In 1976, President Geral Ford officially proclaimed February to be Black History Month in the United States. The connection between Black History and February extends back to the early 20th century. As the country approached the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 13th Amendment and the Constitutional abolition of slavery, there was a movement to officially recognize the contributions and achievements of African Americans in U.S. history. The second week of February was chosen because the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14) were observed during that week.
Even though February soon comes to an end, it’s always a good time to learn more about Lowell’s history so here are some links to local resources on Black History and Lowell.
The Lowell National Historical Park has a series of webpages documenting the anti-slavery movement in Lowell.
The “Visit Downtown Lowell” website has a virtual tour of Lowell’s Black History Trail:
The UMass Lowell Center for Lowell History has several pages on Black History in Lowell.
Here is the text of an exhibit brochure from 1993 called “Profiles in Courage: African-Americans in Lowell”
UMass Lowell also has an extensive set of webpages exploring racism and anti-racism in the United States:
There’s another page on “Black History and Culture from the UMass Lowell Archives:
For a great new book on the more recent experience of the Black residents of Lowell, order a copy of Hidden in Plain Sight: Stories of Black Lowell from Free Soil Arts Collective.
My recent review of Hidden in Plain Sight is here: https://richardhowe.com/2022/01/15/review-of-hidden-in-plain-sight/
Finally, here’s some information about Black History in Lowell that I posted last summer in honor of Juneteenth.
Harry “Bucky” Lew, born in Lowell in 1884, was the first African-American to play professional basketball.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached in Lowell on April 12, 1953, at the First United Baptist Church on Church Street. At the time, King was a doctoral student at Boston University.
Billie Holiday’s final public performance took place in Lowell on May 11, 1959, at the Flamingo on Merrimack Street. On May 31, Holiday collapsed in her New York City apartment. She remained in the hospital until she died on July 17, 1959, at age 44.
Walker Lewis Jr was Lowell barber who served in the US Navy during the Civil War. His great uncle, Quock Walker, was a slave living in Barre, Massachusetts, who challenged his enslaved status in court. His case reached the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1780, right after the state had adopted its Constitution. The SJC held that the words of the Massachusetts Constitution that “all men are born free and equal” meant what they said, so the Court abolished slavery in Massachusetts.
Nathaniel Booth was a Black man working as a barber in Lowell. He was also an escaped slave. When “slave catchers” sought Booth in Lowell in 1851 he fled to Canada. In his absence, Linus Child, the manager of the Boott Cotton Mill negotiated the price of Booth’s freedom, raised the money from the community, and notified Booth that it was safe to return to Lowell. Booth return to and remained in Lowell until his death in 1901.
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church on Merrimack Street was one of several places in Lowell that served as stops on the Underground Railroad. (The church’s first minister, Rev. Theodore Edson, was the president of the Lowell Anti-Slavery Society).
Theresa Garland Lew was the Salutatorian of the Lowell High class of 1912 and then graduated from the Lowell Normal School (which became Lowell State Teachers College and then University of Massachusetts Lowell), Lew was the first Black teacher hired by the Lowell Public Schools, teaching at the Bartlett School for 21 years.
In 1839, 53 kidnapped Africans overpowered and killed the crew of the Spanish ship Amistad which was transporting them to slavery in the Americas. The ship landed on Long Island and the Africans were tried for the murder of the crew. In finding the men not guilty, the U.S. Supreme Court held that they had been taken illegally and acted in self-defense. The Amistad defendants went on a speaking tour to raise money to pay for their passage back to Africa. One of the places they spoke at was St. Paul’s Methodist Church at 35 Warren Street in Lowell which is now the home of UTEC.
Barzillai Lew was a free Black man who served in the Comtinental Army throughout the American Revolution. After the war he settled in the section of Dracut that later became the Pawtucketville neighborhood of Lowell.
In 1946, a group of Black residents of Lowell including Harold Wingood, Samuel Crayton Sr., James Ward, Rev. Julius Mitchell, and Rev. Robert Smith formed the Merrimack Valley Branch of the NAACP. The charter included Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, and adjacent towns. Crayton served as the chapter’s first president.
Lowell High School (founded in 1831) was the first integrated and co-educational public high school in America.