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Local historian unearths Beverly's African American history

Posted by Anne Steele  February 7, 2013 12:34 PM

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Terri McFadden in her office holding an historic document. Photo by Tala Strauss

Juno Larcom was a little girl when she was sold in the 1730s to Henry Herrick, a Beverly man. He then gave Juno to his daughter’s family, and 46 years later, she was still working for the Larcom family, but as a free woman.

Sitting in the office of historian Terri McFadden, 62, at the Beverly Historical Society, surrounded by bookshelves full of old documents and records, it’s easy to be charmed by the atmosphere of historical research. But listening to McFadden tell the history of African Americans like Juno is a sober reminder that slavery has a history not only in the American South but also in New England.

McFadden spent this past year researching the lives of African American families in Beverly during the 18th and 19th centuries, and recently shared some of her findings as part of the Monday Mornings lecture series at the Beverly Public Library. And on Wednesday, February 20, McFadden will offer another lecture on Beverly’s black history, this time at the Beverly Historical Society. The event starts at 7 p.m. and is free for members, $5 for nonmembers.

Drawn to the history of women and people of color, “people who don’t have much of a voice in history,” McFadden said that what she is trying to discover in her research is what it was like to be an African American back then.

“It’s really a sad history, but at the same time, this woman Juno Larcom, her personality just comes through in various ways,” she said. “And (so do) her daughters, and maybe one granddaughter. These people made an impression.”

Robin Flynn, 49, program director of the Monday Mornings series, said 70 people attended McFadden’s lecture. Some even followed up on the event, including Salem State English professor and poet January O’Neil, who was so inspired by McFadden’s presentation that she hopes to write a series of poems on Juno Larcom.

“These unique stories should come alive through art,” said O’Neil, who is also the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. “They are a terrific source of information and a link to our not-so-distant past. I don't think people are ready to confront certain parts of the past.” But, she added, “it's wonderful to learn about the town my children and I call home.”

McFadden said she thinks most people are not even aware slavery has a history on the North Shore. But an original bill of sale for a two-year-old boy named Matthew, which she believes belongs to Juno Larcom’s husband Jethro Thistle, is just one piece from the past that tells the story of slavery and freedom in Massachusetts. Jethro died as a slave fighting in the Revolutionary War. But before the war was over, Juno sued her owners for her freedom in 1776, eventually gaining it in 1777, three years before the emancipation of all slaves in Massachusetts in 1780.

According to McFadden, when Jethro and Juno married they combined the last names of their owners, becoming the Larcom-Thistle family. McFadden said the history of slaves who gained their freedom is hard to trace because so many changed their names once free. When Juno became a free woman, she changed her last name for a while, but eventually went back to Larcom.

“It was actually easier to trace them using their first names because their first names were distinctive,” she said, mentioning that names like Caesar, Pompey, Jupiter, and Reuben, a medley of Latin and biblical names, were often given to slaves.

McFadden’s love for history can be traced back to her days as a teenager when she drove her grandmother around to visit friends, listening in as they reminisced about their childhoods.

“People have this idea that history is boring, but it’s not boring to me at all,” she said. “These were human beings that lived, had the same kind of aspirations that we do, frustrations, and really hard lives.”

Already a mother with children when she decided to start her own career, McFadden became a historian after going back to college to study museum science and history. She spent eleven years working in natural history at Harvard, but now works part-time at the Beverly Historical Society, where she has been for the last three years.

“It’s fairly satisfying,” she said of her work. “I get to give people tours, help them with research problems, and I do exhibits.” She hopes to exhibit her most recent research online in the near future.

If you go:

What: “Slavery to Freedom: Blacks in Early Beverly” with Terri McFadden Where: Beverly Historical Society, 117 Cabot St., Beverly, MA.
When: Wed., Feb. 20, 2013, 7pm.
How Much: $5 for non-members, free for members.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Gordon College News Service.

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