Yes, there was slavery here

  • STAFF FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 2/4/2021 12:52:36 PM

In 1641, Massachusetts was the first North American colony to legalize slavery, which was at that time a common practice in New England. Africans and their descendants were enslaved by ministers and other prominent citizens in many local towns, including Greenfield, Deerfield, Northfield, Sunderland, Hatfield and Amherst.

The slave trade — from capturing, buying and selling Africans to providing goods and services, such as ship-building, for those trading in human beings — formed an important part of New England’s economy. The first slave ship from Massachusetts was launched in 1636, by the prestigious Winthrop family. Boston later became a hub of the trade in enslaved Africans.

It’s generally agreed that ownership of enslaved people became illegal in Massachusetts in 1783. It’s difficult to name a specific date, because slavery in this state ended as a result of many court cases over time, not because of a single case or legislative act. In 1785 the Massachusetts Legislature made the slave trade illegal in the state as well.

In the early and middle 1800s, the Underground Railroad in Western Massachusetts, especially in Springfield, helped many who were escaping from slavery. Thomas Thomas, a formerly enslaved person, hid fugitives in his Springfield restaurant. Basil Dorsey, also formerly enslaved, sheltered runaways in his Northampton home. Other abolitionists throughout the region, including some in Franklin County, offered safe passage to fugitives from slavery.

In 1842, a group of abolitionists started a utopian community in Florence called the Northampton Association of Education & Industry (NAEI). During its 4½ years, the NAEI attracted many national abolition movement figures, including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and William Lloyd Garrison.

The abolitionist John Brown lived in Springfield from 1847-1851, where he organized area residents to protect fugitives (and also free Blacks, who were in danger of being kidnapped and forced into slavery) from slave catchers. By the late 1850s Springfield, like many New England towns and cities, had a thriving, racially mixed movement in support of the antislavery cause.

Massachusetts lawyers participated in a number of fugitive slave cases in the late 1840s and 1850s, including those of the Amistad survivors.

Here are a few other historic figures from Western Massachusetts:

■The prominent scholar, educator, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington in 1868. A leader among Black American intellectuals, Du Bois was one of the founders of the NAACP and wrote thousands of books and articles, including “Souls of Black Folks,” which described life as an African American in 1903.

■Lucy Terry, the author of the oldest known work of literature by an African American, was enslaved in Deerfield when she wrote her poem “Bars Fight” in 1746. In later years, she was known as a persuasive orator and successfully negotiated a case before the Vermont Supreme Court.

■Elizabeth Freeman lived most of her life enslaved in Sheffield. In 1780, she sued for her freedom in the Great Barrington court and won her case, setting one of the legal precedents that ultimately ended slavery in Massachusetts.

■Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York in 1797 and escaped in 1826. Best-known for her 1851 speech on racial inequalities, “Ain’t I A Woman,” she lived at the NAEI in the 1840s.

■David Ruggles also lived at the NAEI. A writer, journalist, and business owner, Ruggles was very active in anti-slavery causes, including the Underground Railroad. He helped over 600 people, including Frederick Douglass, to freedom in the North.

Why did I decide to collect and share this information about our area’s African American history? I believe that an understanding of our collective past will help us move toward a healthier society for everyone. To recognize how we got to where we are right now, it’s important to understand the history of African Americans in this country. (The same is true, of course, of the history of the Indigenous people of this continent.) I look forward to a time when the history and contributions of all cultures will be recognized throughout the year.

Sharin Alpert, of Shelburne Falls, is a life-long resident of Western Massachusetts and a 40-year resident of Franklin County.


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