July 7, 2016 | By Chuck Carlson
Buried deep in the archives of a Boston library and all but lost to the prying eyes of history, Paul Cuffee's early 19th-century life story revealed itself recently to two Albion College students.
"I find this man's name and he's a Native American and an African American," said Elijah Bean, ‘19. "He had his own business in Boston. And during slavery he fought. He said, ‘If you paid taxes you should receive equal rights.' It was a very progressive way to think then."
"It's like finding a needle in a haystack," said Corey Wheeler, '18.
The discovery of Cuffee's story, and the unfolding of others like his, was a revelation to both Wheeler and Bean and made the three-week Boston Summer Seminar, sponsored by the Great Lakes Colleges Association and hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society, an eye-opening experience.
Wheeler and Bean, both from Detroit, joined Albion history professor Marcy Sacks for the project, which provides an opportunity for member colleges to send teams of two students and one faculty member to Boston to research humanities projects of interest to them.
Sacks said this was only the second time the seminar has been offered through the GLCA, and the competition to gain one of the three spots to go to Boston was intense. Indeed, Albion alone had three proposals. The other two GLCA schools with teams in this summer's seminar were Denison University and Oberlin College in Ohio.
Sacks was excited to provide an opportunity for Albion students to do archival work, so last January she invited Bean and Wheeler, and they spent a Sunday afternoon crafting the application.
The topic was one that Sacks has been researching for some time and that would test and enlighten her students—a focus on black people in the North in the years immediately following the Civil War and the legal end of slavery in the United States (1865-80).
Wheeler and Bean came up with the proposal's title: "Northern Black Lives Matter: The Experience of Black Northerners in the Era of Southern Emancipation."
The proposal received one of the three coveted slots and Sacks, Bean and Wheeler left for Boston in early June for three weeks of research, lectures and seminars where they studied at such diverse locations as the Massachusetts Historical Society; the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University; the Northeastern University archives; the Houghton Library at Harvard; and the Francis A. Countway Medical Library at Harvard.
It provided Sacks a chance to work on her own research into the topic but, more importantly, it provided invaluable—and uncommon—exposure for two of her students to the world of archival research.
"It's a good opportunity for me because this is the first time I get to do the academic work," Wheeler said. "I never got a chance to work in archives and I have a chance to be on my own in the archives."
The topic particularly resonated with him.
"I took an African American history class and Reconstruction was one of my favorite periods," he said. "It was a turning point for black people in America. A lot of attention has been paid to black people in the South [after the war]. We wanted to figure out what happened to them in the North. Their story needed to be told."
But it didn't reveal itself easily. The archival information wasn't plentiful and what was available usually came from the view of whites.
"It's hard to come to a conclusion," Wheeler said. "We're getting kind of a picture."
He said it has included Northern blacks who went on to become doctors and graduate from such colleges as Harvard.
"It's definitely something I want to keep looking into," Wheeler said.
Bean, like Wheeler, used the opportunity to further his love of history, and researching a topic like this has expanded his horizon.
"We know a lot about Southern lives, but I wanted to take the time to dive into the North and really discover some new things. It's a new discovery," Wheeler said. "This has taught me just to have an open mind, to do my research and you have to find that needle in a haystack. You have to be prepared to be let down but you need to learn to be open-minded."
The project was also an opportunity for both students to experience firsthand a world they knew very little about.
From airline travel to playing the role of tourist in a teeming metropolis like Boston, Sacks saw Wheeler and Bean bloom in ways she never imagined.
"Boston blew them away," she said. "They hadn't been exposed to much beyond Detroit and Michigan. The city felt so dynamic to them."
Both students are already considering turning their research this summer into future Elkin R. Isaac Student Research Symposium presentations next spring and possible Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity (FURSCA) projects.
And they have been indelibly changed by the trip. A visit to the New England Aquarium one Sunday afternoon piqued Bean's interest.
"Elijah walked away saying he wanted to be a marine biologist and Corey is thinking about library sciences," Sacks said. "The trip to Boston opened their eyes to a host of possibilities that they never realized existed."
Sacks said the seminar was everything she could have hoped it would be.
"I am absolutely thrilled with watching these students grow and embrace everything about their time in in a new city," Sacks said. "It's everything from traveling to Boston to the archival work. As a mentor, I could not be more pleased. I'm so incredibly grateful that they had this chance. It will really shape their choices moving forward. This was the right moment for the right students."