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Digging up the Past

Boston's City Archeologist Joe Bagley reveals what was learned from historic dig at Malcolm X - Ella Collins House

"One of the things that makes archaeology exciting is when it surprises us. We do a ton of research and prep work before we ever put a shovel or trowel to ground at a site in order to know the general history of a place. That way we can place the things we find into a historical narrative or timeline, and then try to figure out what new stories the artifacts tell us about that particular time. This prep work also helps us form research questions we hope to answer during digs. But, sometimes, sites reveal stories we were not expecting to find.

We focused our research for the 20th century history of the house on the story of Malcolm coming to Roxbury, living at the house, and returning to the house, emphasizing the narrative of Malcolm through the lens of this space with research questions on Malcolm’s experiences. The artifacts and the space, however, had other stories to tell.

The voice and story that came through loudest in hundreds of 20th century artifacts we recovered was not Malcolm’s, but Ella’s, his sister. We found the blue dishes she loved to collect, the peach pits from the tree she grew in the back celebrating her Georgia upbringing, the planting holes for the garden she created at the home, the glass candy dish she had in her formal living room that was just for guests, the perfume she wore, and dozens of other items she found, bought, and brought to 72 Dale Street to create a home for her family, including Malcolm.

After the dig, we returned to the same references we used in preparation of the research for the dig. Knowing that it was the voice of Ella Little-Collins that we heard loudest through the artifacts at the site, we realized that like many others, we had focused on Malcolm’s story when there was an incredibly significant story of an important Black woman, community and family leader right there, recorded along-side Malcolm’s story. We had allowed ourselves to to see Malcolm’s story as the main story, when it was Ella who had the greatest impact on the items we would find in the ground."

- Joe Bagley

City Archaeologist

Director of Archaeology

Joe runs the City of Boston's Archaeology program within the Boston Landmarks Commission and Environment Department. He and his team manage the archaeological collections excavated in the city and conduct collaborative community-based archaeological surveys focused on Boston's underrepresented histories and sites at risk due to the ongoing impacts of climate change.

Click here to explore the field notes, artifact images and results from the historic dig at the Malcolm X - Ella Collins House.

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The Malcolm X - Ella Collins House


Phone: (617) 427-7817

NRHP #: 100005455

72 Dale St, Roxbury, Boston, MA

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