Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Slavery in Massachusetts

On February 25, at 7:00 p.m., the Maynard Public Library will present a Zoomed talk titled: “The Rise and Fall of Slavery in Massachusetts.” Register at This is the first in a monthly series of history lectures produced by the Sesquicentennial Steering Committee as part of Maynard’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of its creation on April 19, 1871. The March talk will be “Before the Europeans Arrived…and After.” A new history book “MAYNARD MASSACHUSETTS: A Brief History” is for sale at 6 Bridges Gallery, 63 Nason Street, THUR-SAT, 12-5.   

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."

And there it was: strangers sold to us could be slaves.

Lucy Chester (1774-1849), daughter of Cate and
Prince Chester, is buried in Boxborough's North
Cemetery. The burial site of her parents is unknown.
The land that became Maynard in 1871 – prior to that part of Sudbury and Stow – was too poor as farmland to support families with the financial means to purchase and own slaves, but slave ownership did exist in other parts of Sudbury, in Concord, in Lexington, and other well-to-do towns. Record show one slave owned in Stow, on land that later became part of Boxborough. Her name was Cate. She was declared free at age 30 by her owner in 1772. She married Prince Chester, also a freed slave, from Lexington. Their descendants include people with the surnames Chester and Hazard, in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

Prior to 1641 there had been small numbers of slaves owned by British colonists, mostly in Virginia, but slavery was already common in the Spanish-controlled Caribbean and Florida. 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 Caribbean islands. Returning ships started bring back a few Black 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 Boston and coastal cities. For example, Boston was ten percent Black 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.

The end of slavery in Massachusetts 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 Black 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 happiness."

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 citizens make up seven to nine percent (conflicting reports) for the state, under two percent for Maynard.

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.

John Adams (second from right) was chauffer for
Dr. Frank U. Rich (Maynard Historical Society photo)
The first documented mention of an Black man 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. 

Not in the newspaper column: There is no mention in the Maynard Historical Society archives of Black men, women or children being hired to work in the woolen mill, or elsewhere in Maynard, nor living in Maynard, nor of Black children attending school in Maynard during the woolen mill era (1847-1950). The Ku Klux Klan was active in Maynard and surrounding towns during the 1920s (matching a national prominence), but locally the intent was primarily anti-Catholic. Local amateur and traveling professional minstrel shows - with white actors in blackface - were popular in Maynard in the 1930s and 1940s (long after the national popularity of this type of show had been superseded by vaudeville). It can be inferred that there was not a resident Black population in Maynard at the time, else minstrel shows might have been more obviously perceived as racially offensive. The 2019 U.S. Census reported Black population in Maynard at 1.3%. See other post for bibliography.

One Maynard resident mentioned that Andy Boy Farms, in Concord, brought in workers from Puerto Rico, some with Black heritage, and that many of them were living in Maynard, especially in apartments around Florida Road. Circa 1950, she does not remember any Black children in the school system.


  1. I enjoyed your talk last night. I am a Boxborough resident & we prize the Chester stories as part of the lore of our Town. You & I met in 2015 at a Freedom's Way conference & I have a copy of your then just published book. Keep doing what you're doing!

  2. Hi David—Interesting overview of slavery in the north. Roberta