Small shed may have been home of slave in 18th century
PLYMOUTH - The tiny shed behind the Plymouth Center for the Arts is no attention grabber, but Donna Curtin sees beyond the peeling clapboards and the musty tool-filled interior to the building’s significance as a vital piece of this historic town’s Colonial past.
The modest outbuilding is believed to have been an African-American slave house dating back to the 18th century - a rare find. Curtin, executive director of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society, is working with The Plymouth Guild, which owns the arts center property on North Street, to secure $15,000 in community preservation money to restore the shed and research its past.
“New England talks about abolition but tends to forget it has its own period of slave ownership,’’ Curtin said. “If we have a physical artifact from that part of our past, it’s extraordinary. And it will be wonderful for people coming to Plymouth who want to search beyond the Pilgrims and the Mayflower.’’
There were about 5,000 slaves in Massachusetts in the mid-18th century, most of them in trading towns such as Boston or Salem. According to historian William T. Davis, Plymouth had about 50 slaves during that period.
Local history expert James Baker said slaves in Plymouth were owned by the wealthy, and Colonel George Watson, who lived at 11 North St. in the 1700s, was “one of the wealthiest in the area.’’ And an 18th-century document lists Watson as owning a slave named Cuff in 1768. North Street is in the heart of Plymouth’s historic district.
“Having something tangible like that little house would be very valuable in terms of the social conditions in 18th-century Plymouth,’’ Baker said.
Restoration expert Michael Burrey has examined the shed for clues to its history. The hand-planed clapboards and hand-forged nails mark it as pre-Revolutionary, likely dating to the 1760s or 1770s, Burrey said. Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1780.
Inside, the plaster walls are divided by a chair rail. Decorative beams mark the four corners, and its 12- by 8-foot space appears to have been partitioned into two rooms. “It’s a finished interior,’’ Burrey said, concluding it was designed as a dwelling, not a storage place.
Four African-American Revolutionary War veterans - at least three of whom were former slaves - were freed by the state in recognition of their military service and awarded a West Plymouth tract that became known as “Parting Ways.’’ The town now owns the land, reclaiming it after the last of the veterans’ descendants died, in the early 1900s. The site, which consists of a cemetery and the foundations of the family houses, was excavated by an archeological team in the 1970s, which unearthed several artifacts.
“Parting Ways is our best source of historical evidence as to how African-Americans would have made their homes,’’ Curtin said. The North Street shed contains similar architectural elements, she added.
The requested $15,000 in community preservation money, supplemented by about $6,000 in anticipated donations, will allow the layers of the past to be peeled back. Each era will be documented, but the primary focus will be on the shed’s original use. Curtin says she hopes some artifacts may be found in the process, beneath the flooring and immediate exterior.
Peter Drummey, librarian for the Massachusetts Historical Society, said slavery in Massachusetts, during the years just before the American Revolution, was somewhat of a paradox, as the desire for freedom from British rule was foremost in the minds of the populace.
“People were very proud of the early end to slavery in Massachusetts, yet that early end came after 150 years of slavery here,’’ Drummey said.
According to Drummey, slaves in Massachusetts usually stayed in the main houses with the owners, rather than in separate quarters. “If there’s evidence about the shed that can be investigated and documented, that would be very interesting,’’ Drummey said. “And the idea of a structure that might have vestiges in people’s origins in West Africa is wonderful.’’
The shed was one of several North Street sites visited during last February’s Black History Walking Tour. Other stops included the properties of John and Edward Winslow, who both owned slaves, and their neighbor, anti-slavery activist Abby Morton Diaz.
If community preservation funds are appropriated, the building will serve as a permanent outdoor exhibit on the experience of African-Americans in Colonial Plymouth. A free-standing plaque and interior panels will explain its historical significance. The exhibit could be open to the public by the end of 2012.
The funding request already carries the support of the Community Preservation Committee.
“We felt this was an important opportunity to restore an historical building that is part of an untold story,’’ committee chairman William Keohan said. “We also thought it was an opportunity to invest in an historical enterprise while enhancing the viability of the downtown.’’
Final authorization of the funding is being requested at the Fall Town Meeting on Oct. 24.
Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.