People of Color as Children and Elders in 18th and 19th Century Boston
In this episode of Illuminating the Unseen, Jaimie considers what it was like to be a Black or Indigenous child or elder in 18th and 19th-century Boston. In the United States, being very young or very old can increase our vulnerability. As Jaimie explains, both Black and Indigenous children and elders found themselves in uniquely precarious positions.
See below for the video, primary sources, and episode transcript!
Indenture Records, 1756 – 1758
James Humphries Indenture Contract, 1756
Thomas Humphries Indenture Contract, 1756
Ruth Humphries Indenture Contract, 1757
John A. Hoogin and Sarah Ann Cash Marriage Record, 1833
Sarah Ann Cash Hoogin (The Younger) Baptism Record, 1837
Sarah Ann Cash Hogan Census Record, 1850
Sarah Ann Cash Hogan (The Younger) and Timothy Tyndale Marriage Record, 1854
Home for Aged Colored Women Records, 1843 – 1949
Welcome back to Illuminating the Unseen. I am Jaimie Crumley, the Research Fellow at Old North Illuminated.
I want to start today’s video differently than the way I have begun previous videos. I hope you will indulge me as I ask you a question that might feel personal to you. That question is, “How old are you?” For some of us, that might be a perfectly appropriate question to ask, and we might feel comfortable answering it without hesitation. But for others of us, that question might feel invasive. The reason why being asked about our age feels invasive to some people is because of the meanings that we ourselves ascribe to our age or because of the meanings we think others might ascribe to our age.
In this video, I will discuss how age impacted people’s experiences in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Boston. Even as I say those words, I am struck by the reality that most people in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Boston did not definitively know their age. Because most white working-class people and people of color, regardless of their social class, rarely knew their true age, they tried to determine their age based on their size and what life events they could remember. In the United States, where age is linked to particular citizenship rights, not knowing one’s age posed a big problem, especially for people of color who already struggled so much to survive. However, that lack of knowledge could be used to justify disenfranchisement and exploit labor.
In the United States, being very young or being at an advanced age can increase our vulnerability. Young and old people who belong to marginalized social groups are especially vulnerable. That said, definitions of “young” and “old” have changed over time. Scholars who study the history of age in the United States have found that more contemporary understandings of adolescence first emerged around 1920 and that the idea that youth had their own culture emerged in the mid-twentieth century.1
In eighteenth and nineteenth-century Boston, wealthy young white men attended college at the age of 14 or 15. By age 18, these newly educated young men were prepared to pursue their professional lives before marrying in their mid-20s. For young white people, including poor white boys and all white girls, regardless of their family’s level of wealth, who were not privileged to attend college, adulthood began around the age of 14 or 15. However, for most Black children in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Boston and throughout the Atlantic World, childhood ended as soon as they could work. As historian Wilma King has asserted in her book on enslaved children, childhood was an impossibility for Black young people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.2 Even after slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783, free Black children remained at risk if their parents could not afford to support them financially or if they were abandoned and had no one to defend them from exploitation.3
On August 26, 1756, Old North Church member Alexander Chamberlain4 indentured James and Thomas, who both belonged to a free Black family, the Humphries, that worshipped at Old North. Both James and Thomas are described in the record without their last names and classified as “negro boy.” The record states that James would be free on September 12, 1767, and that Thomas would be free on November 20, 1765. If both young men were to be free from their indentures at the age of twenty-one, which was the typical age when young men completed their indentures, we can assume that at the time of the indenture, James was 9 or 10 and Thomas was 12.
James and Thomas were not the last members of the Humphries family to enter the Chamberlain household as an indentured servant. On May 4, 1757, Chamberlain indentured James and Thomas’ sister Ruth. She is listed in the record as a “negro girl.” She was likely about six years old at the time of her indenture. She was to be free on March 4, 1769, which likely marked her eighteenth birthday, the age that young women were free from their indentures. The experience the Humphries children had was not unique among Black children in their time. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Black infants and children were indentured, enslaved, and sold away from their families. Some free Black children were even kidnapped from the North and sold into territories where slavery was legal. Many of these children never saw their families again because they had no way to reach them.5
The devastation of familial loss impacted most Black people into their adulthoods. If they survived into old age, Black women faced the problem of being without a community of younger relatives that would take care of them physically and financially as they aged. We can trace the histories of families that were ripped apart by enslavement through the career of Rev. Leonard Grimes. Grimes was a Black minister from Virginia. After serving time in jail for his work with the Underground Railroad, he, his wife Octavia, and their children moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. They came to Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in 1848 when he became the minister of Twelfth Baptist Church. From its founding in 1840, Twelfth Baptist was known as a haven for fugitives from slavery.6 Twelfth Baptist continues to have an active congregation today.
