Slavery in Massachusetts


November 2, 2009


At 324 Bedford Street, Concord, Massachusetts stands a modest, brown shingled house. It’s just one storey, and one room deep with a small addition on the side. The lot on which it stands is valuable, but the house itself is not—at least in real estate terms. Its overseas owners, who inherited the property, have applied to demolish it, and the town’s stay has expired. Why should this matter? It matters simply because this late eighteenth-century cottage was home to generations of the extended Robbins-Garrison-Hutchinson family for as many as 90 years. This family was African American.

Caesar Robbins originally built the house a short distance to the north of where it now stands, near Concord’s former Great Field, perhaps no later than 1780. He may have taken his freedom as early as his enlistment in 1776. He married three women in succession, and his descendents lived there until about 1870 when his son’s stepson sold the house and it was moved to its present location.

Caesar Robbins had been a slave. For those of us who live in Massachusetts, complacently proud of our commonwealth’s role in the righteous if bloody struggle that led to the Thirteenth Amendment, the realization that slavery thrived here well into the Revolutionary War period can be a shock. Many New Englanders had made fortunes directly or indirectly from the traffic in human beings across the Atlantic from West Africa to the Caribbean islands and the American mainland. The slave quarters beside the grandest eighteenth-century mansion in Massachusetts, that of the Royall family in Medford, seem an aberration. After all, Isaac Royall, Sr. was the wealthiest man in the colony, and his 39 slaves can seem a dislocated overspill from his sugar plantation in Antigua. Yet owning a slave or two was both a practical matter for many ambitious Massachusetts farmers, and a tangible indicator of status. Caesar Robbins appears to have been owned by Humphrey Barrett, one of Concord’s largest landowners.

In addition to the threat to the Caesar Robbins House, two new books have focused my attention on slavery in Massachusetts: Joyce Lee Malcolm’s Peter’s War: A New England Slave Boy and the American Revolution (Yale University Press, 2009), and Elise Lemire’s Black Walden: Slavery and its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). Most enslaved people in Massachusetts lived with those who claimed to own them, as did Malcolm’s subject, Peter. Josiah and Elizabeth Nelson had bought Peter as an infant in 1765 from Deacon Joshua Brooks and his wife Mary of Lincoln, which had separated from Concord in 1754. The Brooks owned Peter’s father, Jupiter. Peter’s mother Peggy belonged to William Reed, a prominent lawyer in neighboring Lexington. Although, like many slaves, Peter had been baptized, and although slaves attended church meetings, there was nothing equivocal about their standing. They were property. Their single names, often derisorily mock heroic—Lemire notes that Caesar was the most common enslaved man’s name in Massachusetts—proclaimed their chattel status.

As Lemire shows, the end of slavery in Massachusetts was confused and uncertain. It turned on several factors: abandonment by owners (sometimes engineered by slaves themselves), military service, and the interpretation by the Massachusetts Superior Court of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution. This document did not mention slavery explicitly, and asserted at the beginning of its first article, “All men are born free and equal.” Following emancipation, many ex-slaves took the names of their former owners, among them Lexington’s Prince Estabrook who faced the Redcoats with fellow militiamen on the morning of April 19, 1775 (the subject of Alice M. Hinkle’s Prince Estabrook: Slave and Soldier Lexington, MA: Pleasant Mountain Press, 2001). In contrast, on assuming his liberty following military service, Peter’s father, Jupiter, took the proud name Free.

If slavery in Massachusetts ended during the turbulent times of the Revolutionary War, the plight of those once enslaved did not. “Warning out,” by which strangers who might become a charge on the public purse could be expelled from towns to which they tried to move, ensured that many former slaves, unable to leave their own towns, continued to work in much the same way as they had previously. Some, like Caesar Robbins, were able to squat on unvalued land where they eked out impoverished livings. The growth of abolitionism led to a change of attitude on the part of some white townspeople, but one effect was to suppress evidence and memories of earlier ill treatment. Henry David Thoreau was an exception, giving an account in Walden (1854) of some of those African Americans who had earlier lived in cabins on the sandy wastes to the east of Walden Pond.

As I write, the possibility still exists of saving, moving, and preserving the Caesar Robbins House so that it might become a house museum dedicated to Concord’s African American inhabitants. Heading the effort is the Drinking Gourd Project, a part of the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council. If you would like to send a donation, please direct it to: The Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council, P.O. Box 744, Concord, MA 01742, with The Drinking Gourd Project in the memo line. No historical cause could be more worthy.