ED Servant Papers’ New Home

I could no longer be called a toddler when I became a New Englander. My older brother and I were both quite young when we moved with our parents to the Elm City – the place we would come to affectionately call N’Haven.

This small city was central to my father’s territory as the union’s PAC or political action committee director for New England and, in those first years, New York west of the Hudson. We always called it The Union but what we meant was the AFL-CIO which our father wished had the militancy of his beloved CIO.

Connecticut was a hive of industry. Stout chimneys filled the Bridgeport skyline and up the Naugatuck River brass factories lined its banks. But our town, when you walked to Union Station from The Green, smelled of rubber from the Seamless plant on Daggett Street. When our father drove us north into the countryside I pressed my nose against the window studying the barns with vertical slats. Dark inside, the barns held no animals but bundles of drying tobacco hanging from its rafters. Stark contrast to yards of white fabric billowing like waves across the surrounding fields where that tobacco had grown.

My father grew up in a country town about eighty miles west of New Haven where berries of all kinds were grown. Trains were outfitted with special “strawberry cars” to bring the fruit gently to market. The first transformative event of his childhood was being taken by his father to hear the great socialist orator Eugene Victor Debs who had, not long before this, run for president from a jail cell.

Teaching us how to connect all those those dots, as Debs had done for his followers, became my father’s earnest project. Thinking bigger. It was as if my brother and I had to carry that torch on Debs’ behalf, or that of our socialist grandfather’s, into 21st century Connecticut.

Susan Howe wrote that you turn with a sort of ferocity to your native place. Or maybe she said it of Emily Dickinson who had lived eighty miles north of both Susan and I in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts.

I did not recognize this as my native place until I moved three thousand miles away and began deeply reading the writings of this 19th century New England poet and researching the details of Emily Dickinson’s work life.

What came next for me – in the fertile artistic incubator that was San Francisco’s Mission District of the 70s, 80s & 90s that I also call home – were poems, artists’ books, performances, art installations and a published book.

I was examining the relationship between silence & voice and the numerous ways Emily Dickinson’s life was entwined with poor women and men of different races and ethnic backgrounds from her own – but who shared the private spaces of her home workshop.

Now in boxes in my cellar there are materials documenting the writing of those books and performance and installations s as well as the lives of the women and men who worked in the Dickinson household.  There too are the papers of my father who spent four or five decades as a civil rights activist and labor agitator.

These papers I reasoned needed a home so they could be of use to someone putting together more and different stories of New England and of social change.

Happily I’ve found that place in Amherst, Massachusetts.

This year my materials and those of my father will move from my San Francisco cellar archive to the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Special Collections. They’ll be housed with other materials about social change and New England that form two parts of the collecting strategy of the UMass archive which holds the papers of Great Barrington’s Du Bois at its heart.

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