Past informs the present: David Ruggles Center designs curriculum on landmark anti-slavery community

  • Tom Goldscheider, a historian with the David Ruggles Center, holds the only known image of Ruggles, an abolitionist, publisher and writer who lived in Florence in the 1840s. Ruggles is the man in the center of the image, an editorial cartoon from the 1830s. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tom Goldscheider, a historian with the David Ruggles Center, points to a photograph of Lilly Library and the former Cosmian Hall in Florence. He has developed an interactive curriculum for students based on primary sources at the center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tom Goldscheider has led school groups and others on tours of the David Ruggles Center and nearby historical points of interest. He has now developed an interactive curriculum for students based on primary sources at the center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • This house at 191 Nonotuck St. in Florence was the home of Basil Dorsey, an African-American resident of Florence in the mid-1800s. It’s one of several historic places viewed on past tours led by Tom Goldscheider, a historian with the David Ruggles Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Goldscheider has developed an interactive curriculum for students based on primary sources at the David Ruggles Center. STAFF PHOTOs/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Goldscheider says the Florence of the 1840s features a unique chapter of history, offering important reference points to the current national discussion of race in America. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A portrait at the Ruggles Center of Gertrude and Charles Burleigh. Charles Burleigh, an ardent abolitionist, was based in Florence in the 1800s but toured the country to speak against slavery, earning a reputation as one of the best debaters of his time. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tom Goldscheider, a historian with the David Ruggles Center in Florence, has developed an interactive curriculm for students based on primary sources at the center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A “carde de visite” of Sojourner Truth that the noted abolitionist sold to raise money for her speaking tours. She is one of several people whose stories from 19th-century Florence are detailed in an interactive curriculum developed at the David Ruggles Center. Library of Congress 

  • A silk mill in Florence, circa 1840s, that members of the Northampton Association for Education and Industry ran as part of their communal organization. The David Ruggles Center is across the street from the original site of the mill. Image courtesy David Ruggles Center

Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2020

In the 1840s, a unique community grew up in a rural, mostly unsettled part of Northampton: a mix of white and African American families and residents whose numbers included not just committed abolitionists but people dedicated to genuine equality for all, regardless of race or sex.

What later became known as Florence was home then to the Northampton Association of Education and Industry (NAEI), a communal organization founded on principles of profit sharing, equality and non-sectarianism. The area also became a stop on the Underground Railroad and a home both to free Blacks and formerly enslaved people.

Sojourner Truth and David Ruggles, two of the most noted African American abolitionists, called Florence home for a time as well, and a regular visitor was Frederick Douglass, destined to become the most noted Black statesman of the 19th century. And by 1850, according to the Federal Census, 60 African Americans lived in Florence (and 150 in all of Northampton).

Now that history will get a fresh look through an interactive, online curriculum that’s been developed at the David Ruggles Center for History and Education (DRC) on Nonotuck Street in Florence. The all-volunteer staff at the Ruggles Center, which examines several aspects of life in Florence, Northampton and the Connecticut River Valley from that era, sees an opportunity to give students a means for linking local history to the larger story of America — and to current events.

“This is social history, and it’s also very relevant to what’s happening in the country right now,” said Tom Goldscheider, an independent historian and a member of the DRC General Committee. In a nod to the protests that have erupted nationwide this summer following the killing of African Americans by police, Goldscheider said, “We want to show students how people right in our backyard worked for change, to create a more equitable society.”

Education is not a new venture at the DRC, which this year is marking its 10th anniversary.

The center has hosted school groups and others for several years, combining presentations in the center and walking tours of nearby historical points of interest, such as the statue of Sojourner Truth. But Goldscheider, who has led most of those tours, says he became interested a few years ago in creating learning opportunities that “were less passive.”

The interactive curriculum, which includes information on 11 key people associated with the NAEI such as Ruggles and Truth, is mostly based on primary sources (edited down by Goldscheider) and a series of themed questions he has written about each person. All of that is designed to form a framework for students to write their own short studies of the person in question and of NAEI’s overall work.

