With $300K in Funding from Wood Foundation, UML Team to Create Digital Archive

Gray Fitzsimons (left) and Tony Sampas will be at the heart of the team producing the Greater Boston Portuguese-American Digital Archive.
Gray Fitzsimons, left, and Tony Sampas will be key parts of the team producing the Greater Boston Portuguese-American Digital Archive.

By David Perry

Students, faculty and researchers interested in the rich cultural and historical tapestry of Portuguese-Americans in the Merrimack Valley and beyond will soon have access to a digital archive chronicling generations of immigrants, thanks to a $300,000 grant received by the university’s Saab Center for Portuguese Studies.

The grant, from the William M. Wood Foundation, is spread over three years.

The archive will be known as the Greater Boston Portuguese-American Digital Archive (PADA). 

PADA will open a window to the history of a “significant and underrepresented” immigrant group, according to Frank Sousa, director of UML’s Saab Center for Portuguese Studies and supervisor of PADA.

Sousa has assembled a team to work on the archive that includes Tony Sampas, UML’s archivist and special projects manager, and Gregory “Gray” Fitzsimons, a research associate at the Saab Center. In addition to the project director, the grant will fund the hiring of a project archivist, who will help gather, process and digitize the collection. Student interns will also be involved. 

PADA is modeled closely after the university’s Southeast Asian Digital Archive. 

“We want to model the visual quality on the university’s Southeast Asian archive, which is a state-of-the-art example of digital history,” says Fitzsimons ’13, a historian who previously worked for the Lowell National Historical Park and earned his doctorate in education at UML. “We have a chance here to put UMass Lowell on the map in the archival world for ethnic-oriented digital archives.”

“In terms of Portuguese history, hardly anything has been written about the communities north of Boston,” says Sousa. “It just seems to me given the paucity of information on points north of Boston, this was the next logical project.”

Fitzsimons, the project director and principal grant writer for PADA, says he will delve into field work, gathering everything from oral histories to personal ephemera to church records to illustrate the impact and culture of the Portuguese in Lowell, Lawrence, Hudson and Gloucester, Massachusetts communities where clusters of Portuguese immigrants settled.

He will begin with Lowell, working around the person-to-person restrictions posed by COVID-19.

“I’m concerned that this needs to happen soon,” says Fitzsimons. “People are getting older and we need to get out there and do some collecting. But the Lowell Portuguese community is vibrant and the elders are very prideful of their culture.”

The information will be digitized, preserving in a single repository what now exists scattered in places from parish record books to family scrapbooks.

The team will also draw upon the existing Portuguese collection at the university’s Center for Lowell History, a valuable resource for documenting local history and immigrants.

Sousa notes there have been three periods of Portuguese immigration to New England: 1765-1870, related to whaling; 1880-1925, related to the cotton industry and 1958-1983, related to the apparel industry that replaced the cotton mills. Fishing was also important throughout the three phases, particularly in Gloucester, Provincetown and New Bedford, Mass.

Telling the story of Portuguese history in New England and beyond is nothing new to Sousa, founding director of the Saab Center for Portuguese Studies and the founding coordinator of Portuguese studies at UMass Lowell.

The treasure hunt can’t begin soon enough for Fitzsimons.

“Field work is critical to the network within the Portuguese-American community,” he says. “It’s a very important community partnership project. We’re hoping to gather family papers and photographs, sound recordings, family home movies, items from Portuguese-American businesses, things from social clubs, parishes … It’s soup to nuts.”

Anyone with information on Portuguese artifacts or documents for the project can contact Gregory_Fitzsimons@uml.edu.