Selected Events in Worcester 's African American Community, 1886
by Kathryn Mahoney and Jacqui McEttrick

African American Home

A compilation of stories from The Boston Advocate reproduced what might be today be referred to as the “Community News” section of a regional weekly newspaper. Together, the stories provide insight into what was occurring in the black Worcester in the year 1886, announcing or recapping church, social, recreational and fraternal events and by informing readers of what was happening with their neighbors. The stories have no author listed, but the author was certainly a male resident of Worcester , serving as a correspondent, reporting weekly the goings-on of his community. These stories are also clearly written for residents of Worcester or anyone people with ties to the city, either because they used to live there or have family and friends who do. At the same time, along with columns from other communities throughout New England , Worcester stories kept an African American readership aware of events and activities at Boston , Providence , Springfield , Hartford , New Haven , Fitchburg and other locations.

At the time of their publication, newspaper items like these were a way for residents to keep abreast of coming events or to hear about a particular event that they were not able to attend. These clippings were also a means of identifying positions of community leaders (Reverends Whaley and Biddle, both Worcester pastors, are mentioned several times, as are the diarist Amos Webber and slave narrative author Isaac Mason). For a current reader, however, these brief newspaper stories are an important window for seeing what this Worcester community valued (valued in the sense that they deemed these events and people worthy of publication). In the forty items selected in the compilation, the single most important institution for the black Worcester community was the church. Indeed, fully twenty-eight news items relate to a church event or leader (AME Zion, Bethel and Mt. Olivet churches are each cited numerous times). The clippings also reveal the importance of fraternal organizations. In particular, the Mt. Zion Commandery, No. 5, Knights Templar and the Odd Fellows are mentioned more than once.

The church was a community of believers who came together to share their faith (as evidenced by Rev. Eli Biddle’s series of lectures in November 1886 “on vital Biblical questions”) and also to share company and companionship (as evidenced by the events of the “Rainbow Festival” and Christmas tree party held during the Christmas season). The newspaper selections also mention a number of other organizations that provided members with fellowship men and women with similar interests or background (for example, the community service group Sixteen Associates, the Daughters of Conference and the Odd Fellows, a group dedicated to assisting members of the community while upholding a code of proper moral conduct). Regardless of their individual agendas, each of these organizations allowed members to fraternize with other members and form relationships that extended beyond the meeting hall. Many of these organizations also shaped the larger black community’s response to politics and politicians, as well as to events in Worcester .

That this compilation consists of newspaper clippings reveals much about American society and technology at the time and how they affected Worcester . The years following the Civil War were a time of great change for American publishing and journalism. Indeed, between 1870 and 1890, the distribution of daily newspapers increased nearly ninefold and began to cater to mass audiences. The spread of newspapers to larger sections of society allowed for items such as those in this document to be included and read. It is difficult to imagine that before the Civil War a similar collection of new items concerning African-Americans and/or stories concerning mundane events of a small group within a small city could be published. But in 1886, there was an African American audience for the type of news in this document and a means for producing it.

Many of the individual news items included in the compilation also confirm that Worcester ’s black community, small as it was, was attuned in to larger national issues. One issue, for example, that appears frequently is temperance. The desire to eliminate alcohol from American life was certainly not new in the 1880s, but opposition to alcohol experienced a revival during the Gilded Age as many associated alcoholism with other social problems such as poverty and domestic violence. Black residents of Worcester listened to sermons delivered by national temperance advocates such as Reverend Hugh Montgomery and looked at charts drawn up by church leaders like Reverend Biddle that illustrated “The Steps from the Social Wine Glass to Destruction”. And, in this period, several black temperance groups formed at Worcester .

While the compilation provides many answers regarding the structure and values of Worcester’s black community during the Gilded Age,it also raises many questions, most arising from what is not reported in The Boston Advocate rather than what is. For example, why there is so little reference to the more negative effects of the industrial age? The 1880s saw creation of labor organizations such as the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor with considerable political activism among working men and women. Yet there is no mention of these or any other labor/union groups, even though a significant portion of Worcester ’s black community were laborers. There is also little information about politics and the political activity of Worcester ’s black community when it is known that black residents were involved in city and state politics.

In spite of the questions this document raises (or perhaps because it raises questions), the selected events from 1886, like the overview derived from the Worcester House Directory is an important and useful source for seeing how the city’s blacks experienced a part of the Gilded Age. Together, these documents highlight an African American community composed of individuals in a variety of occupations and living arrangements who unite in church, fraternal, social and recreational organizations. As a small black community, these links maintain and strengthen values and help forge an emerging identity at a time of great change for all Americans.