“The idea is to make the students the historians and let them dig out what they want or think they need for their stories,” he said. “They’ll look at the same source material we do.”

The free program, designed for high school and middle school students, has been funded through a grant from Mass Humanities. Though not designed specifically for remote learning, it now lends itself well to the conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Goldscheider notes, since few groups currently make visits to the Ruggles Center.

Goldscheider had originally envisioned students, working with their teachers and in small groups of their own, using the information from the Ruggles Center website to devise their work ahead of time; then, during a visit to Florence, they would make oral presentations on selected figures from the NAEI at the appropriate historical sites (a presentation on Truth at her statue on Pine Street, for example).

With plans for public school this fall still uncertain, Goldscheider imagines he can either talk with teachers in person or on the phone to go over how the source material can be used, then later possibly meet in classes with students as a sort of “visiting scholar” to talk about the project. “We’ll be working with teachers on how we can go about this,” he said.

A rich history

Goldscheider and others associated with the Ruggles Center say this local chapter of history remains vital for its rarity: It was almost unheard of in the United States in the 1840s for whites to believe not just in the abolition of slavery but in full equality for African Americans and for women, as those in the small community of Florence pushed for.

As the declaration of the NAEI reads in part, “We are here to honor liberty and denounce slavery.”

Ousmane Power-Greene, a member of the DRC committee and a professor of African American history at Clark University in Worcester, suggests that when some African Americans arrived in Florence at that time, either via the Underground Railroad or through other means, they might well have felt that, as he put it, “‘This is a place where I can make a home’ — unlike so many other places in the United States then.”

The community became a haven for abolitionists and free thinkers who could face abuse elsewhere for their beliefs. Ruggles, for instance, born a free black in Connecticut in 1810, became active in the anti-slavery movement while living in New York City in the 1830s. He opened a bookstore and wrote and printed anti-slavery publications and for his trouble had his bookstore burned by a mob and was physically attacked. He escaped a few lynching attempts and once was nearly kidnapped and sent into slavery in the South.

Ruggles was also a conductor on the Underground Railroad; among the many people he helped was Frederick Douglass, during the latter’s escape from slavery in Maryland in 1838.

In failing health, Ruggles came to Florence in 1842 with the help of the abolitionist and writer Lydia Maria Child — author of the famous poem/song “Over the River and Through the Woods” — who was then living in New York but previously had been in Florence. He lived for a while with the NAEI, recovered his health to some degree, and became an inspiration to other African Americans in town, says Florence historian Steve Strimer, a co-founder of the Ruggles Center.

Among the other people celebrated at the center is Charles Burleigh, a leading speaker for the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) who, when he wasn’t on the lecture circuit, used Florence as a base. On that circuit, according to one account, he was often “mobbed and assaulted with over-ripe eggs. On one occasion, he wiped the mess from his clothes calmly, saying, ‘Friend, your arguments are unsound.’”

Strimer and Goldscheider say one sad note about the 1840s Florence community is the effect the federal Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, had on its African American residents (the act required law enforcement in free states to cooperate with Southerners pursuing runaway slaves in the North).

Strimer says Florence’s African American population dropped by about two-thirds over the next decade as many people moved away, likely to Canada (he recently traced two of the families to Ontario). There’s little evidence, he notes, that slave catchers came to this area, or that law enforcement here was inclined to cooperate with them, “so in retrospect, (people leaving) didn’t need to happen. But they just didn’t feel safe in staying.”

Power-Greene, the Clark University professor, says that’s long been the point for many African Americans “who feel out of place in many parts of America.” The Fugitive Slave Law was, in effect, “the racial profiling of the day,” he said. “If you were Black, you were suspect. And racial profiling is still happening, even today in Northampton.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. For more information on the David Ruggles Center and its interactive curriculum, visit davidrugglescenter.org.