The Humphries were a free Black family who worshiped at Old North Church in the 1740s and 50s. They appeared frequently in church documents for around a decade before slowly disappearing from the record. Our researcher T.J. Todd pieces together their poignant story.
See below for the video, episode transcript, extra information, and sources!
In the 1740s and 50s, a particular family name appears relatively frequently in the archives of the Old North Church, and then slowly disappears almost – but not entirely – from the record. This was the Humphries family, a free Black family that was seemingly very involved in church services for about a decade. While their story is very incomplete, we can begin to fill it out with the limited information we do have. The Humphries can teach us a lot about the history of colonial Boston.
First thing to note: we won’t be able to present a comprehensive history of Black congregants at Old North in this brief video, but through stories like the Humphries we can begin to learn aspects of that history. Also note that images of 18th century church documents contain language and terminology that is no longer used. I won’t be quoting aloud from these documents but people may find even the images to be uncomfortable.
So what do we know about the Humphries family?
- Elizabeth and John Humphries were both free and married by the time they appear in documents (though not married at Old North).
- The Humphries did however baptize 8 of their children at Old North, including 5 on the same day.
- The Humphries lived in the North End, and briefly shared their house with a Native American woman named Jerusha Will who died while living in their home.
- We know a funeral service took place for one of their daughters, just days after her baptism.
- Husband John also died soon after the last child’s baptism.
- The Humphries were occasionally on a long list of people that received small donations from the church (turns out this is a key piece of information, which I’ll explain later).
- We know that city authorities eventually indentured-out a few of the children, a common practice back then for the children of poor families.
Finally, we also know that someone named Elizabeth Humphries — and I’ll explain why I’m saying it that way later —married Robert Hunter at Old North about a decade later, in 1765.
And that’s all we have — not even birth dates or death dates for most family members, let alone anything about them as individuals. That’s not uncommon in history, particularly when we talk about people who were not powerful.
However, there is still a lot to draw out here.
We can see evidence that the church played a central role in many peoples’ daily lives. This is not to say the role was always positive, but it was central nonetheless. The Humphries choosing Old North opened up weddings, baptisms, funerals, and the potential, at least, for communal support. These were important religious and practical services in colonial Boston that might have been otherwise unobtainable, and we see all of them being utilized by the Humphries. This is to take nothing at all away from any religious devotion either. Reasoning can be layered.
The community that formed at Old North was probably an important factor as well. We can see this importance through the story of Jerusha Will, the Native American woman who lived in the Humphries’ home. Will was apparently taken in by the Humphries in 1743, and baptized at Old North just days before passing away. The church may have been where they first crossed paths. On a completely different note, the notice of Will’s death helped us determine that the Humphries lived somewhere in the North End too.
We can also see that the family had financial difficulties at times. We don’t know what John did for work, but most jobs would have been closed off to him. Most likely he was a general laborer or sailor. Both paid poorly, could be dangerous, and were often vulnerable to economic downturns. First John, and later Elizabeth, received occasional alms from the church, though it’s interesting to note that they appear on the list of alms far less frequently than some white congregants – why is uncertain, perhaps they were doing ok most of the time or perhaps white congregants received preference. The fact that they took Jerusha Will into their home indicates that they felt they had enough to be charitable.
The alms they occasionally received helped fill in other details. John Humphries, as the head of the household, received alms 3 times in 4+ years, the last being in 1750. Then, in 1752 after a 2 year gap, Elizabeth appears in the records instead (usually as “Betty”), once per year for 3 years. This change suggested that John had died. Old North’s records never said so, but by cross-referencing outside sources the suggestion was confirmed, via the contracts of indenture for some of the children – stating here he was deceased.
The Humphries remind us that life was difficult back then. Not just because they needed the alms, but also on an emotional level. Deborah, the first child baptized, died just days after her baptism. And for Black Bostonians in particular, we see that freedom was often uncertain. After John’s death, Elizabeth seems to have managed to get by for years, but the systemic challenges against her were enormous, even with a tiny amount of alms from the church. Despite her efforts, eventually it wasn’t enough and some of her children were “indentured out”, meaning authorities forced the children into wealthy homes to learn a trade – not outright slavery, but certainly a kind of forced labor. It was a precarious time: and especially so for people who had already been marginalized.
After this, the Humphries largely disappear from Old North’s records. But not completely. There’s a wedding that I mentioned earlier, which is very interesting. Someone named Elizabeth Humphries married Robert Hunter at Old North in 1765. That may have been Elizabeth re-marrying. But we also know she also had a daughter named Elizabeth, one of the 8 children baptized here. A former educator at Old North who researched the family theorized that this wedding may have been the daughter, continuing the family’s connection to the church.
