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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Sunday, February 05, 2017

“Building Old Cambridge” in Harvard Square, 7 Feb.

On Tuesday, 7 February, the Cambridge Historical Society will present the authors of Building Old Cambridge: Architecture and Development, Susan E. Maycock and Charles M. Sullivan, speaking at the Harvard Coop.

This book is published by the Cambridge Historical Commission and the M.I.T. Press, which says:

Building Old Cambridge explores the oldest section of Cambridge, which was founded as the capital of Massachusetts Bay in 1630 and chosen as the site of Harvard College in 1636. When the new villages of Cambridgeport and East Cambridge appeared in the early 19th century, the original settlement around Harvard Square became known as Old Cambridge. While the university and its often-wealthy students influenced the development of Harvard Square, Old Cambridge became a national center of the printing industry and supported vital communities of African Americans and Irish immigrants.

Successive waves of newcomers – including the West Indian planters who built summer estates in the 1750s, the suburbanites who appeared in the 1850s, and the annually renewed flood of professors and students that have always enriched community life – have contributed to the layering of architectural styles that is evident in all corners of the neighborhood.
Maycock and Sullivan are stalwarts at the Cambridge Historical Commission, as Survey Director and Executive Director, respectively. No one knows more about the city’s architecture and development than they do. This book has been twenty years in the making and clocks in at 944 pages.

Last month the Cambridge Chronicle asked Maycock and Sullivan about their most surprising discovery:
Some of the communities we discovered that we hadn’t been aware of. One was a village called Lewisville. It was an African-American community off Garden Street that was founded by freed slaves in the late 18th, early 19th Century. They developed a little cemetery, the Lewis Tomb. We had no idea.

How did you discover Lewisville existed?

We were looking at a map of Cambridge in the 1870s and we noticed this note that said “Tomb” near Walker Street. We thought, ‘This is really strange. Who would have a tomb on their property?’ So we pulled that thread a little bit and did some title research and kept pulling the thread and come up with this whole story about this African-American settlement that dispersed before the Civil War, where many members went to Africa in the African immigration movement. But it really disappeared in the 1880s.

Is there anything left, any tombstones?

There’s nothing left. We’ve been in the backyard of the house. The area was redeveloped in the 1870s. Apparently, in the Chronicle, it was reported the remains were dug up and put in Cambridge Cemetery in unmarked graves and the land was subdivided and new houses were built. So none of the houses survived. 
One of the families forming the nucleus of that community were Tony and Cuba Vassall and their children, once enslaved on the John Vassall estate through the year that Gen. George Washington used that mansion as his headquarters.

This Building Old Cambridge event will start at 7:00 P.M. on the 3rd floor of the Coop’s Massachusetts Avenue building.

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