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Northeastern professor honors Black history with public project in her New England hometown

Kabria Baumgartner, associate professor of history and africana studies. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The fascinating stories of 19th century Black Americans throughout New England inspired Kabria Baumgartner, a professor of history and the African diaspora at Northeastern, to shift her career focus from literature to the stories of real people.

And the rich history surrounding her home in Newburyport prompted her current mission to erect public signage throughout the historic port city highlighting the important role of Black Americans. 

“It’s been a great joy to work on this, and not just because it’s connected to my research on African Americans in New England, but in part because it’s where I live and it means something to me in that way and to my children who are growing up here,” says Baumgartner, who grew up in Los Angeles. She moved to Newburyport with her family as she continued her research into Black history in New England. “They’re going to get a chance to see these historical markers as a part of their community.”

Newburyport, Massachusetts on Feb. 23, 2022. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Peter Romily, for example, was a former captain’s cook who owned a business on the corner of Elbow Alley that supplied food and drink to sailors in the 1800s in downtown Newburyport. The alley, which ran between Liberty and Water streets, was home to many Black business owners. John C.H. Young, a barber, lived on the alley, while another resident, James Law, was a mariner and cook living with his wife, a well-known laundress.

The first sign, however, will be erected near the site of a historic Black neighborhood along the Newburyport rail trail. Little information about the neighborhood, which was called Guinea Village, remains.  

“We’ve been able to find, not a lot, but enough about the Black community to write the sign. We can talk a little bit about how many people were in that community. We can talk about what the houses look like based on newspaper articles. And we can also talk about a very important cultural celebration, called Black Election Day,” says Baumgartner.

Black Election Day, first noted in the 1740s, was a daylong festival where the community selected a leader or representative.

“I was glad that at least in this first marker, we could talk about a Black cultural festival that was joyful,” says Baumgartner. “That’s different from how we often discuss Black history in Newburyport.” 

While New England’s history might not include the brutality of plantation slavery, Newburyport’s wharfs were often a stop in the transatlantic slave trade, the source of many wealthy mariners’ fortunes who lived in the port city.

That might explain why much of Newburyport’s Black history has been erased, something Baumgartner hopes to rectify with this signage. With help from city officials, she expects eight or nine signs to be hung around the city.

“That’s what I like about this as a public history project: We’re using the same kinds of historical research methods in gathering sources, piecing together evidence, and reaching some careful conclusions. But instead of me writing it in an article in an academic journal that will be behind a paywall, this is something that anybody can access if they are walking along the rail trail,” says Baumgartner. 

Baumgartner hopes to continue her work throughout New England, providing a Black history trail throughout the region by stitching together the history already unearthed along with new Black historic locations and figures.

“It’s about engaging the community, and it’s about re-discovery and bringing that history back to the surface,” Baumgartner says.

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