|Lucy Chester (1774-1849), daughter of Cate and Prince, is|
buried in the north Boxborough cemetery. Her parents are
thought to have been buried in a different Boxborough
cemetery, but the markers and records no longer exist.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Slavery in Massachusetts, and Afterwards
In this time of national introspection about prejudice against people of color, perhaps this is a time to revisit the history of slavery in colonial New England, and its aftermath. Massachusetts was the first British colony to legalize slavery. The year 1641 saw the passing of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties. This set of 98 rules established rules of law governing how men, women, children and servants had essential rights. Rule 91 stated that there shall never be slavery, serfdom or captivity "... unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us."
Free was not equal, neither legally nor economically. Freed slaves
often continued to work in the households where they had been owned, basically
accepting room and board in return for labor. Their children were unlikely to
attend school, and once reaching adolescence, were often indentured until they
were 21 years old. The book “Black Walden” describes the lives of former slaves
and their children in Concord. Marginalized to poor-quality land in Walden
Woods and elsewhere, succumbing to poor nutrition, disease and prejudice,
former slaves died, their children too, or else moved to cities where there were
larger populations of Black families. By 1880 there were no descendants
remaining in Concord from the several score who had lived there as slaves and
descendants of slaves. Concord’s “whitewashed” official history had become
descriptions of white revolutionaries, authors and abolitionists.
And there it was: strangers sold to us could be owned as slaves. And de facto, their children.
Prior to 1641 there had been a handful of slaves owned by colonists. In colonial Massachusetts the real impetus for this part of the Body of Liberties document was wars with Native Americans. The colonists did not want to free their prisoners of war, but could not decide what to do with them. The decision was reached to sell them into slavery in the
colonies. Returning ships started bring back a few Negro slaves as cargo.
Slavery never took hold in the northern colonies as it did in the southern colonies mostly because there were no labor-intensive cash crops - no tobacco, indigo, rice or cotton. Instead, northern slaves were primarily prestige property for the upper class, especially for wealthy men who did not intend to have themselves or their wives do much physical labor about home and farm.
These ministers, lawyers, doctors, judges and military officers typically owned one to three slaves. Increase Mather, President of Harvard College, owned slaves, as did his minister son, Cotton Mather, author of Rules for the Society of Negroes, and The Negro Christianized.
By the numbers: 550 adult slaves in Massachusetts by 1708 grew to 2,720 in the town-by-town slave census conducted in 1754 (an undercount, as children under 16 were not included). This was a bit more than one percent of the total population, but heavily skewed toward higher percentages in
coastal cities. For example, Boston was ten percent Negro in 1754 (counting both
slaves and free). In that same census year Concord was recorded as having 15
adult slaves, Sudbury 14, Acton 1 and Stow none. Maynard did not yet exist. Boston
The end of slavery in
was hastened by the Revolutionary War. Many Loyalists fled to British-controlled
territory, often abandoning their slaves. The Continental Army under the
command of George Washington (slave owner), initially opposed enrolling any
Negro men, but changed this edict in 1776. Slave owners received a cash compensation
for any slave freed to serve in the Army. Massachusetts was the first of the
newly forming states to end slavery. With the war still raging, Massachusetts
passed a state constitution in 1780. Key wording: "All
men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and
unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and
defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and
protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and
The State legislature may not have intended this to mean the end of slavery; draft versions proposed in 1777 and 1778 had been clear that slavery would continue. But the 1780 wording was what became law. The right to vote in state elections was gained a year later, after black businessmen pointed out that “no taxation without representation” applied to them, too. The first United States census, conducted in 1790, reported no slaves in Massachusetts and a population of 5,463 people who were not white, out of a total of 378,787, or 1.4 percent. [Present-day, Black, 7.0 to 9.0 percent (conflicting reports) for the state, under two percent for Maynard, under one percent for Stow.]
The first mention of an African American living in Maynard is a photo caption in the Maynard Historical Society archive identifying John Adams as a chauffeur for Dr. Frank Rich, circa 1910. There is no mention of whether he lived on the Rich family property or elsewhere, or if he had a family. In Stow, on land that later became part of Boxboro, a woman named Cate was owned from around 1750 to 1772, when at age 31, she was declared free by her owner, Phineas Taylor. Cate married Prince Chester, also a freed slave, from Lexington. Their descendants include Chesters and Hazards, in Massachusetts and elsewhere.