The life and death of William S. Bullard

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Learning more about the life and death of William S. Bullard, the photographer, allows Janette and I to add one more piece to the century old puzzle that we are constructing.  Having spent a number of  days walking cemetery grounds in Worcester, MA in search of the final resting place for some of the people of color that we have been studying, it was a slight deviation of research today as I drove to Putnam, CT to find the grave of their photographer William S. Bullard.  William committed suicide in 1918 very shortly after the death of his mother, Ellen (Barrett) Bullard.  Records indicated that he was buried next to his mother at Putnam Heights Cemetery and that is exactly where a fellow researcher, Katie Richards, and I found him.

There  was much more to learn this day, however, as we observed a small gravestone next to his and his mother’s.  On one side of this tiny stone was the word “Georgie” and on the other  side was “George B. son of C.E. and E.M. Bullard, Died Mar. 25, 1876 aged 11 ms 16 ds”.  There it was: one critical part of William’s family puzzle.  We have one glass negative of an early tintype photo that shows William’s parents, Charles and Ellen, surrounded by six youngsters, all boys.  All our investigations, however, could only account for 5 boys about whom there was much information and here was the answer: the oldest son, George, died in infancy and never made it to the 1880 Census.  We had thought for the past year that William, born in 1876, was the eldest son.  While this may seem to be of small consequence it is another “piece of the puzzle” that allows us to look back 100+ years at an portrait that is gradually bringing into focus the life and family of this unknown itinerant white photographer who, for reasons unknown at this time, captured unique and dignified images of people of color in his community.

We have located two grandchildren of William’s brother Marcus.  A trip to visit with these two very elderly ladies is in the planning stage and will be be reported in this blog after the visit.  They may have family stories to share that could possibly give us some insight into William’s life but if not we surely have many photos of their father and grandparents that will be new to them.  These kind of visits with descendants make all the work so very meaningful.

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Clark Students Add New Findings!

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Some members of  my Public History class

Some members of my Public History class

Hist288 (2)

This past semester, students in History 288/388 Public History seminar at Clark University did an outstanding job researching William Bullard’s photos of Worcester’s people of color.  At the start of the semester, each student chose a photograph to research. Frank Morrill made prints for each student and was “on call”  all semester, attending class and fielding numerous email queries. In addition to my guidance through genealogical and other on-line resources (they soon were teaching ME about on-line sources!), the students participated in workshops conducted by two nationally-known historians. Maureen Taylor, “the nation’s foremost photo detective,” according to The Wall Street Journal,  presented a workshop on how to read historic photographs for clues. Historian Scot French of the University of Central Florida, a pioneer in the field of digital history, shared his expertise with us, particularly the wonders of digital mapping, as well as his experiences working with the Holsinger Collection. (Rufus Holsinger of Charlottesville, VA,  was a contemporary of William Bullard, also a white photographer with a large black clientele.) Librarian Joy Hennig of the Worcester Public Library guided us through the many rich resources of the Worcester Room, which the students put to good use.

The students embraced their research with great dedication. Having the names and faces of people in the past with the goal of telling their stories ignited a passion for historical research.  As one of them put it, “I felt a real responsibility to them.”   Students experienced both the frustration and joy of research.  As one wrote in her final report, “Research is a vulnerable experience.  You can put so much of yourself into it and end up with very little or nothing to show for it.”  Her ultimate conclusion: “Dead ends happen, but you gotta move on.”

By moving on and displaying a great deal of grit and determination, they came up with some truly significant findings–and many leads to follow up.  While I can’t include all of their findings here, I will list some highlights:

  • Zach Richall, who researched the photo of Solomon Pierce, found out that Solomon was named for his grandfather, who enlisted in the Massachusetts 54th at the age of 42, and was the oldest man in that famous Civil War regiment. Solomon’s uncles also fought along side their father, with Harrison killed during the 54th’s assault on Fort Wagner.
  • Rosanna Cruz-Solla documented the involvement of Eugene Shepard in the Raymond Rifles, a “colored militia unit” in Worcester.
  • Zena Wolf researched the Native American roots of the Johnson family and used the 1859 Earl Report to discover more about the family “and the way Native Americans were seen in society and through the law.”
  • Corrine Jachelski explored several promising mapping options for the project and constructed some sample maps that incorporated historic photos of the Beaver Brook neighborhood and with the current neighborhood, providing a view of “then” and “now.”
  • Ben Davis sketched out the context of Reuben Griffin’s service with the Massachusetts Sixth Regiment in the Spanish-American War.
  • Gabby Seligman uncovered information about the life of D.T. Oswell, an accomplished music teacher,  orchestra leader, and barber.
  • Sarah Salzman, piecing together some fragmentary evidence, came up with a compelling theory about the identity of “George Ward”, who has been a mystery to us.
  • The “Perkins Working Group”–Eliza Lawrence, Alex Jeannotte, and Alicija Podbielska–while individually researching Martha, Rose and her brothers, and Anna Perkins, respectively– worked cooperatively on the extended Perkins family and came up with a treasure trove of information about them. We learned, for example, that both Isaac and Martha (Patsy) had their bodies returned for burial in Camden, SC, reflecting the long-term family ties to their ancestral land; that Edward was the pioneer in leading many family members to Worcester from Camden, and first appears in the City Directory in 1880; that Rose returned to Camden to care for her aged father, who died in 1912 at age 110.  Through their hard work we have been able to untangle the family relationships in the extended Perkins family and to tease out more of their fascinating story, from slavery  and emancipation in South Carolina, through Reconstruction and the loss of their land there, to migration to Worcester.

One of the students summarized her experience in her final report: “Though the research process can be so stressful and tedious, it is one of those things that we should all do at some point. In the midst of the madness, it is hard to fully see all of your research gains.  I obviously did not  find as much as I was hoping to find, but I can really say that this research has impacted me a lot and has taught me more in a semester than the hours of slides and lectures I see and hear in a year.”

Thanks to all of my students in History 288/388 Public History for your many contributions!