The Harriet Tubman House, a Fixture of Boston’s Black community, Gets a Second Life
Cities are places of constant change, but when the Harriet Tubman House at the corner of Massachusetts and Columbus Avenues was demolished, Boston risked losing a critical piece of its history. Thanks to a unique collaboration between Northeastern and community organizations, plus generous grants from the Mellon Foundation, this important South End site will live on.
Founded in the early 20th century as an autonomous space for and by Black women on Holyoke Street, in 1975, the Harriet Tubman House became a community center run by United South End Settlements until it was sold in 2019 to help keep the organization afloat. Ultimately, it was demolished.
The house was a fixture of Boston’s Black community, but its century-spanning history—the kind that doesn’t get told in museums or textbooks—was in danger of getting lost with the demolition too. Fortunately, the building’s history and the community’s memories were saved through the hard work of residents who banded together under the I Am Harriet coalition, USES itself, and the resources and ingenuity of the Boston Research Center.
Through a unique collaboration between the Northeastern University Library, Boston Public Library and community organizers and leaders, the BRC created the Harriet Tubman House Memory Project to help digitally preserve and tell the history of not only the site but the community that existed around it. And the South End is not the only community in Boston that has been able to work with the BRC to tell its story. The BRC has collaborated with community groups in East Boston and Chinatown to create hubs for innovative archival projects on local history.
“The records of the rich and powerful, institutional records, places with resources and power, tend to get preserved—that’s how it’s been forever,” says Dan Cohen, dean of libraries and vice provost for information collaboration at Northeastern. “For the first time, we are able to rectify the gaps, the truly unfortunate gaps, that happen in historical preservation and access because we have a better view of what is important to save. … And we have new ways of ensuring that we can help to widen access to the world so that everyone can gain access to those materials.”
The project started as a collaboration between Northeastern’s Archives and Special Collections and Digital Scholarship Group and the BPL. Dory Klein, BPL’s community history and digitization specialist, says this kind of public-private library partnership isn’t abnormal, “but it doesn’t happen with as much frequency as it ought to.”
For Northeastern, the partnership amplifies the reach of the university’s archives, which focus on the history of Boston’s under-represented communities, through the BPL’s more than two dozen branch libraries. For the BPL, it is an opportunity to build web-based projects that would have been impossible without Northeastern’s digital expertise and infrastructure.
In 2018, the project secured an initial $200,000 Mellon Foundation grant to kickstart the project and have since received a $650,000 implementation grant and, most recently, a $505,000 grant to “regularize” the process, Cohen says.
The BRC has launched four projects so far, including the Tubman House project, an interactive public art map/database, the Chinatown Collections Survey Project and Our Home, an online East Boston history portal. The BRC is also working with staff in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities on the Reckonings Project, a Mellon Foundation funded local history platform for community archivists with a focus on co-creation with BIPOC communities. Each BRC project begins with conversations with community partners, who each identified a research question or history capture project. The resulting projects are each different because the needs of each community are different. But each requires building deep connections with the communities in Boston, something both Northeastern library and the BPL had a head start with.
Since 1998, the university’s Archives and Special Collections department has been collecting, digitizing and making accessible the history of Boston’s under-represented groups, establishing and maintaining relationships with community-based organizations, local activists and social justice-focused nonprofits in the process. The BRC is built on that foundation.
“In 1998, very little history of Boston’s social movements was accessible to researchers,” says Giordana Mecagni, head of Archives and Special Collections and head of community engagement for the BRC. “Now that a lot of this history is stored safely in the archives, we want to make the history even more accessible, to bring it back into the community by using digital tools and services like the BRC.”
Members of the BRC team from Northeastern along with Klein will sit down with community members and lay out the full suite of options that BRC can provide, from oral histories to Wikidata-based maps. Those conversations always come back to a simple question: What sounds interesting to you?
“We ask them, ‘How do you want to interact with the material? What’s the story you want to tell?’ says Patrick Yott, associate dean for digital infrastructure. “It may not be the same story if we asked a historian of 18th century Boston what they want to tell.”
In the case of the Harriet Tubman House project, a member of I Am Harriet reached out to the BPL, asking if someone could put together an archival memory project. Northeastern already housed the USES’ archives, so it made perfect sense to turn the project into a BRC initiative. The project includes digitized materials from Northeastern’s USES collection, photos of the building taken by the BPL before it was demolished and oral and narrative histories.
Now in its third phase, the BRC is focused on making this infrastructure and process into a regular part of Northeastern and the BPL’s work.
“I think what that means is that we focus on existing archival collections that have already been digitized and described and focus on the toolkit of components and workflows that we’ve developed—and we use those and improve them in small ways so we don’t have to keep investing entirely new systems,” says Julia Flanders, director of Northeastern’s Digital Scholarship Group.
By creating a replicable model of local history preservation, Cohen hopes the BRC’s work can go beyond Boston and connect the libraries and communities around Northeastern’s other global campuses.
“When you don’t have a complete record, people have a very poor sense of what the actual history of their neighborhood is,” Cohen says. “I think it’s important to surprise and challenge people with the very complex past of their immediate environment. And you can only do that when you really save and provide access to the full spectrum of human experience and expression that has happened in those neighborhoods.”
“It’s important to surprise and challenge people with the very complex past of their immediate environment. And you can only do that when you really save and provide access to the full spectrum of human experience and expression that has happened in those neighborhoods.”
—Dan Cohen, Northeastern Dean of Libraries and Vice Provost for Information Collaboration