Introduction to Slavery in Massachusetts


An approachable collection of videos, books, talks, podcasts, articles, and links.

Jared Hardesty gives an authentic overview of the realities of slavery in New England
Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson is a historian, Wellesley College professor, and a talented communicator of nuanced ideas. Dr. Carter Jackson’s presentation on slavery in the Northeast dovetails nicely with other material here, but it also connects local slavery to tangible conditions in today’s New England in ways that other works here do not.
This is an excellent independent mini-documentary detailing an enslaved man and his descendants in Norwell, Massachusetts. Content starts @ 2:20 after introductions.
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull (UK): This webinar introduces some of the major scholars who are contributing to this dynamic field – Jared Hardesty, Gloria McCahon Whiting, and Margaret Newell – along with commentary from two very distinguished historians of New England and Canada – Mark Peterson and Charmaine Nelson. The speakers will reveal how important the question of slavery was in Massachusetts, despite the small number of the enslaved, and outline a range of historical opinions on slavery and emancipation in this fascinating British colony and American state.

Native American slavery “is a piece of the history of slavery that has been glossed over,” Fisher said. “Between 1492 and 1880, between 2 and 5.5 million Native Americans were enslaved in the Americas in addition to 12.5 million African slaves.”

In Brethren by Nature, Margaret Ellen Newell reveals a little-known aspect of American history: English colonists in New England enslaved thousands of Indians. Massachusetts became the first English colony to legalize slavery in 1641, and the colonists’ desire for slaves shaped the major New England Indian wars…

The Royall House and Slave Quarters of Medford, Massachusetts

In the eighteenth century, the Royall House and Slave Quarters was home to the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts and the enslaved Africans who made their lavish way of life possible. Today, the Royall House and Slave Quarters is a museum whose architecture, household items, archaeological artifacts, and programs bear witness to intertwined stories of wealth and bondage, set against the backdrop of America’s quest for independence.

In October 2020, the Middle Passage and Port Marker Boston Partnership installed a permanent marker on Long Wharf. It acknowledges Boston as a port of entry for enslaved Africans.

While earlier histories of slavery largely confine themselves to the South, Warren’s “panoptical exploration” (Christian Science Monitor) links the growth of the northern colonies to the slave trade and examines the complicity of New England’s leading families, demonstrating how the region’s economy derived its vitality from the slave trading ships coursing through its ports.


(See embedded WGBH video above.)

[Hardesty] shares the individual stories of enslaved people, bringing their experiences to life. He also explores the importance of slavery to the colonization of the region and to agriculture and industry, New England’s deep connections to Caribbean plantation societies, and the significance of emancipation movements in the era of the American Revolution.


This week, Jake interviews Dr. Jared Ross Hardesty, author of the new book Mutiny on the Rising Sun: a tragic tale of smuggling, slavery, and chocolate, which uncovers the dark web of interconnections between Old North Church, chocolate, and chattel slavery.  Dr. Hardesty will explain why a reputable sea captain would become a smuggler, trafficking in illegal chocolate and enslaved Africans; the risks an 18th century Bostonian would take to provide himself with a competence, or enough money to allow his family to live independently; and what it meant in that era to be of but not from Boston.  At the heart of the story is a brutal murder and mutiny on the high seas, illustrating the fundamental brutality of life in the 18th century, but the role of the church (specifically Old North Church) in the social and economic lives of Bostonians is also central to understanding the life and death of Captain Newark Jackson.

– HUB History

In 1773, an ad appeared in the Boston Gazette for a Black artist who was described as possessing an “extraordinary genius” for painting portraits.  From this brief mention, we will explore the life of a gifted visual artist who was enslaved in Boston, his friendship with Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved poet, and the mental gymnastics that were required on the part of white enslavers to justify owning people like property.  Through the life of a second gifted painter, we’ll find out how the coming of the American Revolution changed life for some enslaved African Americans in Boston.  And through the unanswered questions about the lives of both these men, we’ll examine the limits of what historical sources can tell us about any given enslaved individual.  

– HUB History

Thus, there appears to be not a scrap of historical documentation that the final decision in the Quock Walker cases happened on 8 July 1783, and some strong evidence that it couldn’t have. However, the 8th of July observance is now a matter of state law.

