Exploring Black History of Eastern Massachusetts
Looking to learn more about local Black history? These are some unique heritage sites you can visit either in person or online.
Museum of African American History (Boston and Nantucket)
A good place to start is the Museum of African American History, with locations in Boston and on Nantucket. (Tickets are available here, and require proof of vaccination.) The MAAH provides a rich collection of artifacts tracing Massachusetts’ Black history back to 1638 when the first slave ship carrying kidnapped Africans landed in Boston Harbor. The museum’s archival holdings reflect the establishment of free Black communities on Beacon Hill and the long history of enslavement that permeated Massachusetts up through the signing of the state Constitution in 1780. The killing of formerly enslaved Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre in 1770, did not bring freedom to Black people in the Commonwealth. It took the perseverance of formerly enslaved people like Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker to force Massachusetts to officially end slavery in 1783. The archives of the MAAH include images, letters, and papers of prominent Black Bostonians such as these and other abolitionists, poets, artists, and civil rights leaders.
There are two impressive online exhibits curated by the Museum of African American History. The first is the virtual Black Historic Trail which starts at the monument to the 54th Regiment, the first Black regiment recruited from the North to fight in the Civil War. This 1897 memorial stands across from the Massachusetts State House on Boston Common. The virtual tour continues through Beacon Hill to the homes of influential and activist Black families including the George Middleton House, the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House, and the David Walker-Maria Stewart House as well as the historic African Meeting House. The Phillips School and the Abiel Smith School (current site of the Boston branch of the Museum of African American History) are also included on the tour. The online exhibit is plotted out on Google Maps, making it easy to explore in real life on a sunny day.
The MAAH also hosts the online exhibit called, Freedom Rising: Remembering the Abolition Movement and Campaign for Civil Rights in Boston, 1770s-1930s. There you can explore the life and legacy of Prince Hall (c. 1735-1807), a formerly enslaved man who fought for freedom and rights for African Americans during the post-Revolutionary War era. You’ll also learn about Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American descent who escaped enslavement in Framingham and became the first person to be killed in the “Boston Massacre” on March 5, 1770. He was later memorialized by William Cooper Nell in his 1830 book The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. Attucks’ likeness was used by the abolitionist movement of the 1830s on commemorative coins and posters. Some of these are held in the Museum of African American History archival collection.
Royall House and Slave Quarters (Medford, MA)
A difficult but impactful excursion would be a visit to the 18th century Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, MA, self-described as “home to the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts and the enslaved Africans who made their lavish way of life possible.” (Indoor tour season begins in May) In the past few years, the museum has sought to clearly redefine its mission, stating on their homepage:
We are committed to telling the history of slavery and freedom while highlighting how the legacy of enslavement creates systemic inequalities today. Thus, we stand in solidarity with the protesters bravely fighting against police violence and demanding justice, accountability, and a transformation of policies that sustain racial and economic inequalities.
Our job is not only to listen, but also to uplift and amplify the history and voices of Black people locally, nationally, and globally in the struggle for freedom.
Museums are not Neutral. Black Lives Matter.
While an in-person visit to buildings that held enslaved people in Massachusetts may be overwhelming for some, there may be interest in Royall House and Slave Quarter’s online events including:
Collecting and Exhibiting Untold Stories
Saturday, February 19, 2022, from 1:00 – 2:00 p.m.
What responsibility do museums have to actively collect and exhibit Black history? How can this responsibility be fulfilled through collaborative exhibition practices?
Doneeca Thurston, Director of the Lynn Museum, will share the conception, collection, and implementation of the museum’s collaborative exhibit with Lynn’s Black community, entitled “Untold Stories: A History of Black People in Lynn.” She will be joined by Kyera Singleton, our museum’s Executive Director, to discuss the growth and change of both institutions.
How to participate: Admission is free for members of the Royall House and Slave Quarters, Cape Ann Museum, and the Lynn Museum; $10 for non-members. Registration is required.
Poetry as Protest – Medford Poet Laureate Terry E. Carter
Thursday, February 24, 2022, from 6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Terry E. Carter named last year as our home community’s inaugural Poet Laureate, will read and discuss a selection of his poems relating to the history and legacies of slavery in Medford, Massachusetts, and beyond, but also about Black resistance and joy. His reading will include “Medford Bound,” the powerful poem he wrote for the dedication of a memorial to enslaved Medford residents buried in unmarked graves in the city’s oldest cemetery.
A classically-trained poet whose literary influences range from Shakespeare to the Harlem Renaissance, Terry has published five volumes of poetry, including most recently his 2020 book, Brown Skin and the Brave New World: A Poet’s Anthem. He was born and raised in Medford and educated in the Medford Public Schools.
How to participate: admission is free, but registration is required.
Robbins House (Concord, MA)
Another worthy day trip (between the months of June and October) would be to Concord to explore the Robbins House, an 1830s building that was home to the first generation of descendants of the formerly enslaved Revolutionary War soldier Caesar Robbins and fugitive Jack Garrison. In the meantime, you can watch the virtual tours of Robbins House and learn the history of its preservation and mission. Robbins House has created a self-guided tour of African-American Concord that you can do as well.
These are just some examples of sites to visit to learn about 18th and 19th century Black lives in Eastern Massachusetts. Stay tuned for the next blog post for Black History Month when we look at the history of global Black immigration to Massachusetts.