Using Digital History at Boston College High School to Map the "New Bostonians"
By David Brandon Dennis, NEJH Digital Editor
June 10, 2021
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Roy Zhu, a student and Begley Scholar at Boston College High School completed a publicly-available digital history website which maps the cultural geographies of often-overlooked immigrant groups that the City of Boston has called the "New Bostonians." He did so under the supervision of BC High history teacher Dr. Nicholas Argento with institutional support from Colleen Carter, Vice President for External Relations. In the following interview, Zhu, Argento, and Carter discuss the project's methods and findings and reflect on the student experience, pedagogical approach, and institutional support behind the project.
DENNIS: Thank you, Roy, Nick, and Colleen for speaking with me today about Roy’s digital history project, "The New Bostonians."
Roy, as you note on the project website, Boston’s immigration history and ethnic markers are popularly associated with the Irish in Southie or the Italians in the North End. Your digital history project sets out to locate and highlight the city’s newer and/or overlooked immigrant groups and their neighborhoods. Could you tell our readers briefly about what groups you studied, what neighborhoods they call home, and your overall conclusions about what these “New Bostonians” share in common?
ZHU: The groups that I studied were the Haitians, Chinese, Dominicans, and Cape Verdeans. These four immigrant groups are some of the largest current immigrant groups in the City of Boston. They reflect a diverse mix of cultures that span many different continents. While many immigrant groups have a long historical presence in Boston, these four have been underrepresented in the immigrant narrative of the City.
Many people consider downtown Boston when they think of the City of Boston, but many immigrants live outside of the downtown core, such as in Mattapan, Chinatown, Jamaica Plain, and Dorchester. For these groups, there is no definitive enclave, like the North End for Italians, but there are clear communities. For example, many of the early Haitian immigrants who moved to Boston near St. Leo Church in Mattapan did so because they offered services in French. Chinese immigrants, who were some of the earliest non-White immigrants to settle in Boston, moved into the South Cove area, which was land the city considered refuse. Early Dominican immigrants in Boston came from the Dominican city of Bani, and used family and kinship connections to reside in Jamaica Plain. Finally, the Cape Verdean population, which had long ties to Massachusetts through the whaling industry in New Bedford, settled around the predominantly African-American community in south Roxbury and north Dorchester.
I took the name of my project, “New Bostonians,” from the title of Mayor Thomas Menino’s Office of Immigrant Advancement. That office has been around since 1998, and I think that goes to show how these so-called New Bostonians have had a much longer history in Boston than most people may think.
The common themes that unite the histories of these four groups include loss, resiliency, and unity. All of these groups experienced many similar stages of growth as communities. In the beginning, many of these neighborhoods struggled with both internal and external challenges. Internally, violence and organized crime in poverty-stricken areas threatened to shatter these communities, while externally, gentrification and redevelopment efforts by the City threatened to displace them. However, over time, all of these communities have also seen the rise of strong civic and cultural associations that have provided unity and solidarity for residents. And all of these neighborhoods have become vibrant representative centers of their respective cultures.
DENNIS: That’s a really great point to make: many of these so-called “New Bostonian” immigrant groups have deeper roots in New England's history. The geographic and visual emphasis of your project website really makes this point well. Speaking of which, you place mapping at the heart of your critique about which immigrant/ethnic groups are made visible or invisible in urban space. Could you say a bit more about how your project combines virtual maps, images, and informative text on the website to make visible the “New Bostonians” and their communities?
ZHU: I believe that maps are critical to understanding the reality of a city’s demographics. They are powerful and essential tools that can be incredibly revealing, especially to outsiders or people unfamiliar with certain neighborhoods or places. Maps give us a sense of place and highlight important spaces. And much of the time, we fail to see many of those important neighborhood spaces when we are not the ones who those spaces benefit the most. For example, the Chinese burial plot in Mattapan's Mt. Hope Cemetery is located all the way in the rear of the cemetery, and the memorial that has been built to honor these ancestral immigrants is not even listed on Google Maps. Many of these tombstones are falling apart. Why is this burial plot hidden in the most remote corner of this cemetery? Why hasn’t this memorial been put on a map? These questions tie into how maps and a sense of location reveal who we see as ‘the other’ and who we see as ourselves. I really thought images and maps were vital to this project because they connect our knowledge with a tangible idea of a place. Describing the Le Foyer Bakery in Mattapan Square and its importance to the Haitian community is significant, but being able to actually see people waiting outside, seeing the pastries lined up in racks inside the bakery, gives a much more intimate sense of the community that is alive.
