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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

end of slavery in Massachusetts

Some folks are proposing that "Juneteenth," the 19th of June, go onto the calendar of Massachusetts commemorations. The Boston Globe reported on a petition to that effect, and columnist Derrick Jackson wrote about why Americans should remember Juneteenth—though without speaking to the question of an official holiday. Among bloggers, Derek at Third Decade, Chris at LeftCenterLeft, and the Great White Snark offer their opinions.

So of course I must have mine. To start with, it doesn't matter whether governments or businesses can afford a new holiday closing so close to Memorial Day. The national proposal is to observe Juneteenth as a "holiday observance similar to Flag Day," the Globe reports, and nobody gets Flag Day off. Juneteenth is "observed on the third Saturday of the month" in a few states, so nobody's getting that day off, either. This push is about adding an "official" label to the commemoration, and thus giving it some level of official respect.

Juneteenth is pegged to the arrival of the news of emancipation in the region of Galveston, Texas. That was a big deal—in Texas. It makes sense for the Texas government to observe the anniversary (as "Emancipation Day"). But should Juneteenth become the focus of the whole country's remembrance of slavery? What about the day Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (22 September), the day it took effect (1 January, already a federal holiday), or the day the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified (18 December)? Those dates were more significant for the USA as a whole. Focusing on Juneteenth is a synecdoche, one small piece standing for the whole because people are tickled by the day's quaint name and story.

But what about that story? The popular narrative of Juneteenth is that the enslaved people around Galveston didn't know of emancipation until the U.S. army arrived. Ignorant black people needing rescue by white authorities—is that really the picture of emancipation to emphasize? As Derrick Jackson notes, news of the legal end of slavery had reached Texas, and some enslaved people were freeing themselves already. The problem was recalcitrant slave owners who continued to keep workers in bondage. The U.S. army didn't bring news of the Thirteenth Amendment to the slaves; it brought news to slaveholders that it was going to enforce that amendment.

All that said, what would be the harm of adding Juneteenth to Massachusetts's list of holidays? I fear it might distract us from understanding our own state's history. Not because Juneteenth would come only two days after Bunker Hill Day. But because Massachusetts has its own history of slavery and emancipation that predates the Thirteenth Amendment, and in fact predates that Constitution. A Massachusetts holiday about slavery and its end should include that history.

The movement that ended slavery in Massachusetts started before the Revolution, as the pre-war lobbying of Newton Prince shows. In a period of republican ideology based on the idea of natural liberty, many people came to believe that slavery was untenable. Emancipation was thus directly related to the state struggle for political liberty. While Prince Hall and other blacks continued to petition the legislature, abolitionist lawyers like Theodore Sedgwick looked for test cases to move through the judicial branch. The case of Brom and Mum Bett in 1780 established a county-court precedent based on the new Massachusetts constitution's statement of natural equality. Then the Quock Walker case made that precedent stick statewide. Chief Justice William Cushing told a Superior Court jury in April 1783:

...whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid in upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses—features) has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our Constitution of Government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal—and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property—and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature...
The jury returned a verdict in favor of Walker, declaring that his former owner had been wrong to try to recapture him and had therefore committed assault on a free man.

Of course, there are some wrinkles to that history. (History's so old it's always wrinkled.) Massachusetts was the first British colony in North America to sanction slavery under the law, in 1641. There were even slaves in Massachusetts even before that, as the travel writings of John Josselyn show. That means Massachusetts law allowed slavery for 142 years, and its real duration was even longer. As a contrast, slavery was legal in Georgia from 1751 to 1863, or 112 years. The long history of enslavement in Massachusetts shouldn't be forgotten.

Second, the Quock Walker decision wasn't welcomed by all. Some saw its emphasis on human rights over property rights and tradition as egregious judicial activism. Over a decade later, on 4 March 1795, James Winthrop, chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas, wrote to the Rev. Jeremy Belknap:
By a misconstruction of our State Constitution, which declares all men by nature free and equal, a number of citizens have been deprived of property formerly acquired under the protection of law.
Winthrop also wrote that in 1795 African-Americans "have the same privileges of schooling, as other people"—which they did not, at least in Boston. And that "they can neither elect or be elected to offices of government"—which was indeed the custom, but not the law.

Finally, despite the Walker decision, Massachusetts didn't become a slavery-free zone right away. That case wasn't reported or publicized, so only in retrospect did it become a landmark. We still don't know the exact date of the decision (which makes it hard to observe its anniversary). Many enslaved workers continued to live in the same households, working in exchange for room, board, and clothing as they had before. It took a few more decades before state courts decided that slaveholders living elsewhere lost their legal ownership if they brought their human property into the state. But the Walker case told Massachusetts slave owners that they could no longer ask the state courts to enforce their power.


Anonymous said...

Is this last paragraph correct? As I recall, there were no slaves reported in Massachusetts in the 1790 census -- unlike all other states.

J. L. Bell said...

That's correct: the 1790 census in Massachusetts counted no slaves. By then the Quock Walker precedent seems to have taken hold in the public mind, giving employers and officials incentives not to report slavery. Did that mean there were no remnants of the institution left in the state?

Samuel Adams owned title to an enslaved woman named Surry starting "about the year 1765," according to his family. She remained in the household for "nearly half a century," well after the Walker decision. The family's 1865 account of the legal relationship with her is a bit muddy and self-absolving: "When the institution of slavery was formally abolished in Massachusetts, though she had long been free, additional papers were made out for her: but she threw them into the fire, indignantly remarking that she had lived too long to be trifled with in that manner."

So was Surry working for wages, for room and board, for room and board plus the promise of lifetime employment and care? Some enslaved workers distrusted sudden emancipation because they thought their masters were trying to get out of that last obligation. How was Surry "free" for a long time before this moment, yet still affected by the court case and in need of "additional papers"?

I don't know if there are records to clarify the situation in the Adams household. But it seems like a good illustration of how an institution like slavery doesn't end overnight. It dribbles out. Which, I guess, is also one of the lessons of "Juneteenth."

Anonymous said...

Thought you would find this interesting: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/newell.html "James Newell:
an African slave of Mary White, 1690. Mary White had a farm in the Conihassett, one mile west of Merritt's brook , and she had the singular fancy to marry her slave. Tradition speaks of him as a respectable man. Their children, Joshua , James, Hezekiah, and four daughters, born from 1691 to 1706. James Jr. married Abigail Nichols 1739, and left sons James, Levi, Joshua and Daniel, born from 1740 to 1752. They have descendants in Scituate." Two of their grandsons married my many times great aunts (Jane & Ruth Burbank) and had family in NH. I find this interesting as it appears that the white settlers were okay with this marriage. I did find one local genealogy from the mid-late 1800s that may have purposely scrubbed my great aunts from their parents list of children because of whom they married or then again perhaps it was an oversight as they had moved to NH and Maine many years before the genealogy was written. ~VG

J. L. Bell said...

There are a number of examples of white women marrying black men in colonial New England—but one really has to dig to find them. Not just because of racial taboos then and in subsequent decades, but also because those families tended to be the working poor, the least documented class.

I can’t think of any examples of white men marrying black women. But perhaps there are some of those, too.