In this episode of Illuminating the Unseen, Jaimie discusses slavery in Boston during the British colonial period. How did it differ from Southern slavery? How many enslaved people lived in Massachusetts? How did Old North congregants participate in and profit from slavery? Jaimie looks at a 1755 assessor’s report, a newspaper article, and tax records to answer these questions and show how Bostonians’ connections to enslavement stretched far beyond the borders of the city.
See below for the video, primary sources, episode transcript, and a resource list!
Welcome back to Illuminating the Unseen! Today, we continue our series on Black and Indigenous people at Old North in the British Colonial period. I am Jaimie Crumley, the Research Fellow at the Old North Foundation.
Today we will use primary source materials to learn more about slavery in Boston during the British colonial period. We will also discuss how members of the Old North Church participated in slavery. Historians such as Ira Berlin have argued that chattel slavery developed differently in different parts of the Atlantic world.1 Historians often classify the Caribbean and the plantation South as “slave societies.” Meanwhile, they describe urban areas and New England as “societies with slaves.”
The difference between these categories is fairly straightforward. In slave societies, goods were produced primarily because of enslaved people’s labor. However, in societies with slaves, enslaved laborers did not produce most of the goods.
I think these categories are a bit misleading. Indeed, slavery developed differently in urban spaces than it did in rural areas. In most parts of Massachusetts, enslaved people complemented household labor. However, in the eighteenth century, Great Britain and all the colonies depended upon goods produced by enslaved laborers. Plantation labor mostly happened outside of New England. However, New England could not have grown as much as it did in the eighteenth century without embracing many of the practices of so-called slave societies.
Archival materials reveal that Bostonians actively participated in slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade during the British colonial period and beyond. White Bostonians enslaved people locally in New England. However, they also owned plantations in other parts of the Atlantic World. They continued to profit from slavery even after slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783.
You will see images of primary sources on the screen during this video. I found some of these sources at the Massachusetts Historical Society. I found the others at ancestrylibrary.com. These images will be available for you to view in this blog.
The document you will see in a moment shares the numbers of enslaved people aged sixteen and older who lived in the Massachusetts Bay colony at the end of 1754 and the beginning of 1755. The numbers are based on what assessors found when they visited several Massachusetts towns.
Before we look at the data, we should note that these numbers are not necessarily precise. For example, there is no data for some of the towns. The lack of data should not lead us to conclude that those towns had no enslaved people. Rather, the lack of data means that the records were lost, the data did not arrive before this report was compiled, or the accessors failed to send the data. This report helpfully shares statistics about the gender of enslaved people.2 However, it does not report on enslaved people who were under the age of sixteen. Despite its shortcomings, this report is helpful because it gives us a rough idea of how many enslaved people lived in 1750s Massachusetts.
The report reveals that in early 1755, there were nine hundred eighty-nine enslaved people in Boston. Six hundred forty-seven were male, and three hundred forty-two were female. Let’s look at some of the numbers in other parts of the state to give us an idea of how prevalent slavery was in colonial Massachusetts. In Salem, there were eighty-three enslaved people, forty-seven were men, and thirty-six were women. Cambridge contained fifty-six enslaved people, thirty-three were male, and twenty-three were female. These numbers reveal that it was almost universal for elite white people to be enslavers in colonial Massachusetts. A review of the Old North Church’s baptism records from the mid-eighteenth century reveals that Alexander Chamberlain, John Gould, John Greaton, Jacob Royall, Mary Gibbs, and George Skinner, among others, had their enslaved people, infants, children, and adults, baptized at the church.
The 1755 report helps us to see that white New Englanders held enslaved people in their New England homes. However, we have to look beyond the number of enslaved people in New England to see just how actively white New Englanders, including white Old North members, participated in slavery.
I learned the story of how one Old North member was connected to slavery in the West Indies through a 1925 Boston Daily Globe article about a mysterious portrait.3 I understand that a 1925 newspaper article is a circuitous route to finding an eighteenth-century Old North parishioner, but things will make sense in a minute. Bear with me.
