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Center for Human Rights - Celebrating 15 Years! Students • Partners • Research

Danielle Brown Research Spaces of Longstanding Black Presence as Sites of Memory and Resistance

Danielle Brown standing in front of Springfield Sanctuary by Ryan Murray (@rywandojones). The mural was painted as a part of Fresh Paint Springfield 2019 and is located inside the Union Station concourse in Springfield, Massachusetts.

June 23, 2021

Black landmarks: A poem by Danielle Brown
hidden gems scattered throughout the landscape
nuanced histories concealed in plain sight
under acknowledged and almost forgotten
                                       …and yet they persist
                                                          …the embodiment of ancestral resistance

The reclamation of Black history matters gravely. In my M.A. thesis chapter 2, “The Significance of Place: Unearthing a Local Black History,” I argue that spaces of longstanding Black presence – as sites of memory and resistance – are venues for the realization of African American diasporic communities’ struggle for human rights. Specifically, I link the white washing (and erasure) of racial and ethnic histories to current Black residents’ access to, and ownership of, discourses and public space today. On a 2-day visit to see my family in Spring 2021, I had the opportunity to experience the space as a nostalgic homecoming, taking a few photos of Black placemaking projects on my trip to commemorate the moment. However, my general plans to conduct an ethnographic study of historic Black Springfield, Massachusetts, using landscape analysis and participant observation research, were derailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to the Peter Mack and Jamie Mayerfeld Fund, I was able to retain my thesis’ in-depth engagement with Black embodied knowledge holders from the space, despite restrictions on in-person research. Specifically, I studied numerous texts written on Springfield, as well as remotely interviewed double the original intended numbers of participants due to my newfound ability to acquire transcription services (i.e., Rev Transcripts) and other qualitative coding software (i.e., ATLAS.ti, Scrivener).

To learn about the city’s rich African American history, I conducted an inter-textual analysis of Black Springfield documents.[1] Honestly, I could not believe the wealth of information I discovered; from my puddle of knowledge, I had waded into an ocean, while in search for what I thought would at the most be a lake. At that point, I knew one goal of my MA Thesis would be to interrogate the up-take of Black Springfield histories among the community. I questioned if others, like me, had never learned about the Black hues to some of the city’s most heavily circulated historic narratives. For instance, who else in Springfield knows about the notable John Brown’s abolitionist activity without having learned about the League of Gileadites, Thomas Thomas, Eli Baptist, or William Green? To me, the most distressing result of the erasure of radical Black histories evoking Black love, Black philanthropy, Black resistance, from public discourses is the perpetuation of Black communities with deprivation narratives. As my research findings show, historical inquiries centering Black abundance and livingness illuminate place-based racialized processes entwined in the uneven development of diverse/non-white spaces of living, as well as a spectrum of political resistance practices wielded against said oppressive structures (such as archival resistance, creative resistance, grassroots resistance, everyday spatial navigation, and an articulation of both/and discourses as a way of understanding their Black existence in a white-dominated world).

Danielle Brown, 2020 Mack and Mayerfeld Fellow

I also conducted 15 semi-structured interviews, including 1 written statement by Historian Joseph Carvalho III[2], to understand how the diminishing of Black self-determinative acts from the city’s historical consciousness shape modern day relationships to place. How does what history is known alter what one believes about one’s own self-worth and their space of living? These questions, focused on investigating the relationship between collective racial consciousness, selfhood, and physical and metaphysical access and ownership to the city’s histories, narratives, and geography, lie at the crux of my investigation into Black Springfield history.

Ultimately, having investigated the intrinsic importance of learning one’s full history, I insist that such historical knowledge is an essential human right that is fundamental to full personhood, collective belonging, and possession of material and discursive realities today. A summary of my findings on the urgency of reclaiming non-white emancipatory histories includes the following:

  • Collective knowledge of white local histories being pushed via city wide commemorative practices (e.g., public school curriculum, large landmarks with plaques)
  • Feelings of loss and a personal sense of injustice expressed by participants for not having been taught about local racial and ethnic histories that they can “relate” to, as well as a sense of empowerment and wholeness for now having learned said histories
  • Varying connections between social-spatial dynamics operating in historic and contemporary Springfield (e.g., socio-economic segregation, control of current city discourses, perceived access to physical space, racial tolerance rather than acceptance)

Now reflecting on my M.A. thesis research to date, I realize more than ever that this project is not only a work of love for my hometown, or a piece of academic scholarship interrogating Blackness, class, and space in contemporary Springfield, but a personal and political endeavor to both right and write history.

[1] The Pan African Historical Museum Springfield, Ma, Black Springfield.

[2] Joseph Carvalho III, Black Families in Hampden County, Massachusetts 1650-1865 2nd edition (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2011).