Remembering the Truth-Telling Outsider

Man stands and looks at sign
Tom Doughton, Holy Cross senior lecturer for interdisciplinary and special studies, looks at Worcester Black History trail signage on the trail's opening day in 2023.

Historian, scholar and social justice advocate Thomas Doughton spent his life trying to bring forgotten communities into the mainstream.

One of Tom Doughton’s most popular courses was Worcester: Insiders and Outsiders. In a way, it summed up his life’s work.

It is hard to imagine a person more outside the mainstream than Holy Cross senior lecturer Thomas Doughton, who died Feb. 3, 2024, at the age of 75. Tom was Black, Native American and queer. He was a scholar of American history and Holocaust studies.

As a historian, Tom focused on the lives of people outside the dominant histories — Native and Black Americans, especially of the Worcester region, whose contributions, dwellings, customs and occupations had gone largely unrecorded. He brought these lives and stories into the mainstream and into the larger public record through his numerous public lectures, interviews and essays; his co-edited collection of Worcester Slave Narratives, “From Bondage to Belonging”; his leadership in the creation of Worcester’s Black History Trail; and his film about the Native American identity of the region — including Holy Cross’s particular place in it — “Pakachoag: Where the River Bends" (below). 

Tom’s vocation as a historian was one of recovery: he lived to tell the stories of people whose lives had been, in his terms, “erased,” or appropriated and romanticized. His aim was “to get control of our stories.” He did painstaking work to follow family trees and physical movements of native and Black people in the region (their family trees often intersected), to find deeds of properties they owned, the wills they made, the violins and eyeglasses they left behind. Tom literally marked their lives on the landscape by creating the Worcester Black History Trail in 2023, with its impressive markers that repeople local streets by saying the names, addresses and occupations of Black residents who lived there.

Tom’s place-marking strategy derived in part from his study of the Holocaust and the placement of “Stumbling Stones” in Germany to mark where Jews lived, those later deported by the Nazis to concentration camps — the names physically put back in the place from which the living people had been erased. The Black History Trail markers call us to stop and remember the people who lived, married, worshiped and worked here — to see how the city we inhabit is one they helped build.

We took a similar approach in “Pakachoag: Where the River Bends.” The film takes viewers on a tour of “College Hill” — the present-day location of Holy Cross — down to the “Blackstone” River (Algonquian name: “Kattatuck”) that was central to native peoples for fishing, transportation and trade, and then up the hill to the site of the spring that was once the heart of the Nipmuc village.

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Man and woman stand underneath an iron arch
Saraa Luria, professor of English and environmental studies, and Doughton collaborated on the film “Pakachoag: Where the River Bends.”

The spring site shows the effectiveness of Tom’s re-mapping approach. The spring is located behind a suburban cul-de-sac on the Auburn/Worcester line. Identifying the site’s significance helped Tom and the local Quinsigamond Band of Nipmucs to gain (or regain) possession of the parcel in perpetuity. The property makes an incongruous site where Pakachoag meets suburbia — there’s a house, a driveway, a house, a driveway and then the Pakachoag property. It’s a glorious open meadow of sumac, asters and goldenrod that is doing great work for the neighborhood’s ecology — full of pollen and food for butterflies and bees.

Tom was an amazing storyteller. Before each shoot for the film, he would take just a few moments to gather his thoughts and then nod “Ready”; filmmaker Ian Kaloyanides would shout “Roll!” With sonorous voice and wonderful cadence, Tom would take us through nuanced histories. We rarely did a second take. At his funeral, Worcester City Councilor-at-large Khrystian King called Thomas “a real-time, real-life wise man.”

Challenging conventional wisdom

When Tom died, people’s first reactions were shock and deep sorrow; their next, “But he is on the roster to speak at the Worcester Historical Museum at the end of the month!” or “I was to meet with him — tomorrow!”

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Man rests on concrete ledge
Doughton in May 2017.

As a scholar, Tom often went his own way, butting heads with other historians and members of the Native American community. He provoked his students. He made his students confront the “N-word” in American culture and history rather than try to erase it. He insisted that local native peoples be accorded their particular identities. New England native peoples did not dress in “leather and feathers.” They lived in small bands, not “tribes.” Recovering cultural identities — caring enough to do so and not truck in stereotypes — was doing social justice. Land acknowledgments could not be a substitute for concrete change. His long-time Holy Cross colleague and friend Michael West, associate professor of history, extolled him as a “free man” who “challenged American historians’ conventional wisdom on all sorts of topics.”

At the same time, his students and colleagues knew him to be gracious, full of care, and — to use one of Tom’s favorite words — “regard.” His courses were oversubscribed. He taught for 25 years at the College as a non-tenure track instructor. The position may have suited his independence, but it came at a financial cost. “His work was his life,” his brother Gordon Ward said. That work, that life, is now part of the historic record, and part of the physical fabric of Worcester.

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Man at podium waves at audience
Doughton at the opening of the Worcester Black History Trail in June 2023.

At the ribbon cutting of the Worcester Black History Trail in June 2023, flanked by Holy Cross President Vincent D. Rougeau, King, and Mayor Joseph Petty, Tom hung back. King urged him forward: “This is your project!” Tom was extremely modest, but that day it was clear that as the truth-telling outsider, Tom had earned tremendous regard. He was now an insider, too.

Sarah Luria is a professor of English and environmental studies at Holy Cross and the director of “Pakachoag: Where the River Bends.