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, April 13, 2014

The Craft of Caesar Fleet

Yesterday I described the travels of Pompey Fleet, a printer born into slavery in Boston around 1746 who ended up in west Africa by the end of the century. He was part of three mass migrations of Loyalists: from Boston in 1776, from New York in 1783, and from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone in 1792.

What about Pompey’s younger brother, Caesar Fleet? His life took a different course. He stayed in Boston. The town’s 1780 tax assessments, published several decades ago by the Bostonian Society, list Caesar Fleet as a “Negro” living in Ward 10. The fact that he was tallied as a taxpayer indicates that he was no longer considered a slave, even before Massachusetts’s high court made slavery unenforceable in 1783.

Caesar Fleet’s name appears in another interesting source from the Revolutionary years. One of the earliest documents from Boston’s African Lodge of Freemasons, founded by Prince Hall, shows that “Sesar Fleet” joined in 23 June 1779. That was one of several civic organizations Hall and his circle founded during and after the Revolution in their bid as black men for an equal place in Boston society.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found Caesar Fleet in any other local records or newspapers. I don’t know if he lived long enough to be involved in the printing of Prince Hall’s 1797 oration, shown above. But there might be more sources out there.

Last year Caitlin G-D Hopkins wrote an article for Common-place that mentioned Pompey and Caesar’s father, Peter Fleet. She added thanks to “Gloria McCahon Whiting, whose pioneering work on the life and work of Peter Fleet, woodcut illustrator, has informed and enriched my own research.”

As it happens, Gloria Whiting is sharing a paper this Tuesday on “‘How Can the Wife Submit?’: African Families Negotiate Gender and Slavery in New England” as part of the women’s history seminar series co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. That conversation will take place at 5:30 P.M. on 15 April at the Schlesinger Library, 10 Garden Street in Cambridge. It’s free to the public, but to reserve a seat contact the M.H.S.

TOMORROW: Should I show Peter Fleet’s cartoon about Freemasonry from 1751? It’s “not safe for work,” as the kids say.

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