How do historians uncover the past? Primary sources -- original documents or materials created during the time being studied and first-hand accounts -- form the building blocks for researching history. From newspapers, diaries, photographs, letters, and records such as business ledgers, church registers, or court documents, these sources provide a window into the past through the lens of the people who created them. But there is more to these materials than what is on the surface, and it is the historian’s job to uncover and interpret the meaning of these materials.
This online exhibit encourages viewers to step into the role of historian as we research the lives of historical Black attendees at King’s Chapel. Throughout American history, Black voices and stories have historically been relegated to the margins, overshadowed by narratives of white men and intentionally buried in the archives due to larger systems of oppression and racial injustice. The reliance on written documentation itself to the field of history grew out of these systems. In previous centuries, enslavers intentionally attempted to prevent persons of color from learning literacy, as a means of maintaining the status quo. Free and enslaved Black individuals and communities have resisted systems of oppression throughout American history, and communities have preserved their history on their own terms. Even when written records did exist, the writings of white men were carefully preserved by institutions and families, on the assumption that those records would have significance, while records created by women or persons of color were lost or destroyed, under the racist and sexist assumptions of the day.
Today, however, more historians are reexamining existing archives with fresh eyes, and uncovering the stories of Black men and women and incorporating a wider array of sources into their work. Among the documents contained in our archives are the church's vital registers -- the record of baptisms, marriages, funerals, and pew ownerships. What can we learn from these archives of the Black men, women and children who either worshipped at or were connected to King’s Chapel in the 18th and 19th centuries?