– J.L. Bell @ Boston 1775 blog

What about Pompey’s younger brother, Caesar Fleet? His life took a different course. He stayed in Boston. The town’s 1780 tax assessments, published several decades ago by the Bostonian Society, list Caesar Fleet as a “Negro” living in Ward 10. The fact that he was tallied as a taxpayer indicates that he was no longer considered a slave, even before Massachusetts’s high court made slavery unenforceable in 1783.

– J.L. Bell @ Boston 1775 blog

Dorcas the Blackmore

In this episode, we are looking at the story of Elizabeth Freeman, a woman born into slavery in the 18th century who successfully sued for her freedom and helped bring about the end of slavery in Massachusetts. Leaving the house of her enslavers John and Hannah Ashley, Freeman took up paid work within the household of the lawyer who represented her in court, Theodore Segewick. We’ll take a close look at a miniature portrait of Freeman, a gold bead bracelet that once belonged to her, and a brief biography of Freeman, written by Catherine Maria Sedgewick.

– Massachusetts Historical Society

The 1839 Massachusetts legislative Report on the Deliverance of Massachusetts Citizens Liable to be Sold as Slaves in slave states, quickly led to the passage of a resolution directing the Governor to seek legal release and transport of free Massachusetts citizens imprisoned in other states “on suspicion of being a slave.” The case of Eral Lonnon, a mariner from Mashpee held in a New Orleans jail under presumption of being a fugitive slave, was exemplary. Lonnon was a free man of color who was a descendant of Wampanoag Indians on Nantucket. His arrest and imprisonment was part of a corrupt system in slave states to extort fees, to extract forced labor, and to sell free people of color into slavery. 

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the sale and trafficking of human beings—in slavery—and the industries rooted in the labor of enslaved women, men, and children were pervasive around the world, comprised a vital part of the New England economy, and powerfully shaped Harvard University. Harvard leaders, faculty, staff, and benefactors enslaved people, some of whom labored at the University;⁠ detail accrued wealth through the slave trade and slave labor; and defended the institution of slavery.⁠

Harvard’s Window Dressing on Slavery (2020) by Caitlin G. DeAngelis

In November 2019, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced a new $5 million initiative to study Harvard’s ties to slavery…A year later, Harvard’s lawyers are in court attempting to dismiss a lawsuit over the University’s possession of images taken of enslaved people directly harmed by Harvard.

– Caitlin G. DeAngelis

Video playlist of the 2021 GLC Annual Conference: Yale and Slavery in Historical Perspective.

Event description: 

Commissioned by President Peter Salovey, a working group of historians, librarians, student researchers, and community members is conducting a thorough research study of Yale University’s historical relationships with slavery, racism, and their aftermaths. On October 28-30, 2021 the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at the MacMillan Center at Yale will host a conference on “Yale and Slavery in Historical Perspective,” presenting the research findings in process. Topics will include the university’s 18th century theological roots, the economics of slavery-created wealth, the place of Southern slaveholders at Yale, medical and scientific legacies of race at Yale, forces of abolition at the university, the labor history of the building of the institution over three centuries, and Yale’s extraordinary reconciliationist Civil War memorial, dedicated in 1915. The conference will engage the Yale and New Haven communities as well as the national context of reckoning with the past.

– Yale University, Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition

The Shirley-Eustis Place: Working Report On Slavery At The Shirley-Eustis House (2021) by Aabid Allibhai, JD. Ph.D. Candidate, African & African American Studies Harvard University (Jump to .pdf #63/pg 59). Commissioned by The City of Boston.

Lifelong residents of Shirley Street (the overwhelming majority of Shirley Street residents) and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) know the structure at 42-44 Shirley Street to be a former slave quarters in addition to a barn. They learned this from the folks at the Shirley-Eustis House in the 1980s. In fact, this information is part of the tours given by DSNI. This would make 42-44 Shirley Street one of only two still-standing slave quarters in the northern United States (the other being the slave quarters at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, MA). Shirley had white indentured servants and presumably live-in secretaries while governor of Massachusetts, perhaps forcing his slaves to live at 42-44 Shirley Street due to lack of living space in the main house. Eliakim Hutchinson, one of the richest men in Boston, owned many slaves, perhaps forcing some of them to live at 42-44 Shirley Street for the same reason.