DENNIS: I like how you highlight the power of digital tools such as Google Maps to shape a community’s historical memory. Let’s hope that the demographic and cultural mapping you did on the website will generate greater awareness of these spaces. In addition to demographic and mapping data, your project presents a colorful picture of these communities looking from the inside out. What kinds of sources did you use? Could you describe your research process for us?
ZHU: Well, as you mentioned, my project draws heavily from demographic data, specifically from the City of Boston’s “New Bostonians Demographic Report” which is available to the public on its website.
The beginning of my project definitely involved a lot of reading. Dr. Argento directed me to use search engines such as JSTOR, Google Scholar, EBSCO, and GALE NET to find any research articles that were relevant to the neighborhoods or cultural groups I studied. I reached out to professors of history at various universities, including Dr. Regine Jackson of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, who grew up in the Boston Haitian community. She sent me a chapter of her book, Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora. I contacted the New England Chinese Women’s Association to obtain a photo of Rose Lok, the first Chinese- American woman to pilot a plane from Boston’s Logan Airport.
As our project progressed, I was able to find more and more people from within these communities who spoke from personal experience about their neighborhoods. Sometimes it was pure luck, and other times it was through BC High’s alumni network, but I managed to interview many people from all walks of life who were very willing to speak to me. Judge Serge Georges, a BC High alumni who now sits on the Massachusetts Supreme Court, talked about the Haitian community at the time he grew up. I also interviewed Cesar DePaz, a pastor from one of Boston’s Hispanic churches in Jamaica Plain, as well as Josh Fidalgo, a BC High alumni who is co-owner of Nos Casa Cafe, a restaurant in Roxbury that serves Cape Verdean cuisine. All spoke candidly and personally about the communities that they were a part of, and I am indebted to them for their willingness to share their experiences to an outsider like me. I think my course of research really took me from an academic perspective about these communities to a more personal one.
As for the maps, most came from the Boston Planning and Development Agency, US Censuses, as well as the American Community Survey (ACS) census. The ACS census breaks down neighborhoods by nation of origin, which really helped to map out specific immigrant centers and ethnic neighborhoods.
DENNIS: Wow! That is an impressive list of sources, particularly the interviews you did. I've also found that research takes a lot of persistence, luck, and networking. What advice would you give to high school or undergraduate students who are working on independently researched digital history projects like yours?
ZHU: The fact that this was a digital history project, and one that was done during a pandemic, really meant that I had to be flexible in communicating digitally. It forced me to communicate creatively. One of the benefits of using Zoom to meet with Dr. Argento was that we shared documents easily through screen-sharing. I think having flexibility, accepting a new or unexpected direction when communicating digitally is essential. That was especially true when interviewing people or scheduling meetings with an advisor.
Of course, given that all of the infrastructure of this project was digital meant that work ethic was a challenge. I encourage students who want to pursue a project like this to find out how they work best and recognize their work habits. For me, I found that I worked in bursts, so having a schedule that was conducive to the ebb and flow of how I work and understanding that helped me stay on track. The summer months fit well. For instance, I had weeks in which I found myself stuck during the summer, not progressing much. Then visiting a Haitian church in Mattapan, for example, kick-started another episode of progress. And the spaces where I worked on this project, writing it, interviewing people, discussing with Dr. Argento, were all virtual spaces, which can mean not having a sense of doing real, physical work. There was a lot of thinking involved, and I had to allow time to do that.
When I embarked on this project, I planned to make a phone application for a walking tour. Then that changed because the research results showed that a website format would better suit viewers of the information. I did not know anything about making a website. For anyone interested in making their own website, it is much harder than you might expect, especially if you are starting completely from scratch. I was able to find someone at my school who is adept at building websites. For me, Mrs. Carter, our school’s Vice President of Communications, gave me excellent guidance. She was instrumental in making sure everything I wanted to display was displayed on the finished site. Having someone with web development skills or having those skills yourself, in short, will save a lot of valuable time once you have everything you want to show prepared.
DENNIS: At some point, I hope that you get a chance to make that walking tour app. I'd really like to take that tour! What was most challenging about this project? Which aspect of it are you most proud of?
ZHU: There were many challenges and surprises that came with trying to research local history and turning that into a website, much of which was exacerbated by the challenge that everyone was facing at the time, which was the pandemic. COVID-19 cancelled a lot of cultural activities that I had wanted to visit within the neighborhoods I studied, and made it much harder to get in touch with people and interview them.
