Chronicling Black Lives in Colonial New England

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

Young, talented, and bursting with entrepreneurial spirit, Samuel Gipson started his own business. By his early 30s, he was doing well enough to take in a young clerk to whom he bequeathed his estate.

This American success story would be unremarkable but for three salient facts: The year was 1795, Gipson spent much of his life enslaved in New England, and his heir was the son of the man who had owned him.

Stories like Gipson's, recounted in William Piersen's book, "Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Sub-culture in Eighteenth-century New England" (University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), are coming to light as historians, archaeologists, and dedicated individuals piece together an increasingly complete picture of life in the Colonial Northeastern states. They chronicle the contributions of enslaved and free Africans to the development of such cities as New York and to the culture of Colonial New England.

In the process, they are shattering the myth that New England was always and solely a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment and activism. "People are still surprised to learn that there was slavery in New England," says archaeologist Constance Crosby, a preservation planner with the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

The ongoing excavation of African burial grounds, and the scouring of official records, personal letters, and diaries for details of black life in the Northeast also reflect the growing interest among African-Americans not only in tracing their ancestry, but also in finding inspiration and guidance in the achievements of their forebears. And they illustrate the recognition on the part of many others that the history they have learned is incomplete.

Africans in New England

Much of the Northeast's money came from the slave trade, and the number of Africans in New England grew from fewer than 1,000 in 1700 to some 16,000 by the end of the 18th century.

The majority spent at least part of their lives enslaved, often bought as children by owners in coastal cities. They accounted for as much as 30 percent of the population of South Kingston, R.I., and were a significant presence in Boston (10 percent), New London (9 percent), and New York (7.2 percent). In fact, just before the Revolutionary War broke out, New York was the second-largest urban center of slavery, after Charleston, N.C.

Owned mostly by ministers, doctors, and the merchant elite, enslaved men and women in the North often performed household duties in addition to skilled jobs.

They also elected their own governors and kings in a day-long ceremony known as 'Lection Day, a ritual that first appeared around 1750 and continued in some areas for a full century. While their owners were busy casting ballots in Colonial elections, blacks gathered for a mixture of fun and politicking, culminating in voting and a flashy inaugural parade.

Once dismissed as a childish parody of white elections, 'Lection Day has come to be seen as an important political and social phenomenon that blended African and American traditions. Elected officials wielded authority in the community and mediated disputes among blacks, who had no legal standing in the greater community. Historian Piersen also speculates that the fanfare of 'Lection Day livened up Colonial white celebrations and helped shape the phenomenon of the American parade.

There is nothing speculative, on the other hand, about blacks' contribution to American independence. In preparing an exhibition scheduled for July 1998 at the Commonwealth Museum in Boston, Crosby has fleshed out the stories of four black families who formed Parting Ways, a settlement on the town line between Kingston and Plymouth, Mass.

Among them was Quamony Quash, who was just 15 in 1775 when he took up arms under the command of his owner, Col. Theophilus Cotton. In 1781, Cotton promised Quash his freedom if he reenlisted for three years.

Eye-opening exhibitions

This scenario was repeated throughout New England, a fact highlighted in the exhibition, "A Struggle from the Start: the Black Community of Hartford 1639-1960." According to its curator, Stephen Ray, "this was really an eye-opener, particularly in New England where [fighting in the Revolutionary War] becomes a touchstone for identity.

Similarly, McShelle Clarke hopes to use a recently discovered 18th-century black graveyard in Kingston, N.Y., to instill a sense of pride in the city's African-American population. In seeking funding for archaeological investigation and a memorial, she argues that "the bottom line is that every last one of those people was instrumental in building this city and rearing the grandparents of the people who run it."

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

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.

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