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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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

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

Yesterday I mentioned how colonial Boston selectmen’s records periodically include lists of the free black men in the town in connection with, of all things, highway repairs. Here’s more about that.

Massachusetts militia laws excluded black and Native American men from drilling with the white men required to serve, presumably to avoid giving those men of color so much military training they could start an uprising. It’s possible that the social-gathering side of militia musters also played a role in this exclusion.

Since militia duty made free white men give up four days a year for the good of society, that society felt it was only fair to require free black men to give up four days as well. Therefore, in 1707 the Massachusetts General Court passed a law that said:
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 training, watchings and other services required of her majesty’s subjects, whereof they have share in the benefit,—Be it enacted…

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 the 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.
The result was a form of tax levied only on free black men and extracted in the form of labor. Or it was a way to continue coercing labor, at least a little, from black men even after they became free.

In fact, this custom may have already been in place before that law made it official. On 26 Sept 1704 the Boston selectmen “Ordered that Mr. Timo. Wadsworth be desired to take Care of doing what is necessary in repaireing the High way on ye neck & that as many of the free negros & poor of ye Town may be imployed therein as Shall be convenient.” Perhaps that was free labor, perhaps the town expected those workers to be paid and specified “the free negros & poor” to ensure their asking price would be as low as possible.

On 16 June 1707, the selectmen moved to take advantage of unpaid labor under the new law. They ordered “each Free negro & mollatto man of this Town, forthwith to attend and perform four dayes Labour, abt. repaireing the Streets or Highwayes.” The town announced it could call on those men for more work if needed, “reserving their remayning Service untill further order.” A constable was empowered to summon the men, putting the force of law behind this requisition.

For the next couple of decades, lists of black and Native men and their work assignments, ranging from two days to twelve, periodically appeared in the selectmen’s records. It looks like men who got out of their obligation in one year were assigned more days the next. I found lists for 1708, 1710, 1711, 1712, 1714, 1715, 1716, 1718, 1719, and 1723.

At various towns the selectmen empowered any one of them to summon free black men and appointed “Capt. Hab. Savage,” Richard Hubburt, Eneas Salter, and others to oversee those workers. Specific assignments included “clearing the valt of ye. House of Easment [i.e., outhouse] belonging to the Free Lattin School in School Street.” But most of the work was repairing the main roads.

The 1725 list, the first to include a man named Onesimus, was unusual in giving only first names for the men being drafted. Usually there was more identifying information. Sometimes those names came with other notations like “dead“ or ”gon,” or remarks about how many days men had already worked or had left to do.

There was no list of laborers in 1736 or 1737, so on 30 Aug 1738 the selectmen directed ”Thomas Cowdrey…to take a List of the Free Negro’s, Indians, and Molatto’s in the Town that are capable of Service, and to lay it before the Select men, in order to their being Employ’d in the Service of the Town, according to law.” The list entered on 13 September contained twenty-one names, including Titus Rumney Marsh, John Woodby, and Onesimus Mather.

The town drafted free black workers again in 1743 and 1744, but the practice became less common over time. On 14 June 1759 the selectmen resolved:
Whereas there is Considerable Work to be done this year on Boston Neck, & the Free Negroes of the Town have been for Several Years exempted from any duty, therefore it was Some time past Voted that they be Orderd to attend the Selectmen, & on this day the following Negroes Attended
  • Bristol Jeffries who will do what Work he is orderd to do—
  • Pompey Blackman who agrees to pay half a dollar p. day for so many days as he shall be orderd—
  • Liecester Black ditto—
  • Dick Tynge to pay half a dollar as above—
  • David Primus ditto—
  • Homer Blackadore Sickly.
Some of the town’s free black men now had enough money to buy their way out of service in the same way white men could pay fines so as not to attend militia drill. (Though I’m not sure how often those fines were really collected.)

TOMORROW: How a custom died in Revolutionary Boston.

1 comment:

Don Carleton said...

You've shed light on an entirely new dimension of early Boston's African-American history, John, great work! Really helps us understand the ambiguous/ambivalent stance Boston had towards its free people of color before the Revolution...