Connected \\ May 10, 2022

Graduate students dig into the papers of historic youth activists to tell the story of equal school rights in Salem

When white Salem residents successfully petitioned for the removal of the, “Coloured Children [that] have lately been admitted to the High Schools for Girls,” in 1834, Sarah Parker Remond, at the age of 10, and her sister, were expelled from the East School for Girls. This petition officially ushered in a racially separate public school system in Salem, and the city’s Black residents immediately began their nearly decade long fight for equal school rights. Youth activists, like Robert Morris and Sarah Parker Remond, led this movement that would eventually ignite change, locally, and then for the rest of the country.

Photographer in the United States, Sarah Parker Remond, about 1865, Albumen print. Gift of Miss Cecelia R. Babcock. Phillips Library, Salem Streets Collection, PH322. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Photographer in the United States, Sarah Parker Remond, about 1865, Albumen print. Gift of Miss Cecelia R. Babcock. Phillips Library, Salem Streets Collection, PH322. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum.


In the fall of 2021, our professor, Dr. Kabria Baumgartner, reached out to us about working with her and the staff at the Phillips Library and PEM on this exhibition, now titled Let None Be Excluded: The Origins of Equal School Rights in Salem. We, of course, accepted. As Public History graduate students at Northeastern University, we were excited to be a part of the telling of this important history and gain valuable experience in exhibition development.

In our role on the curatorial team, led by Dr. Baumgartner and Dan Lipcan, the Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library, we discovered transcribing 19th- century handwritten documents to be one of our biggest contributions. While the dynamic interaction with the documents made possible by their digitization helped make the handwriting more legible, the several rounds of rereading and editing made this work tedious. However, interacting with these primary sources so intimately was an amazing way to engage with some of the historical actors. We tackled two speeches by the prominent African American activist and lawyer Robert Morris, and two opinions given by then Salem town solicitor, Leverett Saltonstall. Each document came with its own challenges and insights. While the Morris documents were quite long, they revealed an extremely intelligent mind who referenced countless figures, literature and ideas in his arguments against the evils of segregation both in schools and other U.S. institutions. Saltonstall’s difficult handwriting required a great many hours to decipher, however, the reading and subsequent transcription of his opinions revealed the earliest known conceptualization of the separate but equal doctrine in his 1831 opinion.

Unknown artist, Robert Morris, mid 19th century photograph. © Social Law Library, Boston, MA

Unknown artist, Robert Morris, mid 19th century photograph. © Social Law Library, Boston.

Despite encountering other challenges in our transcription work, like deciphering 19th-century names, the individual and collective stories began to emerge as we became increasingly immersed in this history. Besides Morris and Saltonstall, we also came to know individuals including Clarissa Lawrence and William B. Dodge. Beginning in 1807, Clarissa Lawrence, formerly Chole Minns, taught at the African school where she instilled in her students a thirst for knowledge. Several years after Lawrence’s retirement, William B. Dodge, a renowned teacher, was appointed principal of the Colored School established as a result of the Salem School Committee's decision to establish racially separate public schools. Through our work on the exhibition script, we were able to help weave their stories, and others, into a larger narrative. It was amazing to see how this local story had such massive ramifications on law making and legislation throughout the nation. Capturing and curating this story for the public was a difficult feat, but collaboration between different professionals and teams at PEM made it possible and enjoyable.

Payment to Judith (J. D.) Dodge for instructing the Primary Department of the Colored School, July 5, 1838. EC 35, Box 27, Folder 1, Item 19. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.

Payment to Judith (J. D.) Dodge for instructing the Primary Department of the Colored School, July 5, 1838. EC 35, Box 27, Folder 1, Item 19. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.


We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend numerous virtual meetings and in-person site visits with many PEM staff members. While working with teams including curatorial, marketing, education and civic engagement, and design, we observed the crucial work that each of these teams has done to build and support this important exhibition. This was especially true of Hannah Silbert, the exhibit project manager, who had the herculean task of keeping everyone both organized and on schedule. Learning about PEM’s process through these meetings was especially insightful for both of us after having largely worked at much smaller cultural heritage organizations where building out an exhibition involves only a staff member or two. In other words, Let None Be Excluded, is the incredible product of many passionate collaborators.

Plan of the City of Salem, 1836, in The Salem Directory, and City Register (detail), 1837, Phillips Library, gift of Henry Wheatland.

Plan of the City of Salem, 1836, in The Salem Directory, and City Register (detail), 1837, Phillips Library, gift of Henry Wheatland.


It’s been amazing to see this important part of Salem history go from being moments in scattered documents to being fully realized for the public. Learning about this period and movement was an important reminder of the power of youth activism and voices in igniting change. We are excited for others, particularly youth, to discover these stories.

Clare Nelson

Clare Nelson in the exhibition Let None Be Excluded. Courtesy photo.


Clare Nelson

Clare Nelson is a Public History MA student earning a certificate in Digital Humanities at Northeastern University. She is particularly interested in museum exhibition development and visitor experience. In the Spring of 2022, she will begin her position as the curatorial fellow at Old Sturbridge Village.

Paul Martin

Paul Martin is a Public History MA student at Northeastern University. He received his BA from Roanoke College where he majored in History and Religious Studies. Paul is interested in museum studies, the Digital Humanities and the process behind exhibition curation.


TOP IMAGE: The American Anti-Slavery Society, The American Anti-Slavery Almanac, for 1839, (detail). Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.


On view in the James Duncan Phillips Trust Gallery, Let None Be Excluded: The Origins of Equal School Rights in Salem features documents that capture the impassioned activism of young Black leaders, including Sarah Parker Remond and Robert Morris. These youth, as agents in their own education, sparked the national equal school rights movement by tethering education rights to democracy and racial equality. Co-curator Kabria Baumgartner, who was a Malamy Fellow at the Phillips Library in 2018, wrote about the equal school rights movement in her recent book, In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America (New York University Press, 2019. Available in paperback through the PEM Shop). The exhibition is on view at PEM from April 23, 2022 to April 23, 2023. Follow along on social media using #PEMLetNone.

ENHANCED DIGITAL ACCESS TO LIBRARY DOCUMENTS

PEM has teamed up with Quartex to share digital archival collections that celebrate and commemorate unique chapters in the history of Salem, Massachusetts. Concurrent to the opening of Let None Be Excluded, PEM will launch a collection of digitized exhibition documents and related materials for visitors to dig more deeply into the topic. The collection is now live at the following link: pem.org/letnone.

The Phillips Library Digital Collections portal will be continually updated to include additional archival collections such as the Remond Family Papers, which contain letters and documents concerning the Black businessmen and anti-slavery campaigners John Remond and his son Charles Lenox Remond.

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