It is hard to know many of the details of the lives of early enslaved African Americans in Concord, Massachusetts because they were, like white women and children, treated as property rather than as citizens of early Concord. In the seventeenth century Concord was a subsistence farming community, so college educated intellectuals, such as ministers, lawyers, or doctors, appear to have often relied upon enslaved workers to maintain their households and farms. But they didn’t tend to leave posterity their names or life details.
Concord’s founding minister, the Rev. Peter Bulkeley, and some subsequent First Parish in Concord ministers prior to the American Revolution, appear to have kept slaves at least some of the time. The church record books include occasional references to enslaved members, but like white women and children, they were seated separately, and were not counted as full or paying members at the time.
The first previously enslaved African American to buy land in Concord was John Jack, born 1712, who built his homestead on swampland near the edge of Great Meadows. Most of his life he was an enslaved farmhand for Benjamin Barron. After Barron died in 1754, Jack worked for wages earning his freedom in 1761 and purchasing four acres of plowable land at the margins of Concord society.
George Tolman says: “Later he bought a lot of two and a half acres in the Great Meadow, upon which he built a house, and the spot has been occupied by [African American] families ever since, until a few years ago.” A succession of often-related African American families lived around Great Meadows throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, on land few others found worthwhile to build upon. I’m told that until very recently some multigenerational Black Concordians still lived near “Asparagus Farm.”
Caesar Robbins, an enslaved African American, probably fought with the Concord militiamen on Punkatasset Hill on April 19, 1775. In 1823, two of his children Susan and Peter, built a substantial two-family house near John Jacks’ former house site. It is known to this day as the Robbins House and has been recently relocated to the Old North Bridge parking lot to be Concord’s first Black history museum.
On April 19, 1775 Rev. William Emerson seems to have had two enslaved persons, a male farmhand and a female housekeeper, living in the attic of the Old Manse and serving his growing family’s domestic needs. A friend recently gave me a behind the scenes tour of the restored Old Manse, including a tour of the garret attic where visiting clergy, the household slaves, and the older children all slept.
In 1837, Susan Robbins Garrison became a founding member of the Concord Female Antislavery Society. At their first meeting they voted to ask First Parish to remove restrictions of blacks to certain sections or pews of the Meeting House. In 1862 the Women’s Anti-Slavery Society organized three hundred Concord school children to sign a petition to President Abraham Lincoln asking him to free all enslaved children.
After the American Civil War slavery was no longer practiced in Concord. Susan’s daughter, Ellen Garrison, went on to be Concord’s leading African-American scholar, teacher, and activist. Peter Hutchinson, a distant relative by marriage, lived in the Robbins house in Henry Thoreau’s time, serving local farmers as a day laborer and by slaughtering their pigs, a sort of work few others would willingly seek to do.
In Walden Thoreau describes his Walden Woods neighbors as being largely formerly enslaved African Americans, poor Irish immigrants, or the occasional transient indigenous person. He writes of Freeman Brister and his apple orchard just northwest of Walden Pond. Or “Cato Ingraham, slave of Duncan Ingraham, Esquire, gentleman of Concord village, who built his slave a house, and gave him permission to live in Walden woods.” And also, “Here, by the very corner of my [bean] field, still nearer town, Zilpha, a colored woman, had her little house, where she spun linen for the townsfolk.”
There is much to be honored in Concord’s history. We have been neither better nor worse than most Americans of our time and place. Yet it is important that we acknowledge our past in helping to educate our children and ourselves about the future we envision. For only by acknowledging our past can we hope to transcend it. That is the ultimate message of the Concord transcendentalists for our time.
Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom is a transcendentalist author, Concord guide, and longtime resident of Concord. He is the author of SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing.