With the arrival of Black History Month, the 2023 theme, “Black Resistance,” will certainly emphasize the standard bearers of freedom seekers. Most noticeable will be the attention devoted to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. There will also be discussions about the 1619 Project and the Critical Race Theory. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ attack on the teaching of the AP course in African American History will surely be debated.
Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, were two personalities that Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson honored in 1926 with his launching of Negro History Week. He selected the second week of February as the time of the annual celebration since it coincides with the birthdays of Douglass and Lincoln.
In an intriguing way, the writings of Woodson started before his call for the celebratory week, thus providing excellent references for study. His 1915 text, Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, set the stage for further exploration into the past, identifying African American scholars who existed during the time of enslaved Americans.
In other books that followed, including his co-authored 1922 text with Charles H. Wesley, The Negro in Our History, Woodson included references to black and white personalities and how their respective views intersected. Three years later, Woodson completed research for the monumental study, Free Negro heads of Families in the United States in 1830. It personalized African Americans in a way that placed them within nuclear family households and within a local historical context.
Ten years later, in 1935, Woodson wrote, The Story of the Negro Retold, which targeted both students and teachers, and expanded the discussion to include references to personalities of the international community of the African diaspora. In doing so, Woodson did not target “black against white,” nor “domestic vs. international” to tell the historical story of his people. He just told the truth about the racial crimes against his people as he saw it. But, his attention was not just limited to the latter; he showcased achievements against the odds.
Woodson’s writings set the stage for my own collection of rare books on this topic, which emerged from a dedicated effort utilizing historical research along with genealogy studies to place personalities within the local context. The sub-discipline emerged from the book-length manuscripts – historiographic genealogies – I prepared in 1992. The writings serve as the foundation for my collection, which over the years has expanded to more than 2,500 items.
Numerous first-edition writings by Woodson were among the first volumes included in what is now known as the Matthews Collection for the Preservation of African American Freedom Journey Classics Collection because they identified other important texts by African Americans that were written before Woodson’s time. Other first-edition writings by British and American abolitionists are included, some extending back into the mid-1700s, while others were written post-Civil War.
The Collection supported the work of the United States Colored Troops Institute for Local History and Family Research during the 1997-98 academic year. The founding of the USCT Institute emerged from the Symposium of Delaware and Otsego Counties, New York, which was co-sponsored by Hartwick College, SUNY Oneonta, the City of Oneonta, and other local organizations. New York Governor George E. Pataki issued a proclamation honoring the symposium as a commemoration of USCT from New York who served during the Civil War. Hartwick College published my book, Honoring New York’s Forgotten Soldiers: African Americans of the Civil War in which a sampling of the 4,125 soldiers were identified by name, rank, regiment, and home community.
The publication was funded by the Upper Catskill Community Council of the Arts, Inc., with the stipulation that copies be distributed free of charge to libraries throughout New York State. Fast forward to 2011, when the National Park Service selected the United States Colored Troops Institute at Hartwick College as a (research) facility of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
The latter was made possible with the support of the Matthews Collection and especially the cooperative research of Leigh Eckmair of Gilbertsville, Hugh MacDougall of Cooperstown, and Shirley Houck of Delhi, who combined their efforts documenting local abolitionists and USCT. Their findings supplemented my earlier research findings and my student-advised group, the Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project.
Today, the Matthews Collection supports:
Freedom Journey – Researching, preserving, and commemorating Black Revolutionary War Patriots, Anti-Slavery Sentiments, Abolitionist Actions, Underground Railroad, USCT, and the Civil War.
Local History and Family Research – Studying primary documents, census indices, and genealogical pursuits.
Post-Reconstruction Through the Korean War – Following the Freedom Journey through Reconstruction into military history during the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.
African American History – Researching, collecting, and studying the history of Africans in America, inclusive of the United States, Canada, and Caribbean countries.
After many years of research, I also prepared a presentation in order to share Oneonta and the greater Otsego County’s involvement in supporting freedom seekers, “The Underground Railroad Along the Susquehanna River: The Freedom Journey from Harford County, MD to Otsego County, NY.”
That presentation has grown to 116 pages – a compilation of all of the local findings being prepared for future sharing and preservation with three primary purposes.
First is the documented Underground Railroad of Oneonta and the greater Otsego County. This includes cross-referenced library books at local research libraries and in the Matthews Collection. This writing reveals how Oneonta and the greater Otsego County fit within the historical context of the Underground Railroad, as revealed by books written in an earlier time period.
Second is a historical chronology of the African American Freedom Journey by dates and events as revealed by a listing of rare books in the Matthews Collection. It is anticipated that the holdings within the Matthews Collection will be brought to life through future articles that share a broad view of Black History as American History retold with the African diaspora perspective.
Third is a chronology of actions over 25 years with the United States Colored Troops Institute for Local History and Family Research at Hartwick College.
You can find the updated presentation in pdf form here.
Illustration: Water Color Honoring Harry Bradshaw Matthews, Class of 1974, by Xiaoyi Zeng, 2017, a visiual student artist at SUNY Oneonta.