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Chronicling Black Lives in Colonial New England

Historians and archaeologists piece together a revealing look at free and slave life in the North.

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This sentiment is also at the core of Sherrill Wilson's work as director of the African Burial Ground project in Manhattan.

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Visitors to the project's headquarters learn that in New York, 18th-century blacks worked in fishing, trade, shipbuilding, dock work, and construction; in short, "in everything that goes into making a city," as archaeologist Marie-Alice Devieux puts it. Visitors also learn that such contributions took a heavy toll. The burial ground contains an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 graves dating from 1697 to 1795, and the skeletons studied so far attest to severe physical duress, violence, malnutrition, and a high infant-mortality rate.

For Augustine Konneh, who teaches African, Caribbean, and Islamic history at Morehouse College in Atlanta, it is not surprising that blacks are initiating this research today. When a society becomes "class-based," he explains, "people begin to be more interested in the individual rather than the collective history." Mr. Konneh now sees the descendants of earlier arrivals claiming that "we are stronger because the treatment we got was harsher."

Although differentiation based on ancestry has long been an integral part of white society - giving rise to such groups as the Order of Cincinnati and the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, it is a relatively new phenomenon among African-Americans, for whom slavery and marginalization render such research difficult.

Personal stories

Nevertheless, personal stories are emerging and some are surprising even the researchers.

Historian Barbara Donahue of Farmington, Conn., discovered that a black man, Frank Freeman, was elected the town's animal-control officer in the mid-18th century.

Pieter Roos, director of education at the Historical Society of Newport, R.I., tells the story of Occramar Mirycoo, who was tricked into slavery when he came to America in 1760 for education.

Known also as Newport Gardner, he went on to teach music to African children and to co-found the first African Union Society.

For Mr. Ray, such stories do more than instill pride in blacks. "It is important to respect people because of that history," he says. "But in the end, unless that information helps us to create a future together then it is just interesting banter." In his view, black successes over time show that the way "America has understood the issue of race and race relations has always been changeable."

"It means," he adds, "that we are not simply passengers in a car hurtling toward a cliff.... It means that really we can do something about it."

Where to Visit to Learn about Black History in New England

Scattered throughout the Northeast are sites linked to the history of Africans and African-Americans in the 17th and 18th century. Here is a list of some of the tours and sites.

* In Newport, R.I., the Historical Society conducts walking tours on Fridays and Saturdays, May through October, at 10 a.m. The tour includes the house of the town's largest slave dealer, Augustus Lucas; the home of Newport Gardner, formerly Occramar Mirycoo, who was one of many tricked into slavery; and Washington Square, formerly known as the Parade and the site of festive 'Lection Day celebrations from about 1755 on. For more information call (401) 846-0813.

* In Farmington, Conn., self-guided tours will be available beginning April 1, 1998. In the meantime, the Historical Society offers tours. For more information call (860) 678-1645.

* An abbreviated version of "A Struggle from the Start" is on view at the Pavillion at the Old State House in Hartford, Conn., while "Black and White in a Yankee Town" will open at the Farmington Library on Feb. 1, 1998.

* Massachusetts sites include the Parting Ways cemetery near Plymouth, and the Royall House in Medford, which is open from May 1 to Oct. 1. For more information on the Royall House, call (617) 396-9032; for information on other sites contact the Massachusetts Historical Commission in Boston (617) 727-8470.

* The African Burial Ground project in New York City gives regular presentations to groups (to be included in a group, phone: (212) 432-5707) - and makes videos available on the excavation and its findings. The offices are located in the World Trade Center and the tour includes a visit to the archaeological laboratory and the site of the burial ground.

* Individual historical societies publish maps and brochures such as the Connecticut Freedom Trail, available from the Connecticut Humanities Council by calling (860) 685-2260.