Learning in April about the Nipmuc heritage of so many people in the photos prompted Ranger Chuck Arning to contact Cheryl Toney Holley, Sachem of the Hassanamesit Nipmucs and to tell her about our project. Cheryl generously invited Chuck, Frank, and Janette to attend the Strawberry Moon Festival with the photos. Before the event she posted the names of the people in the photos to inform descendants about the collection which has already yielded great results! An accomplished genealogist, Cheryl also sent us information about a number of her ancestors who appear in the photos, including Kenneth Anderson, her great-great grandfather, and the Bates and
On a sparkling cool June day, we participated in a moving ceremony focusing on the symbolic heart-shape of the strawberry, forgiveness, and prayers sent aloft from tobacco sprinkled on a blazing wood fire. We then spent a lovely afternoon sharing and listening. Among our many conversations: Nellie Toney told us about her cousin, Eugene Shepard and the family’s Native American roots in Sturbridge. Susan Pegan Wilson-Price and her brother, Glenn Wilson, found photos of ancestors on both sides of their family—the Wards and the Wilson—and shared stories with us. And we had a “small world” moment when Mildred McCowan, a retired detective with the Boston Police Department, told us that she worked many years with Paul Cato, Lois Perkins Cato’s son, whose Perkins ancestors are well represented in the collection.
The stories we heard today about the African American-Nipmuc connection added another layer of complexity to our research. They really drove home to us that the photo collection represents, among other things, the creation of an enduring community that has often been rendered invisible.
“That looks familiar. I have a picture like that.” With these words, Lois Perkins Cato fulfilled Frank’s dream of locating one of Bullard’s photos in the possession of a family member. Following up on Shirley Carter’s information a few weeks earlier, shared at the Worcester Public Library meeting, Janette headed to Boston to meet with her stepsister, Lois Perkins Cato. Seeing the image of her infant father, Aunt Nellie and Grandmother Angeline (called “Grammy”), Mrs. Cato immediately recognized it as one that she owns. Along with her son Paul, Mrs. Cato perused the photo collection. It turned out that not only did we have a photo of her dad, aunt, and grandmother, but we also have her great-grandparents (Paul’s great-great grandparents) on the Perkins side, Edward and Celia Perkins, the parents of Lois’ paternal grandfather.
Edward and Celia had been of special interest to us as they were born slaves in Camden, South Carolina, owned land in Kershaw County, SC, in 1870 and lost it by 1880, during the decade of white “Redemption.” They appear in Worcester by 1900 on Bath Street where Celia was a washerwoman and Edward a truckman. Edward died in Worcester in 1920 at age 87 and Celia died four years later at age 92. Their son, Emmanuel, born in South Carolina in 1874, married Lois’s grandmother, Angeline Jones, in 1897, and died in Worcester in 1911. Mrs. Cato noted “All she [Angeline] ever told me was that she was 12 years old when her mother moved her to Worcester” from North Carolina. Little information has been passed down about the South Carolina Perkins family, but Mrs. Perkins pointed out that her stepmother was from Camden, also, and that she spent many summers visiting relatives there. Mrs. Perkins pointed out that her father, William Dempsey, worked as a porter in Union Station and loved to hunt and fish. Paul also remembers “Grampy” as “a hunter. Loved to hunt.”
Mrs. Cato gave us a sense of what it was like growing up in the Beaver Brook neighborhood, where she attended Abbott Street School: “It was a close-knit neighborhood.” She recalls, “ We played together. It was a neighborhood. We were in and out of each other’s houses. . . . We played games together . . . there was a group of us girls who traveled together. We’d call each other. ‘What are you wearing today?’ and we’d all wear the same kind of white blouse and black skirt, that kind of thing.” She attended church at Belmont AME Zion Church and high school at Girls Trade and moved to Boston after high school. Summing up, she explained, “In Worcester, it was such a small community of black people. And everyone knew everyone.”
On a rainy spring morning in April, Frank, Janette, and Ranger Chuck Arning of the National Park Service,John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, met at the Worcester Public Library with Edna Spencer, Jean Holmes, and Shirley F.B. Carter, long-time residents of Worcester who grew up in the Beaver Brook area where most of the photos were taken. Braving a torrential downpour, these three women generously spent a good part of the morning perusing the photographs. As the photos were taken around 1900, those pictured as babies or children were adults when these three women were growing up. Yet many names and faces proved to be familiar to them. And even better, they provided as with some invaluable information and insights. First, they pointed out to us that a number of people in the photos were of both African American and Nipmuc heritage. Second, they brainstormed an extensive list of people of color in the Worcester area that we need to interview. But our hearts really skipped a beat when Shirley Carter came across a picture of William Dempsey Perkins, as a baby, in the lap of his mother, North Carolina-born Angeline, along with his two-year-old sister Nellie. Dr. Carter explained that “Bill” was her step-sister Lois’s father! We couldn’t wait to follow up on that one! We left the meeting deeply grateful to Edna Spencer, Jean Holmes, and Shirley Carter for the time they spent with us, the many insights and connections that they offered us, and for their enthusiastic response to the photos.