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Familiar name comes under question

Findings leave city councilors wondering whether they should preserve Lechmere's name on the Cambridge T station

It's so us.

Lechmere T Station. Lechmere Square. Lechmere the store that sold washing machines and toasters to generations of Boston-area families. Lechmere the name that's as familiar as a plate of scrod to natives, but that newcomers have to learn to pronounce (leech-meer).

Who knew that the Richard Lechmere who started it all was a distiller of rum, a slave owner, and a Loyalist who rued the slide in his property values at the start of the Revolutionary War and referred to the rebels as "wicked and deluded people"?

Last month Cambridge city councilors passed a resolution urging the MBTA to keep the connection between the T station, the Revolutionary War, and Richard Lechmere's name.

But now City Councilor Denise Simmons, who didn't know at the time that Lechmere was a slave owner, wishes she could take it back. "Having that additional knowledge now, I don't support it being named after Lechmere," she said.

"Going into the future, we wanted to hold on to some piece of the past," she said. "I'm now troubled. But the vote's been taken. If I could take my vote back, I would."

City Councilor Henrietta Davis said she hadn't known all the details of Lechmere's legacy when she and Vice Mayor Timothy J. Toomey proposed the order. "We wanted to keep the historic connections to the area," she said. "We didn't know about the slave ownership."

Work began last month on a new MBTA station in the nascent NorthPoint neighborhood. When it opens around 2010, it will replace the Lechmere stop on the Green Line, but debate over its naming is already raging. Tentatively, it's slated to be called Lechmere at NorthPoint, but NorthPoint's developers hope that the Lechmere tag will fall off.

Davis said the outing of Lechmere as a slave owner doesn't alter her stance that the T stop not be named for a new commercial endeavor. "I still want to keep a connection to history," she said. "There's something to be said for preserving history but not elevating the man."

Lechmere's slave ownership is documented in an early legal case, James v. Lechmere, argued by Harvard graduate and fellow Loyalist Jonathan Sewall. In 1769, a slave named James sued Lechmere for his freedom. Sewall argued that under the colony's charter any man born or residing in the colony was free. The case was resolved before it could go to trial: Lechmere gave James his freedom and tossed in 2 pounds sterling.

"Maybe we should name the T stop after the slave," said Cambridge City Councilor Anthony Galluccio when he heard the story, and his colleague Denise Simmons agreed. "Let's call it James Station," she said. "There are so many other people we could name it after."

"Most important," said Galluccio of the naming issue, "is that the decision be left up to the neighborhood and broader Cambridge community. Our biggest challenge here is to be sure NorthPoint is integrated with the rest of East Cambridge."

He said neighborhood residents are feeling a bit overtaken by the new development and the council doesn't want to see that happen.

"When I think of Lechmere," Galluccio said, "I think of Lechmere Station."

Until recently, many also thought of Lechmere Sales, the appliance retailer that opened its first store in East Cambridge in the 1930s, according to Susan Maycock of the Cambridge Historical Society, and that became a regional chain before going belly up in 1997. Although many people believe the reverse, Maycock said, the store was named for the station, which was built in 1922.

The station, in turn, took its name from an early tag for the area, Lechmere Point. In the mid-1700s Richard Lechmere owned an entire swath of Cambridge, nearly the whole of East Cambridge, and a 13-acre estate on Brattle Street. He also owned a distillery in Boston, near Beacon Hill on Cambridge Street.

Lechmere was a big man in town in the pre-Revolution days. "He was probably associated with the plantations in the West Indies and involved in the Triangular Trade if he was bringing molasses up to distill into rum," said Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission. "And it was common for people of wealth and position at that time to have slaves."

Although Sullivan speculated that James might have come from a West Indies plantation, another historian, Superior Court Judge Hiller B. Zobel, published an account of the James v. Lechmere case and noted that Lechmere might have inherited the slave from his father-in-law, a longtime lieutenant governor of the colony, Spencer Phips, when he married Mary Phips in 1753.

