Scarlett Hoey

Colonial Worcester County and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

materials funded: film, large-format camera tripod, film holders, luster print paper

The traditional land of the Nipmuc Nation, known as Worcester since its incorporation in 1722, is a place I have called home since 2015. However, historically for some people living in Worcester County, this was not a choice. The early settlements of Massachusetts have a history of slavery and indentured servitude through participation, trade, and commerce. The economy was built using enslaved Black and Indigenous labor. Colonial Worcester and the County cannot be separated from this history.

As the City of Worcester celebrates 300 years, Tercentenary 2022, how do we change the way the history of Worcester and Worcester County are taught to acknowledge the ties to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade? With this question in mind, I explored the history of the County using a large format 4x5 camera and primary sources (gravestones, vital records, church records, wills, bills of sale, freedom seeker ads, slave narratives, and account books) to deepen my own knowledge of the complicity of colonial Worcester County with the enslaved economy. 

While this project focuses on the 17th and 18th century, the County must also grapple with the fact that our 19th century industrial systems (some lead by white abolitionist individuals) profited from enslaved Black Southern labor. The many local shoe and hat businesses sold their goods to oppressive systems and Southern plantations while growing wealth in Worcester County towns and prominent residents. 

In his TED Talk, Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Associate Professor of History at Ohio State University, cites Regie Gibson, a literary performer and educator, when he asks “Why do we avoid confronting hard history?” He says, “Gibson had the truth of it when he said that our problem as Americans is we actually hate history. What we love is nostalgia. Nostalgia. We love stories about the past that make us feel comfortable about the present. But we can't keep doing this.”

How do we ensure what we are teaching in schools is history and not nostalgia? How can we encompass all the perspectives and sit with the complexity and discomfort of our own local history?


About the artist

Scarlett Hoey (b. 1990) is a photographer living and working in Worcester, Massachusetts. She received a BFA in Photography and Art History from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Born in Brisbane, Australia, and raised outside of Boston, USA, her life straddles the two cultures. She uses a large format camera to create photographs that explore the topics of people, identity, and history. 

She is inspired by the work of Tracey Moffatt, Titus Kaphar, Kara Walker, Mark Klett, Nona Faustine, Jill Ker Conway, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun. When she is not photographing, you can find her wandering halls of galleries, historic homes, museums, and cemeteries.


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