History Cafes - Black Experience in Cambridge, 18th-20th Century

History Cafés introduce us to abolitionist women who buoyed Black city life from 18th century on By Marieke Van Damme Monday, July 12, 2021 History Cambridge hosted two History Cafés in the spring exploring the rich history of the city’s Black community. Graduate intern Eshe Sherley created an Early Black Cambridge History Hub, a compilation of resources for people seeking information about early Black Cantabrigians. She also invited two preeminent scholars to share their work with us through these programs.

The first History Café, held May 21, featured Tiya Miles, the Radcliffe Alumnae professor of history at Harvard University. Miles recently piloted a course titled “Abolitionist Women and Their Worlds” featuring Cambridge resident Harriet Jacobs, who ran boardinghouses in the city and was part of a network of Cambridge women working for the abolition of slavery and for equal social, political and economic rights for Black Americans. This program featured Miles in conversation with several of her students as they discussed their work on Cambridge’s women abolitionists and the place that Jacobs occupied at its center.

The second History Café, held June 9, was a conversation with Janie Ward, professor of education and director of the Critical Race, Gender and Cultural Studies Institute at Simmons University. This History Café built on the program on Jacobs and the world of Cambridge’s abolitionist women, tracing the threads of the Black experience through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. We explored the ways in which the Black community flourished in the decades after independence, as well as the challenges it has faced from socioeconomic, political and geographical racism. Ward has completed extensive research on the history of her own Cambridge residence, uncovering a fascinating web of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic factors that have influenced the makeup of her neighborhood and others in Cambridge over the past three centuries. Her work helped unpack the complex array of factors that have led to the creation and re-creation of the city’s neighborhoods and allows us to better understand the connections between Black Cambridge past and present.

Both programs were made possible by the generous support of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati and a grant from the Bridge Street Fund, a special initiative of Mass Humanities. If you missed the live programs, you can watch recordings on the History Cambridge website.

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name, a new look and a whole new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We strive to be the most relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge. We do that by recognizing that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.

Our theme for 2021 is “How Does Cambridge Mend?” Make history with us at cambridgehistory.org.

Marieke Van Damme is executive director of History Cambridge.