Old North and Black Freedom
In this episode of Illuminating the Unseen, Jaimie examines the struggle for Black freedom in Massachusetts from 1723 – 1795. Jaimie tracks what the lives of free and enslaved Black people at Old North looked like before slavery was abolished in Massachusetts and how their lives changed during the years right after slavery ended in the Commonwealth. She also looks at how elite white residents of Massachusetts, such as John Adams, felt about living in a nation where slavery was legal.
See below for the video, primary sources, and episode transcript!
Marriage Record for John and Ann; John Phillips and Jenney Beard, 1755
Primus Trask Hall and Phebe Robson Marriage Record, 1784
Letter from St. George Tucker to Jeremy Belknap, 24 January 1795
Letter from John Eliot to Jeremy Belknap, February 1795
Letter from John Adams to Jeremy Belknap, 21 March 1795
Welcome back to Illuminating the Unseen. I am Jaimie Crumley, the Research Fellow at the Old North Foundation. Today, we conclude our series on Black and Indigenous people’s experiences at the Old North Church in the British Colonial period. In our next series, we will explore the relationship between race, faith, and the Atlantic Ocean at Old North in the early nineteenth century.
In today’s video, we will expand our scope a little bit beyond the colonial period to trace the struggle for Black freedom in Massachusetts. Black Bostonian’s efforts to gain and maintain their freedom stretched far beyond the British Colonial period. Our study today concludes in 1795. The extended timeline allows us to track what the lives of free and enslaved Black people at Old North looked like before slavery was abolished in Massachusetts and how their lives changed during the years right after slavery was legally abolished in Massachusetts.
Although slavery was abolished legally in Massachusetts in 1783, due in large part to the legal efforts of a Black enslaved woman named Elizabeth Freeman, it persisted under different names for the rest of the eighteenth century.1 Furthermore, as we will discuss later in this video, wealthy and powerful white Massachusetts residents were largely apathetic about living in a nation where slavery was legal.
In previous videos in this series, we have seen that enslaved and free Black people attended Old North Church and participated in its rituals. Within the church records, these individuals and families become legible only if they participated in the church’s rituals of baptism, marriage, and burial. Therefore, it is only through legal documents such as wills, tax records, and asset inventories that we can even begin to account for how many enslaved Black people were part of Old North in the British Colonial period. For example, when he died in 1734, John Foster left Old North, which he calls “the new church,” ten pounds to help repair and finish it. However, his will also reveals that he enslaved a person whom he called Snow Ball. He left Snow Ball to his son, John. Of course, the wills of white church members tell us nothing about free Black people.
Despite those lapses in the record, we know that in colonial Boston, the gap between freedom and unfreedom for Black people was small. If we look at this list of the marriages that were recorded in Boston in 1755, we see on the left-hand side of the page that John, who was a Black servant to attorney Jacob Royall, married Ann, a Black servant to Rev. Dr. Timothy Cutler. On the other side of the page, we see that John Phillips and Jenney Beard, free Black people in Boston were also married in 1755. Both couples were married at Old North.
When I look at this image, I find it to be jarring, upsetting, and confusing. It makes me wonder what it might have been like to be part of Boston’s Black community from 1630-1783. I imagine that free Black people like John and Jenney had conflicting emotions about their freedom. While they likely did their best to enjoy their freedom, they knew that they had friends in the Black community who were enslaved.
Many of us can probably empathize with John and Jenney. Like them, we belong to communities we care about, but within those communities, we all have different experiences. For John and Jenney, being Black Bostonians meant something entirely different than it did for John and Ann. However, both couples were racially marked as Black people and treated as less than their white counterparts.
While there are not examples of enslaved people at Old North who petitioned in court for their freedom, at least one Black abolitionist was part of the community at Old North in the 1780s. On May 2, 1784, Black abolitionist Primus Trask Hall married Phebe Robson at Christ Church. Their officiant was Rev. Stephen Lewis.2 Primus Hall was born in about 1756. He is believed to have been the son of abolitionist and freemason Prince Hall, and Delilah, an enslaved woman.3 Primus Hall used the middle name Trask because he was indentured to a man with that name as a child.
Primus Hall was a Revolutionary War veteran. About 5,000 Black men served in the Revolutionary War because of their hope that defending the new nation’s freedom would mean the end of slavery. Because he was Black, some people believed that Hall had not served in the Revolutionary War. Therefore, he did not receive his pension until 1838. By then, Phebe had died, and he was married to his second wife, Ann. He lived for a time in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood on the street that used to be called Southack Street. Interestingly, Southack street derives its name from Captain Cyprian Southack, an English cartographer and naval commander, who worshiped at the Old North Church.
