The Worldly Remonds of Salem

Great news on this Martin Luther King Day weekend: the Mayor of Salem has announced that a rather barren strip of waterfront land adjacent to the Salem-Beverly bridge will be reconstituted as Remond Park, after the prominent pair of African-American Abolitionist advocates and natives of Salem, Charles Lenox Remond (1810-1873) and Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894). The announcement refers only to these famous siblings, but I prefer to think of the new park as a tribute to the entire Remond family, as the Remond parents, John and Nancy, created the material and cultural foundation that supported their children’s full-time advocacy against slavery. All at the same time, the Remond narrative is a great African-American, American, and Salem story, and it all began when the ten-year-old John “Vonremon” arrived in Salem in the summer of 1798–very much alone. He had been sent north from his native Curacao by his mother “for schooling” apparently, and the owners of the brig that transported him (the Six Brothers, John and Isaac Needham) employed him in the family bakery almost immediately upon his arrival. By his late teens he was in Boston, learning some of the “traditional” trades for freemen of color in the north, hairdressing, wig-making, and catering, and becoming acquainted with his future wife Nancy Lenox, by all accounts an excellent cook herself. In 1805 he returned to Salem and took up residence in the newly-built Hamilton Hall, working as its “Colored Restaurateur” for several decades, always referred to as Mr. Remond. Nancy and he married and had ten children between 1809-1824, all the while building their hair-dressing, culinary, and food provisions businesses. Two of these children died in infancy, Charles (b. 1810) and Sarah (b. 1824) became anti-slavery orators for the local, state, and national conventions while in their twenties, and the rest carried on–and expanded the family businesses in Salem.

The Remond American story started with John–and the Remond Salem story really started right next door at Hamilton Hall. I often think of John and Nancy as I work in my garden and look at its eastern wall, knowing that right on the other side was their home, their workplace, the birthplace of their children. I was stirring my tea this afternoon thinking about all that activity over there, and how great that the family name is now (or will shortly be) a place.

Remond portrait

Remond Hamilton Hall

Remond Park

John Remond (1786-1874) later in life, Library of Congress; the wall of Hamilton Hall from my kitchen; the soon-to-be Remond Park in Salem, courtesy Salem News.

Charles and Sarah became forceful advocates for Abolition because they had a secure Salem base but they were not grounded by Salem: after he built a reputation as an effective orator for the cause in Massachusetts in the 1830s he became a paid lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society and attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London with William Lloyd Garrison in 1840, after which he lectured throughout Britain. He continued his advocacy upon his return to the U.S., though was eclipsed in the national realm by the man whom he once mentored, Frederick Douglass. (They seemed to have been rivals, yet Douglass named his son Charles Remond Douglass). Once the Civil War began, Charles became a fierce proponent of African-American engagement, and a major recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Sarah was even more worldly than her brother: after her first speaking tour for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1856, she left for Britain and never came back. She continued her advocacy (now for the Northern cause), but combined lecturing with studies at the Bedford College for Ladies (now part of the University of London) and after the Civil War she left Britain for Italy, where she graduated from medical school, married an Italian, and remained for the rest of her life.

Remonds

Remond Poster MHS

Remond broadside MHS

Charles Lenox Remond and Sarah Parker Remond; Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society Broadsides from the 1850s, Massachusetts Historical Society.

And while their children spread their wings, John and Nancy Remond remained in Salem, minding to their varied, expanding businesses. John appears so entrepreneurial that I can’t quite grasp the full range of his activities: the catering operation was moved out of Hamilton Hall in the mid-1820s to a series of locales in Derby and Higginson Squares, on Front Street, and on Derby Street. According to advertisements placed in the Salem Gazette in the later 1820s, he became a purveyor of fine wines and oysters, lots and lots of oysters, along with curry powder, East Indian soy sauce, pickled nuts, Virginia hams, and “catsup” (a very early use of this word, surely?). He operated both a wholesale business and several retail establishments, including an oyster bar and an ice cream parlor. He evolved from caterer to “trader”, although Nancy seems to have continued her culinary activities, and offered lunches and dinners at 5 Higginson Square in downtown Salem, “at the sign of the big lantern”, above which they also lived. The 1850 census values John’s assets at $3600; in 1870 the man who is identified as a “dealer in wines” has $19,400 worth of real estate in Salem and $2000 in personal assets. Though he seldom left Salem after his childhood arrival, John was not only a wealthy but a worldly merchant, in the Salem tradition, with stores of exotic goods ready to “ship to any market.” I’m impressed by the ambition and achievements of both John and Nancy, but I don’t want to depict them as singularly focused on the family economy: both were members of anti-slavery societies and active in abolitionist circles. Their primary focus was on education: they actually left Salem, and their many businesses, when Sarah was denied entrance into Salem High School in 1835 and only returned six years later after the Salem schools were desegregated, in no small part to their efforts from Rhode Island. They opened their (busy!) home up to the young Charlotte Forten, the first African-American woman to graduate from my university, when her father sent her north from Philadelphia to attend Salem’s desegregated schools in the 1850s. They provided for their children, and changed the world.

*Sources: Sarah Parker Remond has received a lot of attention from historians; her brother and family less so, but I found Willi Coleman’s “Like Hot Lead to Pour on the Americans….Sarah Parker Remond—from Salem, Mass. to the British Isles”, in Kathy Kish Sklar & James Brewer Stewart’s Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Anti-Slavery in the Era of Emancipation (Yale, 2007) to be particularly helpful; there’s a podcast by Julie Winch with a very promising title here, but the link doesn’t seem to be working!


15 responses to “The Worldly Remonds of Salem

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