Discover the community’s rich African-American heritage on a self-guided walking tour
SALEM — This city and witches are forever intertwined thanks to the events of 1692. Growing up in Salem, I learned in school that there is much more to the Witch City. We were taught to cherish our maritime history and the exquisite architecture, from the plain 17th-century “salt box’’ clapboard houses to the majestic brick Federal-style mansions of the city’s merchants. And in honor of Salem’s greatest literary hero, Nathaniel Hawthorne, every child had to read “The Scarlet Letter.’’
But Salem offers other attractions as well. I found the perfect antidote to the prevalent “witch kitsch’’ by taking a self-guided walking tour of the city’s African-American Heritage Sites. My guide was a National Park Service pamphlet available at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site Visitors Center on Essex Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.
The city’s African-American history was largely ignored during my school days, but as Emily Murphy, park historian at the National Historic Site, said, “Blacks were an integral part of the city’s history from the 17th century on.’’
So with pamphlet in hand, I set out on a cold morning to visit several of the recommended sites, adding a few of my own. My first stop was Hamilton Hall, a three-story Federal brick structure with lovely arched Palladian windows on the corner of Cambridge and Chestnut streets in the McIntire district, a neighborhood of stately Federal-style mansions. The hall, built in 1805 and designed by Salem’s famous architect, Samuel McIntire, the neighborhood’s namesake, features a large ballroom on the up per floor, where Salem’s high society held parties, receptions, and dinners. For many years John Remond, a free black from the Caribbean, ran a prosperous catering business on the ground floor. The crowning achievement of his career was catering a dinner for visiting President Andrew Jackson in 1833.
Remond’s success allowed him to provide for his children’s education. Two of them, Charles Lenox Remond and Sarah Parker Remond, were ardent abolitionists who gained considerable fame lecturing in the United States and Europe. Their portraits are part of the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum on Essex Street.
Salem is home to Salem State University, which started as a Normal School, dedicated to the teaching of teachers. I walked to the end of Cambridge Street to Broad Street, where I could see the old Normal School Building, an elaborate Italian Revival structure with a mansard roof and imposing front tower. Charlotte Forten, an 1856 graduate, was its first African-American student.
Forten came to Salem from a wealthy Philadelphia family, and boarded with the Remond family. She was a third-generation free black, whose family sent her to Salem to complete her education. Mary-Lou Breitborde, a Salem State professor who has written about Forten, said the family’s decision to send Forten to Salem says something about the city at that time.
“Hers was a prominent family that had options,’’ said Breitborde. “They chose to send her to Salem.’’
Breitborde pointed out that Salem was a center of culture in the mid-19th century that, unlike segregated Philadelphia, offered free blacks the possibility of an integrated education. Forten later put her education to good use in South Carolina, teaching freed slaves to read and write.
Forten was a member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, which held meetings in the Salem Lyceum on Church Street. This lecture and concert hall drew speakers from around the country, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. The building still stands, but today it is a fine-dining establishment.
A prominent Salem resident, Joseph Story (1779-1845), played an interesting role in African-American history. He was the Supreme Court justice who wrote the opinion in the Amistad case, the famous trial about the fate of captured Africans who took over the ship transporting them to slavery. In 1841, the high court affirmed a federal trial court ruling that the Africans were free individuals and never were slaves, ordering them released at once.
Story’s house, a rectangular Federal brick mansion built in 1811 (the year Story was named to the Supreme Court, at 32 the youngest justice ever appointed) on Winter Street, with the long side facing the Salem Common, is not a part of the NPS walking tour, but it is certainly worth a look. It features an interesting bay window on the first floor added after the house was built. It remains a private residence.
Salem, of course, was a seafaring town. Murphy said that as an urban port community, Salem offered opportunities for all people. “You could come here, find a church, friends, and work,’’ she said. “It provided a haven.’’ This was especially so for black people, she said, seeking to escape slavery or segregation elsewhere.
By the mid-19th century, nearly half of the employed African-American males in Salem were listed as sailors. Although they were often limited to serving as cooks and stewards, it was one of the few areas in American life where black men could earn a steady wage. We can get an insight into their lives, and the lives of all 19th-century sailors, from the diary of Charles Benson, a black Salemite who spent 20 years at sea. Benson’s diary is part of the Peabody Essex Museum collection and can be viewed at its Phillips Library.
Many members of the Remond family are buried in the city’s Harmony Grove Cemetery in north Salem, where the family gravestone is still marked. Closer to the center of town, the Howard Street Cemetery, notable for its gnarled trees and weathered tombstones, contains the graves of several prominent African-American Salemites, including Prince Farmer, a former ship’s cook and later an oyster dealer whose successful business was located on Derby Street.
Farmer’s humble timber-framed house at 18 Crombie St. still stands, and its history tells much about the past and future of Salem. For many years it housed various African-American families, and was the dwelling of William Pike, an abolitionist and friend of Hawthorne. Some historians think the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a sanctuary provided by many homes in abolitionist Salem. In recent times, the house had fallen into disrepair and was slated for demolition, but the Salem Redevelopment Authority saved it. Later, Habitat for Humanity restored the house, an interesting gambrel-roof structure with clapboard siding painted a bright blue.
One aspect of African-American life I remember as a boy was the black picnic, an annual gathering of African-American families from Greater Boston held at the Salem Willows. This lovely tree-covered retreat and amusement park right on the ocean is not officially part of the walking tour, but the annual picnic provides an essential link to Salem’s African-American history. This centuries-old tradition extends back to the Election Day holiday, a festive occasion when black slaves “elected’’ their “governor.’’ Later, black churches in the 1920s modernized the tradition by holding a picnic at the Willows. In those days, it was always held on a Thursday, which was known as “maid’s day off.’’ Today the event is held on the third Saturday in July.
“It’s a marvelous gathering,’’ said Althea Flamer, a lifelong resident of nearby Lynn, who has attended the picnic since she was a child. Her brother Edmund Brown, 92, also of Lynn, remembers the picnic as a meeting place to enjoy family and friends. While you can do this today using social media, Brown said people “still need to catch up, to visit each other, see newborns, and talk about those who have passed.’’
His wife, Pearl, added, “We like to keep the heritage going.’’
My short walk showed me just how rich that heritage is.
James F. Lee can be reached at email@example.com.