Massachusetts was the first state to legally abolish slavery, but for Black Bostonians, freedom and unfreedom continued to be closely related phenomena well into the nineteenth century. Massachusetts’ white residents did not encourage other states to follow their lead by abolishing slavery. In fact, many white Christians in Boston found abolitionists and their politics to be a threat.
We can see this contradiction most clearly in a series of letters written in response to a 1795 letter from Virginia abolitionist St. George Tucker. Tucker was hopeful that Massachusetts could provide a model to his state as he and others worked toward slavery’s abolition. He sent a letter that contained eleven questions about the history of slavery and abolition in Massachusetts to Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap, a Boston clergyman who founded the Massachusetts Historical Society. In the letter, Tucker asked questions including when slavery was introduced in Massachusetts, how slavery was abolished, how emancipated people were doing, what political rights Black people had, and interestingly whether interracial marriages happened.
Belknap sent Tucker’s questions to some of the most prominent men from Massachusetts, including Vice President John Adams, to allow them to share their responses. Unfortunately, I cannot share images of the letters, but I will talk about two of them. To view the letters, please visit the Massachusetts Historical Society website.
Rev. John Eliot, who co-founded the Massachusetts Historical Society with Jeremy Belknap, had a few unusual responses to Tucker’s questions. For example, he said that “slaves were never in a state of hard bondage.” He also said that emancipated Black people were given “every encouragement to work” and that they enjoyed the same privileges as white people “from infancy to manhood.” He also noted that Black and white people in Boston lived completely separately and did not worship together. He stated that there was an African Lodge for Boston’s Black freemasons because white freemasons refused to accept them as their equals. Eliot’s words indicate that the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts and the precipitous decline in Black participation in white-led churches after 1783 are related phenomena rooted in Black Bostonian’s desire for religious autonomy and white Christian’s anti-Black ideologies.
Let’s discuss one more of the letters that Belknap received. This one was penned by John Adams, who was, at the time, the Vice President of the United States. Before we look at Adams’ response to Tucker’s queries, I should clarify that Adams maintained an ambivalent attitude toward slavery and he was never an enslaver. However, he and his wife Abigail Adams often relied on Black American laborers to whom they paid wages. They also sometimes paid enslavers to allow them to use their Black enslaved people as household workers.4
Adams’ letter to Belknap and Tucker gives us a peek into the class biases that were emerging in the United States by the end of the eighteenth century. Adams asserted that abolition happened in Massachusetts because there were too many working-class white people who needed employment. He believed white laborers were angry that wealthy white people chose enslaved laborers over them. Adams looked not to his own class of people as the group that made life untenable for everyone else but instead to people who had not ascended to his level of wealth and power. He acknowledged that by the time slavery was abolished in Massachusetts, it was because Black people were fed up with it. However, he blamed their frustrations not on the cruelty of the institution of slavery, but rather on white laborers who he said filled Black people with discontent and made them “wholly useless to their owners.” Therefore, he concluded that Black freedom was not a moral necessity but an economic one.
Old North’s records from 1723 until 1795 allow us to track how Black people’s lives changed in Boston throughout the eighteenth century. During the British colonial period, the number of Black people’s names, both free and enslaved, that appear in church records indicates that many of the church’s parishioners were implicated in slavery and brought enslaved people into the life of this church. Black free people also chose to connect with this church, likely to maintain bonds with enslaved people whom they loved. This trend continued through the Revolution.
After the Revolution, we see a shift. Fewer Black people’s names appear in the church records, but one of those few was Primus Trask Hall, the son of Prince Hall. Primus Hall’s choice to marry his first wife here connects this church to the trans-Atlantic efforts of Black people in the late eighteenth century to liberate themselves from slavery.
Relative to other states, abolition happened relatively early in Massachusetts, but archival records reveal that late-eighteenth-century white Bostonians were largely ambivalent about Black freedom. Interestingly, Old North’s eighteenth-century records are largely silent about the Revolution, slavery, and abolition. I hope this series on Black and Indigenous people’s experiences at Old North in the British Colonial period has been engaging and thought-provoking for you. Please share your thoughts and questions as a comment or by contacting me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. To learn about Elizabeth Freeman, Quock Walker, and the legal end of slavery in Massachusetts, visit the Massachusetts Historical Society website.
2. Rev. Stephen Lewis became Old North’s third rector in April of 1778.
3. As is the case for most Black people in the colonial period, the archival record of the lives of Prince Hall and his family is spotty.
4. To learn more about John Adams’ households, please visit the White House Historical Association website.