And that marriage tells us something interesting about the era. Robert Hunter was enslaved, while Elizabeth (whichever one) was free. That shows us that enslaved and free Black people did socialize, with church services being a common location. But also, this was a free woman marrying an enslaved man. At first glance, that might seem dangerous to Elizabeth’s freedom. But unlike in England, in the colonies a child’s status traditionally depended on the mother’s status. Knowledge of this legal concept was empowering to the pair in at least one way, as it allowed for choice, and perhaps comfort in the knowledge that whatever challenges they themselves may face, they were hopefully providing a better future for any children.
There’s more we can learn about the Humphries and the time period than just this, so as always make sure to check out the “Extras” section below for more stories.
But the point being, when we uncover more of these stories, we reveal more and more what life was actually like for the vast majority of people in the past. Famous events are important, but alone they don’t help us understand or connect with the people back then. The more stories like the Humphries that we uncover and learn about, however incomplete or brief, the more we can piece together this time period.
When do the Humphries first appear in the records?
There are vague references to unnamed Black congregants from the earliest years of Old North’s history, meaning it is plausible that the Humphries family had joined the church prior to their first appearance in the records in 1747. In fact, it is likely that they were indeed involved earlier than this, as church donations (alms) were usually reserved for regularly attending congregants (with a few exceptions, though these individuals were usually recorded as “strangers”). The first confirmed appearance is in 1747.
All marriages were diligently recorded at this time, and John and Elizabeth do not appear on the list. Likely, they joined the church later in life after their marriage, and had been regulars for some time at least before first appearing in the Poor Accounts in 1747.
Unnamed Black congregants do regularly appear in the church’s “Poor Accounts”, but as Elizabeth and John were frequently named it seems more likely that these may refer to other members of the church.
The issue of spelling, and a second Humphreys family
Spelling was not very standardized at this time in the British Empire, and clerks often spelled things as they were pronounced. Since we do not have anything written by the family, we actually do not know which spelling would have been correct or preferred. In our interpretive materials, we use “Humphries” as it is one of the more common spellings.
But opting for “Humphries” is also to avoid confusion with another “Humphreys” family, who consistently spelled their name ending in “-phreys.” The two families worshiped at Old North at around the same time, adding a possible source of confusion for researchers. While the white Humphreys family appear regularly with the same spelling, John and Elizabeth are recorded alternatingly as Humphries, Humphrys, Humphry, Humphris, and, in one particularly blurry account, as possibly “Humphros” or “Humphres”.
What would services have been like for the Humphries?
We don’t have first person accounts from any early Black congregation members, but we can piece together some of what the experience may have been.
We do know that the church seemed to consider regular Black congregants as church members. Church records refer to Black congregation members by their names in contrast to non-members who are typically referred to as “strangers.” But in the 1700s, church membership still would not have indicated any sense of equality for Black congregants, who faced frequent discrimination and prejudice from the white church members of the time. Seating was hierarchical and segregated and the Humphries, like other free and enslaved Black congregants, would have been forced to use the less desirable second floor gallery.
So, what kind of seating did they have? While box pews were not available, recent research has discovered that the church in the 1700s did have free seating upstairs (albeit bare, uncomfortable benches with no view of the altar). It is likely that some Black congregation members, like the Humphries, may have used these benches, perhaps in exchange for a nominal donation to the church. Some accounts suggest that individuals stood in the back of the gallery for services when no seating was available. Either way, in this hierarchical society Black families were typically given the worst seats, if any seats at all.
We do know that Black congregation members received the sacraments and had the option to take communion – after the white congregation members. That the Humphries and many other Black congregants did choose to attend Old North, in spite of the discrimination and prejudice, shows remarkable bravery, as well as the seriousness with which they took their faith.
All of the details on the Humphries children that have been discovered:
Deborah: baptized at Old North September 19, 1747. Funeral service on September 24, 1747 (though probably not actually buried at Old North).
Robert: baptized at Old North as an adult* March 24, 1748.
Richard, Thomas, James, Catharine (“of Adult age”), and Elizabeth (the daughter): baptized at Old North March 14, 1750.
Ruth: baptized at Old North April 4, 1751.
Elizabeth Humphries (unconfirmed if referring to mother or daughter): married Robert Hunter October 27, 1765.
