MEDFORD — During Black History Month, Massachusetts likes to point out its reputation as the enlightened 19th-century hub of the abolition movement. The state was one of the first to end slavery, long before the 13th Amendment formally banned it nationwide in 1865.
Less well known is that Massachusetts was the first to legalize slavery, in 1641. Even before then, merchants in the Massachusetts Bay Colony had enslaved Native Americans, and by 1638 were bartering them for Africans in the West Indies. The slave trade grew from there and soon became a pillar of the colonial economy.
Two professors at Tufts University, Kendra Field and Kerri Greenidge, are among the many scholars who have been tracing the history of Massachusetts’ African-American residents, from slavery to Black Lives Matter.
Their research, a collaboration with students and nonprofit organizations, has evolved into what they call the African American Trail Project, a website that maps out more than 200 historic sites across the state.
They include the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, the intact home of the largest slaveholders in Massachusetts and the only remaining slave quarters in the northern United States; the “Hear Us” Women’s Memorial inside the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston; and the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Lynn.
“We wanted to make the history more visible and the facts accessible,” Field said.
The professors sought to link these disparate people and places together so that a visitor — a tourist, student or local resident — might see them not in isolation but in historical context.
Greenidge said people often think of Boston as either “where fugitive slaves came and were ‘rescued’ by the abolitionists, or as the place where people were throwing bricks at black children” during busing protests in the 1970s. (The site of protests against the Boston School Committee, at 15 Beacon St., is one of the sites.) Their goal, the professors said, is to “complicate the narrative,” to fill in gaps, show African-American people in all their dimensions and place present-day struggles for racial justice in a continuum.
Local “trails” of African-American significance have long existed. These trails, which can be walked in a few hours, include the Black Heritage Trail on Beacon Hill in Boston; a self-guided tour of anti-slavery sites in Concord, Massachusetts; and the African American Heritage Trail at Mount Auburn Cemetery. By contrast, the Tufts Trail Project is not a self-contained walking tour but more of a planning tool for the do-it-yourselfer, especially beyond Beacon Hill, where so much of the popular narrative has been focused. The website features a map with a bird’s-eye view of most of the known sites in Massachusetts as well as further information. It allows readers to suggest new locations.
Some of the locations, like the 1806 African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, the oldest extant black church in the country, are open year-round and offer tours; others consist of a statue, plaque or historic home; some are not open to the public, and some are not marked at all. Here are four notable sites to see.
The Royall House and Slave Quarters (Medford)
Only 35 feet separate the slave quarters from the Royall family’s manor house at this one-time 500-acre farm north of Boston. A tour of the quarters and home, with their artifacts of bondage and bounty, shows how the enslaved Africans toiled to keep the manor house functioning for the wealthy Royalls. “Where this country is in terms of racial conflict isn’t by accident,” Penny Outlaw, co-president of the site’s board of directors, said on a recent informal tour. “There were so many antecedents in the 18th century.” After the enslaved people on the farm were freed, many had to stay on as sharecroppers to earn clothes and food. “Black people weren’t starting out owning anything,” she said. “What they got was ownership of themselves.”
Grave site of Harriet Jacobs (Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge)
Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in 1813 in North Carolina, where her mistress broke the law and taught her to read and write. Jacobs was later transferred to a brutal plantation owner “who began to whisper foul words in my ear,” she wrote. “I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master.” She described the experience (and her shame over her involvement with a married white man) in her stunning memoir, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself.” It appeared under a pseudonym (Linda Brent) in 1861, and was forgotten until it was authenticated in 1981. After hiding from her master for seven years in crawl spaces, Jacobs eventually escaped and ended up in Boston, where her book, now regarded as a significant feminist slave narrative, was printed.
A. Phillip Randolph Statue (Back Bay Station, Boston)
After the Civil War, the Pullman Car Co. was one of the few employers hiring former slaves. The pay was terrible and conditions demeaning. All porters were called “George,” after company owner George Pullman, a vestige of when enslaved people were addressed by their owner’s name. In 1925 the porters asked A. Phillip Randolph, a Harlem labor leader, to help them form a union. A decade later, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the first black union to sign a labor agreement with a major corporation. A larger-than-life statue of Randolph, the union’s first president, sits inside the Back Bay Station in Boston, often ignored by commuters and homeless people alike as they sprawl around it. Among Randolph’s achievements, said Larry Tye, author of “Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class” (2004), was getting nameplates for the porters’ uniforms, so they were no longer called George.
‘Faces of Dudley’ Mural (Roxbury)
Mike Womble, the street artist responsible for 20 wall murals in Boston, painted this expansive piece of public art in 1995 in Roxbury’s Dudley Square. Womble said in an interview that he wanted to pay homage to the sense of community in this largely black neighborhood, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched in 1965. All people depicted were based on actual residents. Famous neighbors in the painting include Melnea Cass, the suffragist and civil rights activist. Another was Malcolm X, who lived as a teenager in Roxbury in the 1940s and appears three times in the mural — “as a pimp in a zoot suit, as a hustler and as the man he became,” Womble, 45, said. “I wanted to show kids they could rise to be something bigger.”
The African American Trail Project map is available at africanamericantrailproject.tufts.edu.