Between 1897 and 1917, itinerant photographer William Bullard of Worcester, Massachusetts, took over 5000 images of streetscapes, businesses, and local people. These images are preserved as pristine glass negatives by the collection’s owner, Charlton, Mass., resident Frank Morrill. The collection includes over 200 images of people of color, most of whom lived in the vicinity of Bullard’s home on Maple Tree Lane (then Mayfield Street) on the city’s west side. About 75 percent of them can be identified through the photographer’s log book, in which he inscribed the names and addresses of his subjects and occasionally the costs of prints that he sold. Based on our research and discussions with photography experts, we believe that this collection of images of people of color is unique in its scope, in our ability to identify and research individuals and families, and in the specific stories we will be able to tell about them.
In OCTOBER 2017, the Worcester Art Museum will feature approximately 70 of these images in an exhibition, “William Bullard: Reimagining an American Community of Color, 1897-1917.”
Since January 2014, Morrill and Professor Janette Greenwood, a historian at Clark University, have been researching the people in these photographs. Working with censuses and other public records, meeting with community elders, and interviewing descendants of those photographed, they have begun to piece together a powerful story. Many of Bullard’s subjects were Southern migrants, former slaves and the children of slaves, who made their way to Worcester in the years following the Civil War. These photographs reflect their journey from slavery to freedom, their claims to citizenship and respectability and the value they placed on family life and community. Taken at the same time that their Southern kin suffered segregation, loss of the voting rights, and lynching, these photos reveal a powerful sense of hope and progress achieved in the North. The photographs also display community building among people of color in Worcester, of families formed by Southern migrants and local Native Americans. At the same time these photos reflect the shortcomings of Northern life. Most of the people in the photos labored in “negro jobs”—as domestic servants, laundresses, porters, and day laborers, as would their children, lovingly and hopefully portrayed in the photos. Despite economic obstacles, the faces of Bullard’s subjects display dignity and pride, a sense of how far they had traveled.
The goal of this project is to tell the stories of these men and women—and so many others like them—whose stories are seldom told. These photos provide an invaluable way to capture the lives and values of men, women, and children in the first four decades of freedom, people who left few written records behind. Although these photos were taken in Worcester, they address much larger themes in American history: the story of people of color claiming their rightful place in society as well as the fundamentally American story of migration and constructing community in new surroundings.
The purpose of this blog is three-fold. First, we want to document our journey as we uncover the stories of the men, women, and children in these photographs. We will share both the “highs” and “lows” of historical research–those glorious moments when we make a connection and solve a puzzle, as well as the dead-ends and blind alleys that are an inevitable part of the process . Second, we want to acknowledge and thank family and community members who contribute invaluable information and insights about these photos. Many people have generously shared so much with us already and we are truly grateful. Third, we want to get the word out to family members whose ancestors may be pictured in these photos. We want to connect with you, to share with you what we have, and to learn more about your family’s history.