Historian Researches Berkshires for Black History Project

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. – Mississippi-born Frances Jones-Sneed moved to western Massachusetts feeling like a foreigner in the snowy hamlets of the Berkshire Mountains. She and her husband, who had taken a teaching job there, were one of the area’s few Black families.

Then Jones-Sneed was hired as a history professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. There, she stumbled upon lost figures of the area’s rich Black history.

With the help of students, she found a slave who sued for freedom, a late 19th-century baseball player who later ended up in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and a Civil War chaplain who challenged Lincoln over discrimination against Black soldiers.

Now her work has gained national attention, and she has won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to bring 25 scholars from around the country for training on how to find Black figures in rural areas.

Jones-Sneed, of Williamstown, said uncovering Black history in the largely White Berkshires shows there is historical research to be done in other areas.

“If I can do this in an unlikely place like the Berkshires, then (others) can do the same in their own communities,” said Jones-Sneed, who was born in Kosciusko, Miss., which is also Oprah Winfrey’s birthplace.

Jones-Sneed’s accidental project began in 1994, just after she was hired as an historian at the Massachusetts college. For a class assignment, Jones-Sneed directed students to locate and write about any local Black community members.

But students soon came across old articles and oral histories of forgotten Black figures, including Pittsfield-born baseball player Frank Grant and Samuel Harrison, a former slave-turned-minister who pressed President Abraham Lincoln about discrimination against Black Civil War soldiers.

“I was just floored,” Jones-Sneed said.

Jones-Sneed then created a senior seminar out of the discovery and moved to dedicate her research to finding out more about the area’s Black history. She and other scholars were able to find local Black educators, abolitionists and Civil War veterans.

Through their work, Grant was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and more scholars began devoting time to the likes of Elizabeth Freeman, a Berkshires woman who was one of the first slaves in the United States to successfully sue for her freedom. Jones-Sneed later found an old diary written by Harrison that is the subject of an upcoming book.

Activists and history buffs also have created an “African American Heritage Trail Guide” in the area as a result of the research.

Although the Black population was typically only 2 percent of the area’s total population throughout history, scholars say the recent discovery of Black figures shows that the Berkshires played a significant role in the intellectual and culture history of Black Americans.

“People are shocked to hear that there were Black people in the Berkshires,” said David Levinson, a cultural anthropologist and editor of African American Heritage in the Upper Housatonic Valley, a book on the area’s Black history. “But once you see the whole story, there is no doubt you can see the influence that the Berkshires had.”

Patricia Sullivan, author of Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement and a history professor at the University of South Carolina, said the discoveries also highlight how much important Black history has been forgotten throughout the country.

The Berkshires also is the birthplace of Black scholar and NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois.

“Americans, in general, are so ignorant of our own history,” said Sullivan, who is teaching at Jones-Sneed’s four-week “The Shaping Role of Place in African-American Biography” project next summer. “Here is a perfect example where the history is right in front of you or locked somewhere in a closet. You just have to find it.”

Sullivan said the summer project will train scholars on tools to uncover Black history in rural areas and discuss what questions to ask when few written records have been left behind.

Levinson, who is also teaching in the project, said the area’s rich Black history was responsible in many ways for allowing someone like DuBois to develop.

Jones-Sneed said she never thought that she’d ever come across such rich Black history when she moved to the Berkshires.

 “Now, I just love sharing it,” she said. “There’s so much to discuss.”