Hidden in Plain Sight: Stories of Black Lowell is a collection of interviews of 27 Black people who have lived or worked in Lowell over the past few decades. Produced by Free Soil Arts Collective, the book is superbly designed and is illustrated with vibrant photos of the speakers. The interviews were conducted by Christa Brown of Free Soil and Masada Jones of The Kindred Project.
In her forward to the book, Christa observes that the stories of Black people in Lowell have mostly been omitted from our history books and school curriculums and that this book is an attempt to remedy that. It succeeds in that attempt and does much more.
Black people have been in Lowell for longer than there has been a Lowell. For example, Barzillai Lew, who owned a home in Pawtucketville and is buried there (in Clay Pit Cemetery), fought in the American Revolution, and spent the rest of his life here. Yet little is known about him and I know of no monument erected in his honor.
There is much more about the experience of Black people in Lowell that deserves closer attention not the least of which is the active role played by that community in the pre-Civil War fight against slavery. But the words I just wrote – “it deserves telling” – illustrates the problem highlighted by this book. I should have been able to write, “it has already been told in great detail” but that’s not the case.
One of the great successes of Hidden in Plain Sight is that the recited interviews subtly touch upon the structural forces that have kept those stories from being equitably told. An example can be found in the comments of Jessica C. Price who came to Lowell at age 5 and said about her experience in the Lowell schools:
I also want to see more Black leadership within the community, particularly in the school system. Growing up, I would have loved having more Black guidance counselors to talk to that would help me navigate my future. We didn’t have many people that look like us in school, so it would’ve been nice to have that. Even the Black Unity Club was run by a white man. I went to the club a handful of times and I just felt that the knowledge that he was teaching us was very basic. It would have ben great for us to learn the things that we know now. We could’ve benefited from seeing more Black faces, people just like us that we can relate to and unwind and let them know, ‘Hey, I’m having a rough day because . . .’ and they could relate. I felt like they did the very bare minimum for us to be seen. I think it was like, ‘Well, we’ll give them a space, let them hang out. They’ll be fine.’ I’ve talked to a few other people in the area and they felt this very same way.
Another success of the book is the way it synthesizes the seemingly diverse subgroups that makeup the Black community of Lowell. Some Black residents have centuries-old roots in the United States, others come from the Caribbean and Central America, and still others were born in Africa and came here for higher education and stayed. An outsider naturally wonders how the different groups all fit together.
In addressing this issue, the book uses the “show don’t tell” approach by letting the individual stories create a collage of different experiences that create a beautiful picture of what the late Yale history professor Robert Thompson called the “Black Atlantic” which is a term Thompson used to show the close connections seen in the Black cultures of Africa and the Americas.
To illustrate how that works in the book, here’s a list of the interviewees and their backgrounds:
- Diamond Asaney – of Jamaican heritage, came to Lowell from Methuen in 2005.
- Gwendolyn Lanier – an artist trained at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts whose mother moved to Lowell while Gwendolyn was in college.
- Maritza Grooms – born in Lowell but has moved between Lowell and Boston since then.
- Corey Robinson – born and raised in Lowell with roots in Alabama and Mississippi. Now a Lowell City Councilor.
- Veronica Holmes – originally from Jamaica but lived around New England before settling in Lowell.
- Sam Stevquoah – born in Lowell of parents from Liberia and Ghana.
- Brian Chapman – born and raised in Lowell; son of Wilda.
- Wilda Chapman – came to Lowell in 1955 to join sister; stayed and raised her family here.
- Charmane Lucas – born and raised in Lowell; mother came here from American South when she was 17.
- Cinamon Blair – grew up in Western Mass but after grad school was hired by UMass Lowell and moved here.
- Terri Morris – when she was a child, family moved here from Georgia.
- Jessica C. Price – Moved to Lowell at age 5.
- Dorothy “Dot” Hardin – came to Lowell from the American South fifty years ago.
- Ivy Ngugi – born in Kenya, came to US in 2008, lives in Dracut but spends a lot of time in Lowell.
- Naychelle Gandia – born and raised in Lowell. Grandparents came here from American South.
- Raysam Donhoh-Halm – born and raised in Lowell. Parents came here from Africa.
- Jacquelynn Coles – born and raised in upstate New York. Now lives in Lowell.
- Enid Rocha – came to Lowell from Indiana in 1967; worked in Lowell schools until retirement.
- James Mitchell – family moved to Lowell from Georgia when he was six. Has lived here since.
- Masada Jones – born and raised in Lowell. Parents have roots in American South.
- Christa Brown – born and raised in Haverhill; as a child visited family in Lowell; moved here in 2013.
- Kesiah Bascom – moved to Lowell from Boston seven years ago.
- Lorraine Farmer – moved to Lowell as a child in 1960s when parents divorced (father in Army; mother from England).
- Lura Smith – born and raised in New Orleans. Came to Lowell by way of New Jersey to work at Middlesex Community College.
- Bobby Tugbiyele – Born and raised in New York City. Parents from Nigeria. Came here in 2001 for UMass Lowell and has stayed.
- Aleksandra Tugbiyele – From Worcester but came to UMass Lowell and stayed.
- Valerie Malbory – Came to Lowell from Florida at age 14 with mother, the late Birdie Malbory, a Lowell community organizer and city council candidate.
A brief though important section of the book explores the Black experience with Urban Renewal in Lowell. That federally funded program demolished several existing neighborhoods in the city without due regard to the people who already lived there. This (mostly) 1950s/1960s phenomenon is very much neglected in the study of Lowell’s history and the attention that has been paid has focused on the experience of the Franco Americans in Little Canada and the Greek experience with the North Common Village. However, a neighborhood that had a large cluster of Black families, Hale Howard, was also razed in Urban Renewal, scattering those families across the city and fragmenting the close community that existed there. Although not strictly part of Urban Renewal, more recent policy changes at the Lowell Housing Authority’s Bishop Markham facility and the demolition of its Julian Steele development had an identical effect on Black families.
Hidden in Plain Sight may be purchased on the Greater Lowell Community Foundation website.
There is also a companion exhibit on display at the Lowell National Historical Park visitor center at 246 Market Street in Lowell. (See photos of the exhibit below).