The 1925 newspaper article introduces us to Charles K. Bolton’s wife. Charles Bolton was an early twentieth-century warden of Old North.4 He also served as the librarian at the Boston Athenaeum, one of my favorite places in Boston, from 1898-1933. In 1925, his wife, Ethel, discovered a 175-year-old portrait of an unidentified early aristocratic resident of Salem Street.5 The Boston Daily Globe article is about Ethel Bolton’s failed efforts to identify the man in the picture. In the background of the portrait, she saw the Old North Church. She also saw an old Puritan house that sat on the north side of North Bennet and Salem Streets. The house was built in the early eighteenth century.
Here is where the story reconnects to Old North’s eighteenth-century history. From 1772 until 1781, Francis Crequi owned that home. Crequi was a prosperous merchant based in the West Indies. In April of 1771, he was the proprietor of pew number 42 at the Old North Church. Tax records from 1776 and 1781 show that Crequi owned over forty enslaved people on his plantation in St. Croix. They ranged in age from infants to adult men and women. After the American Revolution, Francis, Elizabeth, and Charlotte Crequi still held enslaved people in St. Croix. The Crequi family is one of many eighteenth-century Old North families who demonstrate that Old North’s history takes us far beyond Boston’s North End.
The Old North Church’s earliest parishioners belonged to an Atlantic World network that stretched far beyond Salem Street. The challenge for us as we encounter wealthy white merchants like Francis Crequi and their enslaved people like Ebo Jack, Rosette, and Present in archival documents is how we can get to know them beyond rigid documents like tax records and vestry reports.
In a sense, despite the additional knowledge we have gained about Old North’s connection to slavery, we remain like Ethel Bolton and her mysterious portrait. We are holding onto a series of clues that do not tell a complete story. Eighteenth-century Old North parishioners remind us that slavery in Massachusetts was simultaneously a local and global crisis. Accessing these records can help us to be more conscious of how the small, everyday decisions we make in our communities have implications that reverberate far beyond us.
Do you want to know more about the history of slavery in Massachusetts? If so, please consult the resource list below. I will also share more of my findings about Black slavery and freedom at Old North as my research continues to unfold. Please be in touch with your thoughts and questions about this video. You can leave your comments and questions below the video or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Slavery has existed throughout human history. Chattel slavery differs from other forms of low wage and unpaid labor because it is permanent and hereditary.
2. To learn more about the genealogy of the word gender and how social and cultural historians use it, please read this definition by literary scholar and gender theorist Jack Halberstam.
3. The West Indies are the Caribbean islands. They are located to the southeast of North America.
4. In Episcopal Churches, a warden is a lay person who takes care of the church building and any goods that belong to the church.
5. Since 1723, the Old North Church has been located on Salem Street, in Boston’s North End neighborhood.
Resource List — Black Slavery and Freedom in Massachusetts
Some of the academic articles listed below are behind a paywall. If you need help accessing the recommended articles, please email Jaimie at email@example.com for assistance. Check with your local librarian for help finding the recommended books. If you seek additional resources, Jaimie is happy to make recommendations!
“Boston’s African American Heritage” (March 2008) Robert L. Hall (A brief look at Boston’s African American History from colonial times until 1900.)
“The Revolutionary Black Roots of Slavery’s Abolition in Massachusetts” (2014) Chernoh Sesay, Jr. (An article about the contributions of free and enslaved Black people in colonial Massachusetts to make abolition a movement that was both about and of Black people.)
“Lost Years Recovered: John Peters and Phillis Wheatley Peters in Middleton” (2021) Cornelia H. Dayton (A groundbreaking recent article that has uncovered new information about John Peters’ experience with enslavement and freedom in post-Revolutionary War Massachusetts.)
Black Bostonians (1979/2000) James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (A comprehensive history of Black Bostonians from the eighteenth century until the eve of the Civil War.)
The Slave’s Cause (2017) Manisha Sinha (A book that overturns the perception that abolitionists were primarily elite, white reformers. Sinha demonstrates that the abolitionist movement included people of many races, genders, and social statuses across the Atlantic world who wished to reshape the meaning of democracy in the Americas.)
Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds (2019) Jared Ross Hardesty (A concise and comprehensive history of enslaved people in eighteenth-century New England against the backdrop of the American Revolution.)
The Age of Phillis (2020) Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (A book of imaginative poetry based on archival research that allows readers to see Phillis Wheatley not as a symbol for her race and gender but instead as a human being who lived and loved through an “age” of transnational struggles.)