Outside Old North’s records:
Robert: indentured to Joseph Dyer, October 6, 1756 to apprentice as a cooper. Then later to John (or David) Stoddard to apprentice as a cooper on October 20, 1768, and shortly after to John Smith (again, as a cooper) on November 1, 1768. It is uncertain why there was such frequent change for Robert, though perhaps Dyer and Stoddard could not promise to fulfill their end of the contract, or had died before it ended.
Thomas: indentured to Alexander Chamberlain, sailmaker and Old North congregant, August 26, 1756.
James: indentured to Alexander Chamberlain, sailmaker and Old North congregant, August 26, 1756.
Ruth: indentured to Alexander Chamberlain, sailmaker and Old North congregant, May 4, 1757.
*Robert is listed as an adult during his baptism, but this does not fit with his indenture contract, years after his baptism: stating the contract would end in 15 years, when Robert turned 21. Two possible ideas are that Old North made a sort of “typo” that was never fixed and became associated with Robert’s name, or that different family members were confused for one another by authorities. There are a plethora of other possible explanations as well, but it remains unclear.
[Sources for the above include Old North’s records at the Massachusetts Historical Society and unpublished research by Brittany Costello].
A brief description of how “indenturing-out” worked in the 1700s:
We can not do justice to how complicated of a process indenturing out would have been in the limited space here, but a starting place for those interested in the subject might be: Unfreedom by Jared Hardesty
Robert, Thomas, James, and Ruth were all indentured until the age of 21. Ruth probably worked as a house servant to Chamberlain. Robert’s multiple contracts, as mentioned above, are hard to explain given the age discrepancies.
How Old North’s “Poor Accounts” worked:
Regularly attending members of Old North could ask for alms from the church. The alms were mostly from “offertory” money, which were accumulated from pew owners at weekly services, and occasionally from lump sums offered by wealthier members. While no narrative exists as to how Old North organized their charity, it appears that one had to be a regularly attending member to expect aid. Non-members do appear though, as there are the occasional nameless entries of “a stranger” in the Poor Accounts.
Some white families appear every month in the Poor Accounts for years, even decades. Widows and those who had fallen ill were frequent entries into the Poor Accounts. The amounts received could vary, but were not enough on their own to do anything more than survive for a few weeks. The Humphries, in comparison, appear relatively infrequently, usually the day after Christmas when the alms list was expanded in recognition of the holiday. This deviation from the pattern common to poor white congregation members raises many questions, such as whether Black congregation members were discouraged from asking for alms, or whether there was a more informal mechanism for financial support that is not reflected in the records. The minister apparently had some discretionary funds as well, as the account often listed a lump sum of alms for the rector to distribute each month. It is plausible that the Humphries received some informal assistance in this way from Dr. Cutler, Old North’s minister at the time, though this seems unlikely and would have been comparably a very small amount.
Old North Church (Christ Church in the City of Boston) Records, including the “Poor accounts” and the “Clark’s register, 1723-1851” (recording baptisms, weddings, and funerals). Stored at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston MA.
Boston, MA: Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston, 1630-1822 (Thwing Collection). Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston, 1630–1800 and The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston, 1630–1822. CD-ROM. Boston, Mass.: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2001. (Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2014.)
Boston (Mass.). Overseers of the Poor. “Document of indenture: Servant: Humphreys [Humphrys], Robert. Master: Dyer, Joseph. Town of Master: Boston.” Manuscript. October 6, 1756. Digital Commonwealth, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/j6731616d (accessed March 02, 2022).
Boston (Mass.). Overseers of the Poor. “Document of indenture: Servant: Humphrys, Robert. Master: Smith, John. Town of Master: Boston.” Manuscript. November 1, 1768. Digital Commonwealth, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/zs25xb358 (last accessed March 16, 2022).
Boston (Mass.). Overseers of the Poor. “Document of indenture: Servant: Humphrys, Robert. Master: Stoddard, John [David]. Town of Master: Boston.” Manuscript. October 20, 1768. Digital Commonwealth, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/zs25xb10d (last accessed March 16, 2022).
Costello, Brittany. “‘Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people’: African-Americans at Old North Church in the 18th-Century.” Research seminar, 2019.
Hardesty, Jared Ross. Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds. Bright Leaf Press, 2019.
Hardesty, Jared Ross. Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston. New York: New York University Press, 2016.
Sesay, Chernoh M., Jr. “African-Americans and the Old North Church in the Eighteenth Century: Report on Research,” report commissioned by the Old North Church & Historic Site, 2008.