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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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ten Hills Farm Book Launch, 3 Feb.

C. S. Manegold’s Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North uses the history of a 600-acre grant of land in modern Medford and Somerville to trace the development of slavery in Massachusetts, from Native American war captives and early African prisoners to the enslaved servants of Isaac Royall, last colonial owner of one part of the farm.

Longfellow National Historic Site and the Friends of the Longfellow House are hosting a book launch for Ten Hills Farm on Wednesday, 3 February, at 6:30 P.M. in the Sherrill Library on the Lesley University/Episcopal Divinity School campus in Cambridge. Manegold will speak and sign books. The event is free; to reserve a space, call 617-876-4491.

Here’s an article about the book from the Somerville Journal. In an opinion essay for the Boston Globe, Manegold wrote:

In the several times I have presented these unpleasant truths in talks at major universities, I have inquired afterwards—who knew this history of slavery in the North? Usually only about three hands go up of 30. And most of these people are professors. Among non-professors the void is even deeper. Students, stumbling on this news, tend to ask with some aggression: “Why didn’t they teach us this?’’
To which I think the answer is: because you weren’t paying attention. I heartily doubt that history textbooks on any level leave out the fact that slavery existed in all thirteen original U.S. states before and during the Revolutionary War, or that slavery endured in some northern and/or Union states well into the nineteenth century, or that some people in the antebellum north benefited economically from slavery and supported its continued existence.

What we’re missing is a mental picture of how slavery functioned in northern households, farms, and ports. Movies and histories have given us a crisp and familiar picture of large cotton plantations in the antebellum south (a picture that in turn leaves out a significant amount of the experience of slavery in the antebellum south, but that’s another story). Because we don’t have details about enslavement in the north firmly in our minds, we don’t feel ready for the quiz.

And that’s the benefit of books like Ten Hills Farm, using specific details to make that history more vivid, emotionally rich, and memorable. And I fully understand the need to market a history book as revealing a completely untold or forgotten story.

But when the book’s website asks, “Who, in this century, knows that slavery persisted in Massachusetts longer than it did in Georgia?” I can’t help noting that Boston 1775 pointed that out in 2006.


R Fuller said...

Jon, thanks for bringing up this topic. I am often stunned to find that people from the Northeast, both black and white, tend to exhibit a sort of blissfully ignorant smugness when it comes to the issue of slavery in America. They are, as you say, equally stunned to find out that the historical reality is not what they wish to believe, i.e., North good, South bad. And then when I bring up the fact that slaves ran to the British in 1775 and 1812, rather than to George Washington, then the looks on people's faces get even more incredulous. The truth is a lot more interesting, and simultaneously discomfiting, than some would like to believe.

Kevin said...

The problem is that this book doesn't really explore slavery in Massachusetts at all. I am about half-way through it and have learned very little. Manengold is an excellent writer, but she steers clear of analyzing much of anything apart from slavery in the Caribbean. I was really looking forward to this book, but has proven to be a disappointment.

Kevin at Civil War Memory

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the analysis. The Royall family that owned part of Ten Hills Farm at the time of the Revolution derived most of their wealth from Caribbean sugar plantations, but preferred not to live there. Some of the families they intermarried with—the Vassalls, Olivers, etc.—were in the same situation. I suppose that justifies discussing how the economy of Massachusetts was intertwined with slave labor plantations’ molasses production and need for cheap goods and good, but the book is indeed being presented as a history of slavery in this colony.

Anonymous said...

thanks for this excellent blog. i'm trying to conjure up an image of what slavery looked like in the north, particularly in cities like boston, but all i can imagine is plantations. can you point me to any descriptions? if hancock had slaves (and i assume he did), what did they do?

J. L. Bell said...

Two solid studies on slavery and the lives of people of African descent in New England are Lorenzo Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776, and William D. Pierson, Black Yankees.

Life for enslaved people in New England port towns was probably similar to their life in New York and Philadelphia, working as domestic servants and laborers. They appear fleetingly in probate records, newspaper ads, town records, and anecdotes, but except for Phillis Wheatley, who was exceptional in many ways, we have no detailed profile of any. It’s useful to know that Revolutionary New Englanders used the term “servant” as a euphemism for “slave,” so any mention of servants meant enslaved black people.

Hancock did have slaves, but they’re hard to document. He and his aunt inherited his uncle’s estate in the 1760s, with no probate inventory. And by the time he died, slavery was illegal. So I don’t think we have any list of the Hancock household slaves. There’s a gravestone for one Hancock “servant” in the Granary Burying Ground.

I’ve written some posts about Samuel Adams’s enslaved housekeeper, Surry. Dr. Joseph Warren and James Otis, Jr., also had slaves.