Clark students take the research lead on Worcester Art Museum exhibition

Problems of Practice history course explores stories behind William Bullard's photos of Worcester's turn-of-the-century people of color
October 18, 2017
Alex Jeannotte speaks behind podium in classroom
Alex Jeannotte presents her research about the Perkins family. Along with her classmates, Jeannotte blogged about the Clark Problems of Practice course's research project. Students will answer visitors' questions on Oct. 19 at a museum event.

How many Clarkies does it take to launch a historically significant, community-oriented exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum?

At least 20, for sure. For nearly four years, History Professor Janette Greenwood, along with undergraduate and graduate students and alumni, dove deep into researching century-old photos from Worcester that chronicled a national story: the blossoming of vibrant communities of color in the five decades after Reconstruction.

Janette Greenwood speaks in class
History Professor Janette Greenwood

Their research informs the exhibition, "Rediscovering an American Community of Color: The Photographs of William Bullard," which recently opened at the museum. It includes more than 80 portraits that Bullard took of African-Americans and Native Americans in Worcester from 1894 to 1917. Bullard and many of the “sitters” — the people whom he photographed — lived in the multi-racial, multi-ethnic Beaver Brook neighborhood.

Ten undergraduates became involved in the project through “Public History: Race, Photography and Community,” a Problems of Practice (POP) history seminar taught last spring by Greenwood and Nancy Burns, the museum’s associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs.

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About how the exhibition and the research came to be

• About student presentations in Professor Greenwood's Problems of Practice course

As part of their coursework, students contributed essays to a website devoted to the Bullard photos, and the stories behind them. Computer science major Jonathan Cyr ’17 provided the framework for the website with the help of John Magee, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. The website will remain online after the exhibition ends on Feb. 25, 2018.

On Oct. 19, 2017, Greenwood’s students will answer questions from visitors at the museum’s Master Series Third Thursday event. Their research also informs the labels that accompany Bullard’s photographs on display, and they’ve contributed blog articles to the museum’s website about the exhibition. See photos from that event here.

Nia Slater Bookhart showing a photo on her computer
Nia Slater-Bookhart ’19 (photo courtesy of
Worcester Art Museum)

Among the stories and photos that the students researched:

  • Nia Slater-Bookhart ’19, a history and student-designed double major, attempted to solve the mystery behind a photo of a multi-age, -racial and -gender group, questioning whether the photo depicted "Old Home Days" in nearby Holden. “This project still leaves me speechless, and I know seeing the exhibit will do the same,” she writes. “The amount of work poured into this has been tremendous to watch, and even more so to be a part of it. William Bullard's collection of photographs is truly important in the way that it illuminates the lives of people of color in Worcester in the early 1900s.”
  • Halle Smith ’19, a geography major, researched Bullard’s photo of James J. and Jennie Bradley Johnson and their two children, writing about "African Americans and Native Americans in Worcester." In her blog article for the museum, Smith explains the impact the project had on her: “I cannot speak enough to how incredible this experience was. … Despite all of the difficulties, doubt and uncertainty, my research taught me more about Worcester and its people than I would have ever known otherwise, and I will always be thankful for that.”
  • Darice Plumer ’17, a history major, examined Bullard’s four photos of Worcester residents with bicycles, writing an essay on "The Cycling Craze." “Worcester was … home base for the famous black cyclist Marshall ‘Major” Taylor,” she notes. “‘The Worcester Whirlwind’ set seven world records in 1899, becoming one of the first black champions in any sport.” In her online blog article, she writes about another photo, that of the Jackson family: “I've 'finished' this project with more questions than answers, but one of the most satisfying parts of the project was to know my work wasn't wasted.”
  • History major Stefan Sprinckmöller Alayza ’17 examined Bullard’s portrait of the Dillon family — Thomas, Margaret and their three children — in their home, featuring a poster of President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1902 visit to Worcester. Sprinckmöller Alayza expands on the history behind the poster in an online essay titled "Teddy’s in Town!" “Being part of the Bullard exhibition has been a rewarding and challenging experience,” he writes in a blog article.
  • Alex Jeannotte ’17, a sociology and history double major, and Toni Armstrong ’19, an art history and ancient civilization double major, focused on the Perkins family of Worcester. Greenwood visited Camden, S.D., to look into the Perkins family’s migration and history, met descendants, and blogged about the experience. Jeannotte continued to trace the Perkins’ migration from South Carolina; Armstrong dove into genealogical records and created a detailed family tree. To learn more, they met regularly with Perkins descendants Kim Perkins Hampton and Wendy Byfield. “My involvement in research of the Perkins family has been the most rewarding of all my experiences in college,” Jeannotte writes in a blog article. Armstrong writes about their meetings with the Perkins sisters: “For me, Wendy and Kim were a live connection from the present day through to the Bullard photos and even further back — to people who had walked and lived and on the same streets I had walked.” 
    Charlotte Maxwell seated at table, looking at documents
    Charlotte Maxwell ’17 (photo courtesy of
    Worcester Art Museum)

  • History major Charlotte Maxwell ’17, researched and wrote about a photo of Arries Ann Ward. At age 95, Ward appeared on the national television show “This is Your Life.” She also was featured in a Dec. 26, 1956, Worcester Telegram article titled “City Woman Recalls Christmas as a Slave.” “Working with the Bullard collection was an experience unlike any other I've had at Clark,” Maxwell writes in a blog article. “The opportunity to take the skills and knowledge I've cultivated through my history major and apply them to such a tangible project was incredibly rewarding.”
  • Alice Dillon ’19, an art history and history double major, investigated the story behind Bullard’s 1907 photo of members of the Worcester Veteran Firemen’s Association. "I plan to work in a museum setting in the future, so conducting research on these photographs and working so closely with the Worcester Art Museum has been amazing,” Dillon writes.
  • Emily Art ’17, a psychology and history double major, researched a photo of a man in a uniform from the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization. She writes the experience “has been one of the most unique and meaningful projects I have been a part of during my time at Clark. Despite the late nights and running into research road blocks, there was nothing more rewarding than showing my research to Larry and Nick Schuyler, the grandsons of Raymond Schuyler.”
  • Adelaide Petrov-Yoo ’17, now a fifth-year graduate student in history, researched "Worcester’s Historic Black Churches." “Working with the Bullard photos was my first time working in a museum-related setting,” Petrov-Yoo writes. “It was really exciting to see the walls before anything was hung, talk with the people in charge of designing the space and the museum catalogue, and discuss ideas about how to display the photos.”

Other students became involved in the project through an earlier history seminar taught by Greenwood, or through independent projects, including LEEP fellowships. They include:

  • Psychology and history double major Gabrielle Seligman ’16, a student in Greenwood’s spring 2015 “Public History: Race in the U.S.,” continued the research as a LEEP Fellow in summer 2015 and for an independent history project her senior year.
  • Joseph Viola ’17, a psychology and history double major, joined the project as part of his LEEP Fellowship in summer 2016.
  • Caleb Horton ’17, a fifth-year graduate student in the M.P.A. program, took Greenwood’s seminar on Reconstruction after the Civil War. His curriculum development at the museum this past summer will be used as part of an educational unit and exhibition tours for 10th and 11th graders from Worcester’s public schools.
  • Diane Boucher, Ph.D. ’14, an independent researcher, history consultant and educator, assisted Greenwood with the project and contributed research to the website.

“This has been a tremendous opportunity for undergraduate students to participate in groundbreaking research that has had an impact not only on individual families, but an entire community, with national implications,” Greenwood says. 

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