– Aabid Allibhai

Connecticut is one of the richest states in the richest country, but much of that wealth is stained with the blood of slaves.

– The Editors of Northeast Magazine

Evening Talk with Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara – Dark Works: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island (2017)

Thursday, February 16, 2017, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University Providence, RI.
Christy Clark-Pujara Assistant Professor of History Afro-American Studies Department University of Wisconsin-Madison.
As part of the Rhode Island Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara discusses her recently published book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island (NYU Press, 2016). Dark Work examines how the business of slavery — economic activity that was directly related to the maintenance of slaveholding in the Americas, specifically the buying and selling of people, food, and goods — shaped the experience of slavery, the process of emancipation, and the realities of black freedom in Rhode Island from the colonial period through the American Civil War. This talk was organized by the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and the John Carter Brown Library, with introductory remarks provided by JCB Director and Librarian Neil Safier and Visiting Assistant Professor Matthew Reilly of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World and the CSSJ.

The Providence Journal: Rhode Island and the Slave Trade – Buying and Selling Human Beings (2006) by Paul Davis

In the summer of 2020, where racial injustice is at the forefront of our nation’s concerns, several readers suggested that we republish Paul Davis’ 2006 Journal series “Unrighteous Traffick,” which discussed the history of slavery in Rhode Island.

Paul’s series shed considerable light on current debates. But it wasn’t accessible to current readers. Its very depth means that it’s also very, very long — 15 stories, many of which would take more than a page of newsprint to republish.

So instead, we are relaunching the series online, where it will be available to all Rhode Islanders to illuminate our current controversies for free. We hope it will also be a resource for schools, so that as Rhode Island discusses racial issues in the future, the conversation continues to be enlightened by knowledge of our past.

The Providence Journal

Atlas Obscura: The Beautiful, Forgotten and Moving Graves of New England’s Slaves (2016) by Caitlin G. DeAngelis

Most of New England’s colonial-era graveyards hold the bones of slaves. This is true not only of the urban graveyards of Boston and Newport, but also of the sleepy little cemeteries nestled among the clapboard churches and old stone walls in rural villages from Norwich, Connecticut to Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire. Unlike the African Burial Ground in New York City, which was formed after black bodies were banned from Trinity Churchyard in 1697, most New England municipalities maintained unified burying places that segregated black and white graves within a shared boundary. 

– Caitlin G. DeAngelis

Black Families of Revolutionary-Era Plymouth County, Mass. (2021) by Mary Blauss Edwards

Historian & Genealogist Mary Blauss Edwards presents 4 intriguing stories about Black life in 1790s Massachusetts. Visit her site here.

Researching African American Ancestors in New England (2022) by Meaghan E. H. Siekman

Phillis Wheatley: Crash Course Black American History #7 (2021) by Clint Smith

If you don’t know about Phillis, now you know.

American Antiquarian Society “Recovering the Lost Years of John Peters and Phillis Wheatley Peters” Cornelia H. Dayton in conversation with Henry Louis Gates Jr. Presented on Monday, November 1, 2021.

Though the early years of Phillis Wheatley’s life are well-established, the details of her life after she became Phillis Peters upon her marriage to John Peters, a free Black shopkeeper in Boston, have been more difficult to discern. In this conversation, Henry Louis Gates Jr. discusses with Cornelia Dayton her groundbreaking article, published in the New England Quarterly, which uses a cache of Essex County legal papers to shed light on this period of Wheatley Peters’s life. This conversation not only explores the significance of this new information for Wheatley Peters’s story, but also the ways in which looking for information in unexpected sources can complicate and expand upon current understandings of freedom, race, and gender in the eighteenth century.

The Bay State Banner: Black Masons owe lineage to 18th century Boston pioneer Prince Hall (2017) by Yawu Miller

As a new Master Mason, Prince Hall petitioned membership in the Masonic Lodges headed by colonists, but all his petitions were rejected. When the British Army left Boston in 1776, this Lodge, No. 441, granted Prince Hall and his brethren authority to meet as African Lodge No. 1 (Under Dispensation), to go in procession on St. John’s Day, and as a Lodge to bury their dead; but they could not confer degrees nor perform any other Masonic “work.”

– Yawu Miller

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