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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Friday, July 09, 2021

How Did the 8th of July Become Quock Walker Day?

Back in 2006, while discussing a proposed Juneteenth holiday and how the Quock Walker cases had more relevance to Massachusetts, I wrote:
…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).
At this remove, I’m not sure where I read that scholars didn’t know the date of the decisions that confirmed Walker’s freedom, but I certainly didn’t find any.

When I read that in 2020 the Massachusetts General Court passed a law stating that the decision came out on July 8 and making that date Quock Walker Day in Massachusetts, I naturally became curious. Had new documentation come to light?

First I went back through the scholarly articles studying the case, from the 1960s to the 2000s, seeing if any of them cited a date or a newfound document. Nothing.

Then I looked for books stating the decision came on 8 July. Most of those have been published just in the last few years. The earliest I found was Charles M. Christian’s Black Saga: The African American Experience, published in 1995:

On JULY 8, the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Commonwealth v. Jennison abolished slavery in the commonwealth by virtue of the Declaration of Rights of 1780.
A similarly organized book, Junius P. Rodriguez’s Chronology of World Slavery (ABC-Clio, 1999) said:
In a landmark judicial decision on July 8, slavery was abolished in Massachusetts by action of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in the case of Commonwealth v. Jennison, which involved the efforts of a slave, Quock Walker, to obtain his freedom. The decision was based upon an interpretation of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.
Neither of those books cited sources. Nor did any of the more recent books that echo the same date. This timeline from the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Case for Ending Slavery website, a teachers’ resource created in 2010, gives the 8 July date, based on the Chronology of World Slavery quoted above.

Massachusetts’s official guide to the constitutional cases that ended slavery in the state, the Long Road to Justice website, and Historical Digression’s narrative of the cases don’t state a specific date.

I took another look in my newspaper database, again finding nothing.

I decided to go to the expert on both state government records and the end of slavery in Massachusetts, John Hannigan of the Massachusetts Archives. I asked him, Do we know when the Massachusetts Supreme Court issued its decision in the commonwealth’s case against Nathaniel Jennison?

Hannigan swiftly replied:
Jennison appeared before the Supreme Judicial Court to answer the indictment during the April session, which opened on April 15 and adjourned on April 24, 1783. [Chief Justice William] Cushing issued his now-famous instructions and the jury found Jennison guilty at some point during the course of those ten days. I don’t think it’s possible to pinpoint a more accurate date, as none of the documents are specifically dated beyond the month and year of the session. Indictments were usually entered at the end of the record book for each session, possibly indicating that the justices reserved those for last, but there's no way to prove that.

Ironically, the SJC was not even in session on July 8, 1783. The justices adjourned the session for Cumberland county on July 5, 1783; they didn’t meet again until the Suffolk county session opened on August 26, 1783.
The image above is from the surviving record of the Jennison indictment. Clerk Charles Cushing (brother of the chief justice) wrote “April Term at Worcester A.D. 1783” with no further detail.

Thus, there appears to be not a scrap of historical documentation that the final decision in the Quock Walker cases happened on 8 July 1783, and some strong evidence that it couldn’t have. However, the 8th of July observance is now a matter of state law.

TOMORROW: What Nathaniel Jennison was doing in July 1783.

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