Clark U. History Professor investigating rare, century-old photos of Worcester's early residents of color

November 12, 2014
Clark History Professor Janette Greenwood History Professor Janette Greenwood

Clark University History Professor Janette Greenwood has teamed up with retired teacher and Charlton historian Frank Morrill to research the identities of some early Worcester residents — people of color — pictured in rare photographs that date back to the turn of the last century.

The photos are those of the late William Bullard, of Worcester, a photographer who, between 1894 and 1914, took thousands of images of the city's streetscapes, businesses and local residents. Morrill, who has published books about Worcester, purchased Bullard's collection — approximately 4,800 glass plates — with the intent to publish another book focused on the city's streets and architecture. It wasn't until his granddaughter inquired about a person of color in one of the photos that he realized he possessed a unique historical treasure — roughly 200 images of people of color — many of whom lived in the Beaver Brook area of Worcester within the first four decades after obtaining their freedom.

A mutual acquaintance connected Morrill and Professor Greenwood, aware that the latter had researched the migration of former slaves to Worcester in the late 19th century. The pair joined forces in January, and since then, they have identified all but a quarter of the people in the photographs by referencing the photographer's log book, census and other historical documents.

"The number of negatives he had and the fact that we could identify most of the people in them by name, and even street number, was incredible," said Professor Greenwood.

Professor Greenwood immediately recognized some of the names of people she uncovered while conducting research for her book, "First Fruits of Freedom: The Migration of Former Slaves and Their Search for Equality in Worcester, Massachusetts, 1862-1900," published in 2010. However, these photos revealed much more. They gave valuable clues about this period of history.

"People focus too often on the Civil War and they look at the Civil Rights Movement when they think about black history, but there's so much in between," she said. "The collection represents a unique time often overlooked."

Professor Greenwood and Morrill were struck by the photographer's obvious skill and also by the tone of his photographs. Bullard, a white photographer, treated his subjects with a great deal of respect. All of the people in his portraits appear dignified and proud; some of them are featured wearing formal attire, sitting proudly in their living rooms.

The Johnson Family The Johnson Family

"[The photos] reflect a real interest, a real respect for this group of people, which is uncommon at the time," said Professor Greenwood.

Professor Greenwood and Mr. Morrill created a blog to record the progress they've made identifying the photographs. The website is also being used to thank people who've helped uncover details about the photos, and is a way for the general public to view a list of the people featured in the collection, and enlist their help assigning names to photos, providing context and information regarding descendants.

Professor Greenwood plans to enlist her undergraduate students this spring to continue the historical research on the pictures.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for students to participate in groundbreaking research that will not only impact multiple individuals, but an entire community, with national implications. This real-world project is a perfect example of the type of meaningful exercise we look to offer students through Clark's innovative new Liberal Education and Effective Practice LEEP initiative."

Professor Greenwood and Mr. Morrill hope to curate an exhibit with between 40-60 of the photographs and their stories. She also hopes to publish a book featuring the photos.

Professor Greenwood teaches a variety of courses in U.S. History including Race and Ethnicity in American History, History of the American South, Reconstruction, and The Gilded Age, and is affiliated with Clark's program in Race and Ethnic Relations. She has taught at Clark since 1991.

--Angela Bazydlo, Associate Director of Media Relations, and Natalie Bonetti '17

Related Links:

"Turn-of-20th-century photos offer new glimpse into Worcester's black life," from the Telegram & Gazette, October 9, 2014.

"Illuminating Worcester History," Telegram & Gazette editorial, October 28, 2014.

WCVB-TV's "CityLine" features Clark Professor Janette Professor Greenwood and The People of Color Photo Project, WCVB-TV, Channel 5, Boston, October 19, 2014.

Angela Bazydlo - Marketing and Communications - Clark University