Aside from the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, narrowing the project’s scope to a manageable size was challenging. When I first discussed doing this with Dr. Argento, my advisor, my plan was to research many different ethnic communities and display everything I could about their history, culture, and location.
My advisor urged me to find a few of the pertinent current immigrant communities to highlight. I decided to use geographic diversity and predominance in Boston as a guideline. I recognize that highlighting only a few of the city’s immigrant groups has its limitations, but I had to strike a delicate balance between representing enough diverse communities and researching each of them in depth. For example, in deciding which Latinx group to include, we settled upon the Dominicans because of their rich history in Boston, their size, and the body of research we were able to find on them, despite the fact that Boston is home to many different and varied Latinx communities. Although Boston is also home to a notable Vietnamese community, I ultimately decided not to include them in favor of a larger Asian group in the city, the Chinese.
While there definitely could be valid criticism about which groups I included or excluded, I hope that in highlighting at least four of the immigrant groups who make up such a diverse social fabric within Boston, I presented a starting point to expand our view of Boston’s history. I hope that I can inspire the next person to research more groups and add to our knowledge.
I am most proud this project brought so many people within my school community together to talk about their heritage and their neighborhoods. When I finished the project, I was anxious to hear feedback from people who lived in these communities, because I didn’t want to misrepresent their experiences or the importance of their neighborhood spaces. One of my happiest moments was receiving an email from a classmate who is Haitian and who lives in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood. He mentioned that the places I photographed were integral parts of his childhood and meaningful to him. He told me he felt truly appreciated and that his heritage had been seen when he read my website. That is the best praise I received.
I also heard from other students and faculty who used my project in their classes, and students who were inspired to do independent research on immigration and cultural heritage. Ultimately, I am incredibly humbled that this experience brought discussions of cultural pride and heritage to the table at my school, and inspired people to look at how the places they take for granted within their neighborhoods might actually be much more important than they realize.
DENNIS: It’s wonderful to hear about the positive impact the project had on your school’s community. I was really struck by the story of your classmate from Mattapan and his response to your project. It’s really powerful when people connect with your research. Thank you so much, Roy, and congratulations on this work.
Now I’d like to turn to the pedagogy behind the project. Nick, what was your role in the project? What advice would you give to history educators who are interested in teaching or mentoring students working in public or digital history?
ARGENTO: For Roy Zhu’s Begley Scholars’ project, my role can be described in three parts: director, teacher, and coach/editor. Roy defined the concept of his project this way in a May 2020 email message: “(I want to) look at the impact on geography (communities, neighborhoods, churches, schools) and culture (newspapers, advertisements), find eight to twelve sites in the greater Boston area that fit the criteria for being historically significant, generally neglected or disregarded within city’s culture and history, and provide representative voice to the diversity of the city through time.”
Initially for his project proposal, Roy researched the Cape Verdean, Chinese, and Armenian experiences in Boston and considered examining the U.S. Abolition Movement there too. His initial concept included creating a walking tour phone application for the sites he planned to include in his research.
Once the proposal received approval by a committee at our school, we held ten weekly, two to three hour meetings via Zoom. We discussed, researched digital resources together to hone the project’s scope. Assigning books about immigration and using search engines such as JSTOR, Google Scholar, EBSCO, and GALE NET, it was necessary to teach when a source had academic heft and and know when to guide when it did not. In other words, Roy realized that simple Google searches would not suffice for the academic caliber required for this project. And from using data from the 2000 and 2010 US Census and the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians–now called Immigrant Advancement Office--I taught Roy how to gather useful data from a government source.
By directing Roy to examine current immigrant data, it helped him to center his study on four immigrant communities: Cape Verdean, Chinese, Dominican, and Haitian. After teaching how each group found its way to the Boston area, it narrowed Roy’s research to examine landmarks within the City. Similar to the parameters of a dissertation study, by guiding Roy to narrow his research to immigrant groups located within the city’s geographic boundaries, it helped him sort through what could be examined and what would not be researched. For example, Boston has wonderful Brazilian, Columbian, Vietnamese, and Caribbean populations. Roy could have examined those groups too. We had numerous lengthy, robust discussions about whether to broaden or narrow immigrant community research and which groups to include and which to exclude.
