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Moving forward, looking back

Local author writes historical tour guide of state’s black sites

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Moving forward, looking back
Exploring the Legacy: People and places of significance book (Photo: Celina Colby)

“African American Heritage in Massachusetts” by Rosalyn D. Elder is the tour guide history lessons everywhere have been missing. Organized by town and region, the book brings the reader on a journey through African American history in the state. Elder says, “All of our history needs to be told. Given contemporary events, it’s especially important to showcase the contributions of African Americans.”

Author: Celina ColbyExploring the Legacy: People and places of significance book

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To purchase “African American Heritage in Massachusetts,” visit:

The structure of the book, like a travel guide, makes the information digestible and easy to access. Bite-sized stories about locations and people intermingle with maps, photographs and extras like the recipe for Hard Tack Bread that appears in the Hyde Park section.

The book is available for purchase at the Museum of African American History on Joy Street, the Old South Meeting House Gift Shop and Porter Square Books in Cambridge. It can also be found at the Central and Mattapan branches of the Boston Public Library.

In her research, Elder found some wonderful, unexpected stories. In Medford, Massachusetts in 1783, Belinda Sutton sued for reparations for 50 years of uncompensated work for the Royall household. She was awarded 15 pounds, 12 shillings in damages, to be paid annually. This was 80 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the Jamaica Plain section, Elder writes about the African American Master Artists in Residence Program (AAMARP). Northeastern University’s Department of African Studies has sponsored the program since 1977. To this day it provides studio spaces, lectures and exhibitions to members.

The Piano Factory and Gallery in the South End is another landmark that remains active in the contemporary art world. In 1854 it was the largest piano factory in the nation and in the 1980s it was renovated into artist studios and exhibition space. Elder notes artists Paul Goodnight and Milton Derr as creators with studios in the building. Now called Piano Craft Gallery, its exhibition space displays new work every month.

The Roxbury section of the book has a substantial piece devoted to Elma Lewis, founder of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. She is historically significant as a pioneer of black creative spaces. Lewis’ work also has influenced Alvin Ailey’s celebration of 50 years performing in Boston. The group paid homage to her in their panel discussion in December 2017. Her love of dance also inspired the Revelations dance workshops Alvin Ailey will be hosting Feb. 24 at The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center.

The weaving of history and current culture makes the book both referentially informative and a contemporary guide. It also sheds light on how much the past informs the presents. Society moves forward by looking back, and “African American Heritage in Massachusetts” lets you do both.