You are probably wondering how Grimes connects to Old North’s story. The answer to that question goes back to September 5, 1833, when John A. Hoogin, whose surname also variously appears in the records as Hogan, married Sarah Ann Cash. They were people of color. Their officiant was Rev. William Croswell, Old North’s rector at the time. The Cash Hogan family remained connected to the church after the wedding. On July 9, 1837, Croswell baptized a child named Sarah Ann Cash, who was the daughter of John A. and Sarah-Ann Hogan. I am still piecing together when it happened, but sometime between 1848 and 1850, John A. Hogan died. His widow and their five children who ranged in age from 16 to 1 year old, went to live with her parents. The 1850 census finds her in the home with her father, Jonathan, an 81-year-old from New York, and her mother, Sarah, a 64-year-old who was also from New York. Jonathan Cash owned real estate that was worth $2,000. If we continue to track the family through the younger Sarah Ann Cash Hogan, we see that she was married in 1854 to Timothy Tyndale, a Black man from Norfolk, Virginia, who worked as a waiter. Their wedding was officiated by Rev. Leonard Grimes.
However, Grimes’ service as a minister did not end with his work with Twelfth Baptist. In addition to his pastoring, he collaborated with a Boston-born white Unitarian minister named Rev. James Freeman Clarke7 and his mother, Rebecca Parker Hull Clarke, to create Boston’s Home for Aged Colored Women.8 The Home opened in 1860 to serve women of color who could no longer work due to their age or infirmities and were not welcome in almshouses because of their race. The women who applied to live in the Home were generally over 60 years old and did not have familial support. While many women came to the home with mental or physical disabilities, the Home did not accept women who the board felt had needs that would surpass the abilities of the Home’s staff.
The board initially rented a house on Southac Street in Boston’s West End, but the house was small and cold. Ultimately, the board wanted to own the house outright. In 1864, they moved to a larger house at 27 Myrtle Street, which was larger, weather-proofed, and in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, where most Black Bostonians lived and worshipped. Leonard Grimes was an essential participant in the Home because he personally knew many women of color who could benefit from its services.
While the Home, which closed in 1944, was at face value a wonderful place for women of color to spend their latter days, it had its challenges. The Home only existed because of white supremacist impulses in the city that required racial segregation, even of the aged and infirm. Furthermore, the Home relied on charitable donations. It often turned women away when the staff was depleted or when there was too much sickness in the Home.
Some of the Home’s residents, like Mrs. Lucy Gardiner, did not know their own ages. The Committee Reports indicate that most of the women assumed their ages based on their traumatic memories. They remembered experiences of enslavement in the West Indies or the plantation South. They could remember becoming free through their enslavers’ wills. They could remember the children who were lost to them through premature death or being sold away. The Native women could remember the slow but steady process of becoming displaced. It was their memories of labor and dispossession that allowed them to answer the question, “How old are you?”
Although remembering the years was undoubtedly traumatic, the one benefit of being an aged woman of color in Civil War era Boston was that for the first time in their lives, they could decide the conditions under which they died. Most people of color in Civil War era America literally worked themselves to death. Not so for the women who lived in the home. The board reported the story of Mrs. Anne Rebecca York, who told the board she would leave after they could not convince her to offer her skill as a seamstress to benefit the Home, and Mrs. Emma Drummond, who left the Home because she was discontented. These women’s refusal to follow the board’s rules indicates that aged women of color in nineteenth-century Boston advocated for their right to have pleasure and enjoyment where they lived. York, Drummond, and others risked discomfort outside of the Home to maintain their sense of autonomy.
We are just tapping the surface on this subject, but I hope this video gives you an idea of how age shaped people of color’s experiences in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Boston. Please share your thoughts as a comment below this video or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to continue the conversation.
1. Joseph F. Kett, “Reflections on the History of Adolescence in America,” History of the Family 8, no. 3 (September 2003): 355–73, https://doi.org/10.1016/S1081-602X(03)00042-3.
2. Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).
3. Erica Armstrong Dunbar, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
4. Chamberlain was a prominent vestry member at Old North and an enslaver.
5. Heather Andrea Williams, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012), Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2017).
6. In her new book No Right to Earn an Honest Living, Jacqueline Jones writes extensively about Leonard Grimes’ work in Boston.
7. Clarke was the step-grandson of Rev. James Freeman of Boston’s King’s Chapel.
8. We don’t have permission to share images of the Home for Colored Women’s records in the video. View them for yourself here: https://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0430?terms=aged%20colored%20women.