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NewsNov 6, 2019

Mapping Local Legacies of Slavery

Professors warn against ‘re-erasing’ history, however well-intentioned

Kerri Greenidge and Kendra Field speaking on stage
Above: Dr. Kerri Greenidge and Dr. Kendra Field speak about New England's legacy of slavery

For the 400th anniversary of the first slave setting foot in America, Lesley is examining the legacy of slavery, through a series of programs that continued on Monday with a discussion debunking many long-held beliefs about the institution in New England.

Dr. Tatiana Cruz, an assistant professor of history at Lesley, moderated the discussion with professors Dr. Kendra Field and Dr. Kerri Greenidge, who co-led The African American Trail Project at Tufts University’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.

“Part of our goal is to situate present-day struggles in broader history of African Americans,” Field explained.

The pair created the African American Trail Project to highlight the rich and layered history of African American people in New England. The project’s map includes more than 200 sites, from a church founded by black people in Boston’s North End, to an African American heritage trail on Martha’s Vineyard.

“I think that everybody deserves to relate to their space and their town and feel that the institutions reflect them,” said Greenidge.

New England has long been seen as a hub of whiteness as well as a benevolent haven where slavery barely existed. Not so, said Greenidge and Field, who challenge the idea that slaves in New England were better off than those in the South.

“Being enslaved in New England was just as brutal as anywhere,” said Greenidge.

Massachusetts, after all, was the first colony to legalize slavery in the 1600s, and while an estimated 50 percent of the slave population was literate by 1760, that has less to do with kindness than with cultural circumstances. Slavery, said Greenidge, looks different based on the time period and the culture and institutions of each place, and it’s well documented that with slave ownership came social currency.

Free and enslaved people both occupied Boston in the years when slavery was legal. Field and Greenidge also spoke about the prevalence of Native American slaves as well as communities of blacks and natives that are often forgotten in local history.

Abolition was no anodyne

Slavery did come to an end in Massachusetts in 1783, but the professors emphasized that it did not signal acceptance of black people into mainstream society.

For one, many people sold their slaves in anticipation of the new law. As a result, the “there are no slaves here” numbers reported shortly after Massachusetts’ abolition are misleading. Additionally, Greenidge and Field said that many freed people were “warned out” of New England towns, a practice in which white townspeople voted to banish African Americans. They were forced to start new communities, move to the outskirts of towns or move to different states altogether.

Despite the “whitewashing” of many New England towns, black people did fight to establish a place for themselves. Prince Hall, a freeman and abolitionist, established the first black Freemason organization, which still has branches in the US, Africa and Europe.

Revolutionary War-era talk of freedom from British rule also led to the push for freedom from bondage. Around the same time, the first black churches began to appear.

Back to the present day, Field and Greenidge spoke about the struggles to bring justice to descendants of enslaved people, and the push to remove the names of slave owners and known racists from public signs.

Simply deleting these names comes with caveats, however.

“In what way is that re-erasing the complicated story?” Greenidge asked. The stories of black and native people are intertwined in these histories. Greenidge and Field provided the Vassall family as an example of the layered history that could be compromised by the erasure of historic names. Modern day black descendants of the Vassalls, a wealthy, white, slave-owning Cambridge family, are reluctant to remove their shared name from prominent areas because it engenders the removal of their history as well.

“Any discussion of changing a name or sign needs to incorporate the complex history of that community,” Greenidge said. “Extend that to the community that may not be living there because you don’t have rent control anymore.”

Field added, “There’s no problem with taking things down as long as we do the work required to understand what it is that we’re doing. Each and every one is an opportunity for us to learn more about our past.”

Learn more about our 400 Year Initiative and the African American Trail Project.