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, August 22, 2013

“Impowred to order and require so many days’ work yearly”

At a meeting at Minute Man National Historical Park yesterday, I mentioned a colonial Massachusetts law requiring free blacks to work on roads. I promised to track down that reference and decided also to highlight it here.

In 1707, the Massachusetts General Court took note of what its constituents—i.e., white men—considered an injustice. For decades all blacks and Native Americans had been excluded from regular militia training. But what about free black men? They had the protection of the militia without contributing to it. That question hadn’t arisen before, suggesting that the free black community had grown enough to warrant legislative attention.

So the General Court passed “An Act for the Regulating of Free Negro’s, &c.” in 1707:

Whereas, in the several towns and precincts within this province, there are several free negro’s and molatto’s, able of body and fit for labour, who are not charged with trainings, watchings and other services required of her majesty’s subjects, whereof they have share in the benefit,—

Be it enacted by His Excellency the Governour, Council and Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority, of the same,

[Sect. 1.] That the selectmen of each town or precinct be and hereby are impowred to order and require so many days’ work yearly, of each free male negro or molatto, able of body, dwelling within such town or precinct, in repairing of the highways, cleansing the streets, or other service, for the common benefit of the place, as, at the discretion of the selectmen, may be judged an equivalent to the services performed by others, as aforesaid.

[Sect. 2.] And every negro or molatto as aforesaid, being duely warned by the selectmen or other person appointed by them that shall neglect or refuse to attend and perform the labour and service, at the place and time as he is directed, shall forfeit and pay, to the use of the poor of such town or precinct, five shillings per diem for each day’s neglect of his duty in that respect.

And be it further enacted,

[Sect. 3.] That all free male negro’s or molatto’s, of the age of sixteen years and upward, able of body, in case of alarm, shall make their appearance at the parade of the military company of the precinct wherein they dwell, and attend such service, as the first commission officer of such company shall direct, during the time the company continues in armes, on pain of forfeiting the sum of twenty shillings to the use of the company, or performing eight day’s labour as aforesaid, without reasonable excuse, made and accepted, for not attending. And be it further enacted,

[Sect. 4.] That every free negro or molatto, who shall harbor or entertain any negro or molatto servant [i.e., slave] in his or her house without the leave and consent of their respective masters or mistresses, shall forfeit and pay the sum of five shillings to the use of the poor of the town, for each offence.

[Sect. 5.] And if any negro or molatto, as aforesaid, shall be unable to pay his or her fine, or shall neglect or refuse to attend the labour assign’d him as aforesaid, any of her majesty’s justices, upon complaint thereof made, are hereby impowred to commit such delinquent to the house of correction, there to receive the discipline of the house, and to be kept to hard labour double the number of days assign’d him to work as aforesaid, or as is the sum of his or her fine, at the rate of one shilling per diem. {Passed June 12; published July 4.
Here’s the law as published in 1759, and here’s the text on the state archives’ website.

The Boston selectmen tried to exact this labor from free black men from 1707 through 1767, as shown in this example. A special town meeting during the siege tried to do the same. As I read those records, it looks like the special rules for free blacks became increasingly unenforceable.

The records of other towns in Massachusetts might show whether their selectmen used the same power. We know that as of April 1775 many rural militia companies included African-American and Native American men alongside whites, though the old laws were still on the books.

TOMORROW: More militia exemptions.


Jimmy Dick said...

Am I reading Section 3 correctly in that it allowed free blacks to serve in the militia? It seems like it allows for it and for them to also do hard labor depending on what the town decided. If it did allow for blacks to serve in the militia that would be pretty advanced thinking for that time. It would also stand in very sharp contrast to the laws in the southern colonies.

J. L. Bell said...

Section 3 refers to emergency situations and required free blacks to show up and accept orders from militia officers. Those orders that were likely to be more about hard labor to support the militia than about fully participating in the armed militia.

Jimmy Dick said...

That was my first impression, but it doesn't say that outright. It is ambiguous and to me that could easily be construed to mean that free blacks could be in the militia. We know that at some point in time they were in the militia. This all comes from changing attitudes in the colony. Does anyone have any firm evidence about blacks actually working in lieu of militia service? For that matter, does anyone have any documented proof of when free blacks started serving in the militias as soldiers?
That would definitely be evidence to show how attitudes regarding free blacks was changing at what point in time.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that the language is ambiguous in that it leaves the free black men's assignments up to the local militia officers. In the context of 1707, I really doubt the legislators expected those officers to put black men in the ranks. By 1775, we know, African-Americans were not only soldiering during an alarm but also drilling and doing so while legally enslaved. So when did things change?

Usually our sources on militiamen come from wartime because that's when the companies were called out for something other than a drill and had to be paid. So the records of mobilizations between 1707 and 1775 might show how free black men participated. As I recall, Nero Benson of Needham did military service in mid-century, but perhaps in the separate role of musician.

That sample might be skewed toward inclusion, however, because a military emergency can prompt people to bend rules they'd enforce in more peaceful times. (In other words, if everyone in town knows Quok Johnson is the best shot with a musket, who would object to having him in the company when it's actually marching off to war?)

Jimmy Dick said...

That then leads us to two things. One is about searching records to see if there is anything out there or to issue a request for information to the very large historical community. Second thing, you touch on the issue of war as a catalyst for change. We know and document the War of Independence as an agent of change. For the subject of black men in the Massachusetts militia companies, I would venture that the wars in which they participated in during the 18th century such as the Seven Year's War, etc. had an effect on how blacks in the militia were viewed.

J. L. Bell said...

Another approach for studying the change is to map out which years the Boston selectmen recorded going after black men to work on the roads. Did those correlate with times of peace? And do other town records show similar patterns?

There were remarks in the Revolutionary War about the number of African-Americans in the Continental ranks. Did British officers leave similar comments about colonial regiments during the earlier imperial wars?