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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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Forging a Future

Prospect Hill Forge in Waltham, Massachusetts, is having its “Grand Opening Bash” from 6:00 to 10:00 P.M. this evening, Thursday, 17 May, and every evening through Sunday, 20 May, at the same time. This forge offers classes in “The Rudiments of Blacksmithing,” “Flint and Steel,” and other ferrous arts.

Of course, I’ve already taken my blacksmithing class, at Old Sturbridge Village. And I have a couple of rather poor iron nails to show for it. But to observe the public opening of this forge, I looked in my library for material on blacksmiths from the Revolutionary era. Here’s a passage from William C. Nell’s Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855):

JAMES EASTON, of Bridgewater, was one who participated in the erection of the fortifications on Dorchester Heights, under command of Washington, which the next morning so greatly surprised the British soldiers then encamped in Boston.

Mr. Easton was a manufacturing blacksmith, and his forge and nail factory, where were also made edge tools and anchors, was extensively known, for its superiority of workmanship. Much of the iron work for the Tremont Theatre and Boston Marine Railway was executed under his supervision. Mr. Easton was self-educated. When a young man, stipulating for work, he always provided for chances of evening study. He was welcome to the business circles of Boston as a man of strict integrity, and the many who resorted to him for advice in complicated matters styled him “the Black Lawyer.” His sons, Caleb, Joshua, Sylvanus, and Hosea, inherited his mechanical genius and mental ability.

The family were victims, however, to the spirit of color-phobia, then rampant in New England, and were persecuted even to the dragging out of some of the family from the Orthodox [i.e., Congregationalist] Church, in which, on its enlargement, a porch had been erected, exclusively for colored people.

After this disgraceful occurrence, the Eastons left the church. They afterwards purchased a pew in the Baptist church at Stoughton Corner, which excited a great deal of indignation. Not succeeding in their attempt to have the bargain cancelled, the people tarred the pew. The next Sunday, the family carried seats in the waggon. The pew was then pulled down; but the family sat in the aisle. These indignities were continued until the separation of the family.
In colonial and early republican New England, families with enough money bought pews in their churches, passing them down or selling them like other property. But churches still tried to enforce who could sit where through a tradition called “seating the meeting,” with the best pews assigned according to wealth and social status—and, in this community, race.

George R. Price and James Brewer Stuart’s article in the Massachusetts Historical Review adds some specifics to Nell’s account. James Easton was born in Middleborough in 1754 to a free couple who probably had both African and Native ancestors. He may have grown up in a nearby community of Christian Indians. Easton served in Gamaliel Bradford’s 14th Massachusetts regiment in the late 1770s. He returned from the war to set up a home in North Bridgewater, now Brockton, and married in 1783, according to Bradford Kingman’s History of North Bridgewater, Plymouth County, Massachusetts.

The Easton family’s first recorded action against segregation appears in the records of Bridgewater’s Fourth Church of Christ in 1800. James Easton was then in his mid-forties and established as a businessman. But the congregation, having enlarged their meeting-house, wanted to reseat him and his family in a new “Negro gallery.” Easton moved to a Baptist church, at a time when Baptists were protesting how taxes went to the Congregationalist hierarchy, but he experienced discrimination there, too.

James Easton’s son Hosea became a minister, and his writings have been collected in To Heal the Scourge of Prejudice. Easton also had a daughter named Sarah who, in 1813, became the second wife of Robert Roberts, author of The House Servant’s Directory. In 1850, their son Benjamin unsuccessfully sued the Boston school committee to integrate the city schools on behalf of his young daughter Mary. So this blacksmith produced a series of rights activists in the early republic.

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