Roy grappled with what groups to include and exclude because he recognized each group enriched the culture of the City. My concern was that for a high school student to complete this research effectively within a six month time frame, it made sense to limit his research. As a part of my role, I helped Roy search for experts in each community and I connected him to alumni from our school. Coaching Roy about who to contact was more challenging than I expected. Some people spoke on the condition of anonymity and some of the communities Roy contacted did not respond to his requests. Since these experts provided academic research and first-hand experience accounts, I strongly advised Roy to pursue his research based upon who had responded. It is important to remember that Roy conducted this research in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in June and July 2020.
DENNIS: What is most striking about the project is how thoroughly the research and the teaching behind it were digital, from databases to interviews to guidance on Zoom. All-digital research and teaching have been a long time coming, but the pandemic certainly accelerated the trends. Since they may be here to stay, could you reflect on the differences between teaching students to create digital history products like this website and teaching them to write a traditional research paper?
ARGENTO: A digital history project is a different methodology from writing a traditional academic paper because it emphasizes gathering visuals such as maps and photos with supporting narrative documentation to achieve learning outcomes. The skill set required involved guiding the student to recognize the scholarly importance of an image, speech, or artifact complimented by a written description.
Roy used an oral history methodology to record social history for each of the ethnic groups he researched. And while I assigned works by scholars who had expertise about each ethnic group in the Boston area, it was a part of Roy’s task to synthesize those materials first. Then from Roy’s conclusions, it led him to provide additional historical context by conducting oral history interviews.
Having Roy store his findings on a website allowed it to serve as a repository for his research. This student became excited to present his findings there because he knew his peers would see the information. It drove his writing to be at its best. And when the website took its shape, Roy artfully used images, maps, and drawings to drive the viewers to scroll through the website’s content.
Roy wanted to build a website to assure future usefulness. Most American high school students are digital natives but their technical skills vary. To create an app or a website required skills Roy did not have. We explored hiring an app developer, purchasing a website domain and an Internet page design. After a conversation with our school’s communication vice president, we realized our school owned those tools.
I was concerned about Roy citing where he found his information. Our school uses the MLA format for research. By combining information that Roy found from academic resources, interviews, and email exchanges, I became less concerned about proper academic citation methodology and more focused upon what a visitor to the website might learn about the topic.
The overall learning experience for Roy and the subsequent information availability for future students who use his website ultimately provided wide utility. Rather than the research results sitting on a shelf or hidden in an electronic archive, this project exists on our school’s website. And while the research may become dated, our hope is that it may assist a future student who wants to learn more about the immigrant experience in the City of Boston.
DENNIS: Yes, I’ve also run into the issue of students’ technical skills as a potential obstacle to these kinds of projects. Utilizing tools and expertise from other departments and areas in your school was a creative solution. Similarly, history faculty at Dean College have been exploring collaborations with our communications faculty colleagues to build solutions for the skills gap.
You also make a good point about the permanence and visibility of such projects online and their implications for educational institutions. I’m wondering, Nick and Colleen, could you say a bit more about how "The New Bostonians" aligns with the institutional mission of BC High?
CARTER: Since Boston College High School (BC High) is a Jesuit, Catholic college preparatory school, we strive to challenge our students to become young men of integrity, educated in faith and for justice, committed to academic excellence and service to others. BC High serves the Greater Boston community as an urban school which has traditionally provided the means by which those recently arrived in the Boston area have been able to take their rightful places in society. BC High challenges its students to transcend academic excellence to promote individual care and concern for each student; emphasize activity on the part of each student in the learning process. The School builds a healthy knowledge, love, and acceptance of self and provides a realistic knowledge of the world.
ARGENTO: The Begley Scholar program speaks to the mission of our school because its goals direct the student to examine a topic closely. Examining a topic deeply speaks to a goal of our school’s pedagogy, derived from the discernment of St. Ignatius of Loyola. In order to do this effectively, developing a passion for the topic builds the student’s academic self-confidence, teaches the student more about the world surrounding him, and shows a demonstrable responsibility to serve and enhance his community.
DENNIS: Having these types of funding resources is critical for innovative and personalized pedagogy. Could you tell our readers more about the Begley Scholarship and its mission? What students does it aim to serve?
CARTER: An anonymous donor established the Father John Begley, SJ Scholarship to provide an opportunity for BC High students to pursue a passion outside of the classroom. The student explores a topic deeply with its outcome to be beneficial to the BC High school community. The student must make a presentation to the community, field questions about the topic, and with Roy Zhu’s presentation, have a digital presence for future research.
DENNIS: Well, this was a very enlightening conversation about a student digital history project, and the research, pedagogical, and institutional efforts that made it possible. On behalf of the NEJH editorial board, I’d like to extend a special thanks to all three of you for this interview.