What is clear is through that marriage, Lechmere acquired acres of farmland in East Cambridge. After he bought out many of his neighbors, his holdings stretched from where the Middlesex County Courthouse stands today to the Charles River where Cambridge abuts Charlestown, where the Museum of Science stands today. British troops under the command of General Thomas Gage landed at Lechmere Point before marching overland to the battles at Concord and Lexington.

And the connection to this part of history is what Maycock would like to see survive in the naming of the new T station.

"Our main interest is that the name be remembered for its military significance and its importance to the Revolutionary War," she said. "It would be a shame to have that name disappear. It was a prominent name and very important to American history."

Despite Richard Lechmere's significant land holdings in East Cambridge, he and his wife opted not to live there, instead building a house in 1762 on what came to be known as Tory Row, now Brattle Street, then and now the center of the Cambridge social scene.

According to one historical account, Lechmere furnished the estate "with every procurable elegance," adding some larger oddities outside his home. The historian says, "Life-sized wooden figures of Indians gay in paint and feathers and armed with bows and arrows sentineled the principal entrance to the grounds, startling the casual observer and frightening children."

The Massachusetts Historical Society obtained a packet of eight of Lechmere's letters written in 1774 and 1775 to his bankers in London. In them he shows his concern for his declining property values and his fear of and antipathy toward the revolutionaries.

"The troubles and difficulties the town is thrown into by the Tea affair has lessen'd the value of real estates exceedingly," he wrote in early 1774.

In another letter that May, Lechmere wrote, "The scituation of this town is truly deplorable and its future prospects really distressing to every mind susceptible of the feelings of humanity. . . . It is with pleasure I can say that the Friends of Government have dared to show themselves . . . under the protection of General Gage we shall be able to speak our minds freely, and open the eyes of a deluded people, who have hitherto been deceiv'd by a sett of designing villains and bankrupts. . ."

His letters provide a window on the perspective of Loyalists at the time and the state of affairs in the colony. In September 1774, he wrote to his London correspondents that he sold wood to a contractor to build barracks for the British troops, but overnight the wood was split into pieces and tossed into the river. Lechmere wrote that this was the first instance of revolutionaries trying to oppose the building of the fort. He ended up letting the British use his distillery for a barracks instead.

Of the revolutionaries, he wrote, "They really act like distracted men more than reasonable beings. . . . The prospect is dismal, view it how you will, and the event, I fear, will be fatal to this wicked and deluded people."

In 1774, he sold his Brattle Street estate to Jonathan Sewall, the same man who had won James his freedom five years earlier, and moved to Boston. In 1776 Lechmere quit Cambridge and Boston, fleeing for England via Nova Scotia with his brood of 11 dependents.

At some point during the war, Lechmere's properties were confiscated, then sold off in the late 1770s. And he was officially banished from the new country.

Developer Andrew Craigie bought up most of Lechmere's land and came to own even more of East Cambridge than Lechmere had. Craigie started the Lechmere Point Corporation and built the bridge where the Museum of Science stands. "He did a great job," said Maycock. "He was the one who offered land and money to build the new courthouse. That really jump-started the development of that area."

Cambridge City Councilor Brian Murphy, a history buff, said he, too, wasn't aware of Lechmere's full story. "We might want to rethink the naming of the station," he said, "as we did with the Baldwin School. Our intent was to honor the neighborhood."

Councilor Simmons, bearing her own second thoughts about Lechmere, also cited that 2004 renaming of the former Agassiz School (it now bears the name of 19th-century black educator Maria L. Baldwin) as an example of not honoring history for history's sake when unpleasant facts are unearthed. Louis Agassiz, it turns out, may have been a Harvard professor, scientist, and abolitionist, but he also was a leading proponent of the idea that people of different races were entirely separate animals, and was against racial integration and intermarriage.

But Toomey, the vice mayor, isn't so sure about a change on Lechmere. "George Washington had slaves," he said. "How far do you go? We'd have to inter all of Cambridge Cemetery and raze nearly all the houses on Brattle Street" to root out tributes to Loyalists and slave owners.

Janice O'Leary can be reached at ciweek@globe.com.

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