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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Friday, January 09, 2009

“By You and Them I Mean to Be Cared For”

Yesterday I quoted Samuel Adams’s descendant William V. Wells on an African-American woman named Surry, who came to the second Elizabeth Adams as a slave and remained with the family after emancipation. Wells wrote that when the Adamses gave Surry freedom papers, she “threw them into the fire, indignantly remarking that she had lived too long to be trifled with in that manner.”

That story put me in mind of some anecdotes in William D. Piersen’s book Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England. Piersen pored through many sources, particularly local histories, for clues to how black New Englanders lived in the late colonial and early republican periods.

In particular, he described other resisting attempts to free them:

Slaves who became old in service to a white family often refused a “reward of freedom because they felt at home in their master’s household and because they could have assurance there that they would be cared for in their old age. Prince Jonar [also called Prince Yongey], an African-born slave owned in succession by Joseph Buckminster and his son Thomas, managed a farm in Framingham, Massachusetts, where he lived in a small cabin overlooking a meadow he had picked for cultivation because it reminded him of the soil of his native country. Offered freedom in his old age, Jonar refused by sagaciously citing a proverb common to Yankee slaves in this situation: “Massa eat the meat; he now pick the bone.”

As William Brown, the son of a Rhode Island slave, explained, “The old bondsmen declared their master had been eating their flesh and now it was the slaves’ turn to stick to them and suck their bones.” Mose Parson’s slave avoided the African proverbial intricacies by commenting more bluntly: “You have had the best of me, and you and yours must have the worst. Where am I to go in sickness or old age? No, Master, your slave I am, and always will be, and I will belong to your children when you are gone; and by you and them I mean to be cared for.”

Domestic slaves were especially apt to remain with their masters or return shortly after gaining freedom. The refusal of freedom was, as might be expected, more common among older women since they would have greater difficulties outside the family and because they usually retained close bonds to the white children they had helped raise.
Wells dated his story to after “the institution of slavery was formally abolished in Massachusetts,” or 1783. He also said that Surry had arrived in the household about 1765 as a “servant girl” and remained “for nearly half a century,” or well into the 1800s. So Surry was apparently only in early middle age when she destroyed the freedom papers. But she felt “she had lived too long to be trifled with.”

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