Public Humanities: Migration, Chain Migration, and Black Flight in Post-War Hartford

Photo above: Esther Appiah ‘21, Ali Kara ‘20, and Dr. Fiona Vernal, West Indian Social Club.

This summer, Esther Appiah ‘21 and Ali Kara ‘20 have taken a deep dive into the field of public humanities with their community partners at the West Indian Social Club in Hartford and the West Indian Foundation. We visited the team on site with their community partner Dr. Fiona Vernal who is a board member of the West Indian Foundation and the West Indian Social Club.

Esther and Ali are working with Dr. Vernal to study settlement and housing among African American, Puerto Rican, and West Indian migrants in Post-War Hartford. The 1940s and 50s wartime labor needs brought thousands of migrants to Hartford, and West Indians in particular stood out for high home ownership rates, entrepreneurial endeavors, educational attainments, and eventual flight to the suburbs. When we met, Dr. Vernal said that unfortunately there are very few ways for the public to engage with this history except for a few times a year during the West Indian and Puerto Rican parades. As a means of allowing the community to create and engage with this knowlege, Esther and Ali have been working with Dr. Vernal on an exhibit that tracks migration, housing, and community organizing among African American, Puerto Rican, and West Indian migrants.

“The goal of this project is to think about people’s everyday lives. If you think about transnational migration, many of the reasons someone might come here from Jamaica, for example, are also the same reasons why someone would move from down South to the Northeast or out West– to find a better job or better education, to have better social conditions in terms of racial segregation, to join their families, to reunite with children or spouses — those are all the same kinds of motivations that people have for coming to the U.S. and I think it’s important for the public to be able to connect that kind of migration with internal flows of people in this country.” – Dr. Fiona Vernal

This summer, the team has had a unique opportunity to conduct oral history interviews and create an exhibit with Hartford residents involved in the #NoMoreSlumlords movement. Their goal is to tell the story of Hartford residents, the sense of community and pride they have as Hartford residents, and also situate that in terms of the housing issues, housing discrimination, eviction experiences, and subsequent tenants rights organizing that has happened. The exhibit will open October 22nd at Hartford Public Library.

“I think the biggest lesson we’ve had to learn so far is that it’s easy to learn about facts and history but [this experience allows us] to talk to people whose life history is far back enough that they were actually there… You don’t usually get to hear these stories if you don’t find a way to ask about them and get to the heart of their personal story. [This kind of work] it makes you curious, which I think is a really necessary skill as a human being. Dr. Fiona taught us that you continue to learn outside of school and I’m learning outside of school right now and I feel like this is the most rewarding learning I’ve done in a long time. It’s not just read and write, it’s read and write and then go do ahead do it and figure out how. You get to make mistakes and learn by doing it.” – Esther Appiah ‘21

Connecting exhibits and oral history collections with community organizing campaigns

Before one of Esther and Ali’s interviews with a #NoMoreSlumlords organizer, we discussed the importance of exhibits in preserving and celebrating successes in intense community organizing campaigns like this. The exhibit they are helping to create will celebrate the 3 year anniversary of the campaign, and the fact that it’s in the format of an exhibit is really important. In community organizing you often have public hearings, demonstrations or protests, press conferences, or meetings with city leaders, but an exhibit is none of those things.

An exhibit like this reminds you that everybody is an expert in their own life story, their own life history. That’s the power of oral history. So now the public will have an opportunity to step into this space and see Josh Serrano not just as a tenant leader or just as someone who is in public housing but as a really passionate, funny, Hartford young man, person who came of age in Hartford, a person of Puerto Rican ancestry, as a father, as a son, and it’s a very well rounded picture. You get to see how he honed those leadership skills and how he developed in his upbringing those kinds of speaking skills that made him a very charismatic and natural leader so that by the time he could step into this space as a resident leader, you have a much better understanding of the evolution of that. It’s not just a snapshot of his life, but you get to see his activism fits into his overall life.” – Dr. Fiona Vernal

An exhibit like what Esther and Ali are working on is a very different kind of space for storytelling and illustrates how these community campaigns and the people within them are so much deeper the photos and sound bites we often see in the organizing and advocacy world. 

“I hope that people will be able to see the exhibit empathize with others living in public housing and the issues they are dealing with– very serious issues– and once they build up that empathy they can take an active role in making change. I think that’s the most important part.” – Ali Kara

Learning New Digital Tools (because transcription is the worst part of oral history)

Esther, Ali, and Dr. Vernal all agreed that, “transcription is the worst part of oral history interviewing.” Dr. Vernal described how after a one or two hour oral history interview you’ve gotten a great story that leaves you exhausted and energized at the same time, but then you have to face writing a 30-40 page transcript. One of the biggest challenges in oral history is getting the transcripts done in a quick turnaround time– properly onboarding the interviews, completing the transcripts, indexing them, and then deciding how to share them with a community can take years. One of the learning experiences this PHC team had was trying out different digital tools such as Tableau for data collection and visualization, iPhone voice recorders for interviews, and Temi for transcriptions. This team, and many others praised the help of Mary Mahoney (the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Humanities at Trinity), who helped to remind them of the importance of lifelong learning in the public humanities field.

he Public Humanities Collaborative (PHC) is a summer research opportunity that brings together students, faculty, and individuals and organizations in Hartford to work on public humanities: the study of how people interpret stories of our human experience. PHC is a component of Trinity College’s Summer Research Programthat is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. To learn more, visit or contact Director of Community Learning