J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Revolutionary History Makes the Boston Globe

A couple of articles touching on Revolutionary history have appeared this month in regional sections of the Boston Globe.

On 9 November, the paper reported on The Encyclopedia of the American Revolutionary War, a five-volume set co-edited by Lexington resident Richard A. Ryerson, formerly of the Adams Papers and now affiliated with the David Library in Pennsylvania. The publisher’s catalog copy states that the encyclopedia offers

hard-to-find documents such as Anne Hulton’s “Letter from a Boston Loyalist” and Joseph Martin Plumb’s account of the mutiny on May 25, 1780
Uh, guys, that Continental private’s name was Joseph Plumb Martin. And folks can find a passage from one of Hulton’s several letters, published in 1927, here at Boston 1775.

On the front page of the Globe’s 12 November City Weekly section was an article about discussions in Cambridge on whether to preserve the Lechmere name for the square and T station at the east end of the city. Developers of the nearby NorthPoint BuilDings had lobbied for “Lechmere at NorthPoint,” which sounds like an email address. In October the city council voted to retain the historical name.

Then someone—who? the article doesn't say—pointed out that Richard Lechmere was a Loyalist and a slaveholder. So why should his name remain? Some councilors still prefer the traditional name for tradition’s sake. A couple have suggested that the area be named after James, an enslaved worker who sued Lechmere for his freedom in 1769. (Of course, “James Square” would sound like a tribute to Harvard’s William James and his family, and perhaps not all parts of the city would like that.) It’s not clear whether this issue really has legs, or whether the newspaper correspondent was simply raising a provocative question about our history.

Lechmere isn’t the only T stop named for a neighborhood that, in turn, was named for a slave-holding family. In mid-1700s Massachusetts, owning a very big estate went together with owning enslaved workers, and folks used the names of those big estates to designate local landmarks. It’s easy to dig up connections to slavery in the Boylston, Quincy, and Ruggles families, for example.

Probably the T station with the starkest connection to slavery is Maverick on the Blue Line. Samuel Maverick was a very early settler on Boston's harbor islands. He kept slaves in 1639, even before Massachusetts law recognized the institution. In Two Voyages to New-England, John Josselyn wrote that an African woman
came to my chamber window, and in her own Countrey language and tune sang her very loud and shrill…and willingly would have expressed her grief in English. . . . Mr. Maverick was desirous to have a breed of Negroes, and therefore seeing she would not yield by persuasions to company with a Negro young man he had in his house, he commanded him, will’d she nill’d she, to go to bed with her.
Lechmere appears to have been far less tyrannical. He and James worked out a settlement that gave the worker his freedom and £2. (Some later writers treated the argument filed by James’s lawyer, Jonathan Sewall, as a precedent for Massachusetts’s ending of slavery in 1783, and thus as evidence of Massachusetts’s moral high ground on slavery altogether, but no provincial court had actually adopted that argument or its language. The parties came to an agreement themselves.)

On the question of institutions named for slaveholders and their defenders, such as Calhoun College at Yale, I’ve long felt it wise to keep those names as a reminder of how pervasive and seductive slavery was.

Thanks to Graeme Marsden and Robert C. Mitchell for calling these articles to my attention.

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