorchester Day ephemera, 1976-1988: Dorchester Day, also known as Dot Day, has been held since 1904 to celebrate the founding of the town of Dorchester in 1630. Typically held at the end of May through the first week of June, the event includes a parade, reenactment, banquet, road races, a doll carriage and bicycle contest, open house and flea market at Dorchester Historical Society, essay contest, soap box derby, and other events, along with vendors and speakers. The parade route typically begins on Dorchester Avenue at Pierce Square (Lower Mills) and ends at St. Margaret’s Church on Columbia Road and Dorchester Avenue.

    Two flyers advertising Dorchester Day, 1978

    Dorchester Day flyers, 1978

    These records document the Dorchester Day event’s programming and marketing activities. Materials consist of flyers, clippings and articles, programs, and rosters.

  • Monday Evening Club ledgers, 1906-1913: The Monday Evening Club met in Boston, Massachusetts, in the early twentieth century for the purpose of dinners with discussions on topics of interest, usually scientific, approved of by members. Materials consist of two ledgers kept by the secretary, including meeting minutes, both on club business and educational talks, and club information, such as voting in new members, costs of meetings, and officer ballots and voting.
  • Peace Action records, circa 1983-1993: Peace Action is a national grassroots organization composed of state and local groups, chapters, and affiliates. Massachusetts Peace Action began in the 1980s as Massachusetts FREEZE, and joined the Boston branch of SANE in 1987 at the same time as the national organization. The Boston chapter participated both on the local and national level in peace campaigns within Massachusetts and national political action towards disarmament and demilitarization under the direction of the organization’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C. Materials consist of meeting minutes, correspondence, publications, flyers, articles, clippings, and other supplementary materials relating to topics relevant to the organization, including nuclear war, military and political policies, demilitarization, disarmament, and other contemporary issues related to their peace-making campaigns.

For questions about these collections or to schedule a research appointment, please contact or 617-287-5469.

University Archives & Special Collections in the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston collects materials related to the university’s history, as well as materials that reflect the institution’s urban mission and strong support of community service, notably in collections of records of urban planning, social welfare, social action, alternative movements, community organizations, and local history related to neighboring communities.

University Archives & Special Collections welcomes inquiries from individuals, organizations, and businesses interested in donating materials of an archival nature that that fit within our collecting policy. These include manuscripts, documents, organizational archives, collections of photographs, unique publications, and audio and video media. For more information about donating to University Archives & Special Collections, click here or email