Tag Archives: African American History

Step it up, Salem

Nothing helps to define the distinguishing characteristics of where you live better than travel. I’ve been traveling quite a bit over the past year, near and far, in the US and abroad, but generally to places which are identified as tourist destinations, like Salem. I’m always happy to return home, where I am more appreciative of Salem’s many advantages and resources, but also its lost opportunities, for lack of a better phrase. There are quite a few places that make do with with a lot less than Salem has: they might or might not have streets of historic architecture (though most of the places I visit do), they might not have a “marketable historic event,” they might not have a harbor, they might not have 100 restaurants, but they do have: 1) historical societies and/or museums that provide free exhibits and walking tours for the public; 2) museums that are actually museums–nonprofit institutions with collections and curators; 3) attractive and informative signage; and 4) a sense of pride expressed by effective stewardship of public properties—historical and otherwise. I think Salem could do a lot better; I think we need to step it up in these four areas in particular. I’m not sure how to do that, however, as I’m not really sure who is in charge of Salem’s tourism planning and administration. Free enterprise seems to reign over the city’s tourism, with private institutions taking primary responsibility for selling our city’s heritage, with a few very notable exceptions like the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the House of the Seven Gables. There should be some role for our city government, but I’m not sure if that role has been defined or exists, so I’m going to make my key points in the form of questions and just cast them out there into the unknown.

Why can’t we ditch the Red Line? I’ve written a whole post about this and my feelings have not changed, so I’m not going to belabor the point, but the Red Line–as one of the few truly public history initiatives visible in the city—makes Salem look regressive (I’m sure it must be based on Boston’s Freedom Trail, which dates to 1951! Come on, times have changed in historical interpretation! Where is our app?) exclusive (there is no African-American history on the Red Line; at least Boston’s Freedom Trail intersects with its Black Heritage Trail. Salem has no Black Heritage Trail and no markers on black heritage sites), and exploitative (because it’s really all about shops and witch “museums” obviously). Plus it just looks bad. We can and should do a lot better: the foundation is already laid with some great tours produced by Salem Maritime and Essex Heritage  (here and here), among others. We just need to consolidate, repackage and go digital.

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20190506_142906Is the Red Line going to take us across North Street to the beautiful Peirce-Nichols House? Of course not, sharp left to the Witch House, after we’ve just been to the Witch Dungeon Museum.

Why can’t we transform this beautiful Greek Revival courthouse which is currently empty into the Salem History Museum and Visitor Center?  There is a nice display of placards providing an overview of Salem’s history called the Salem Museum at Old Town Hall and a Visitors Center with much more regular hours run by Salem Maritime in the drill shed of the former Salem Armory, but I think we need to consolidate these two services into one building and this former courthouse happens to be empty and in the possession of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA). I’m sure the SRA wants to develop it–and its adjacent courthouse next door–but this would be a great spot for Salem to really own its history. It’s right across from the train station and its parking lot. Salem needs permanent and professional exhibitions of its entire history, including the Witch Trials, which has always been its biggest draw. Doesn’t Salem Maritime have its own story to tell? Why does it bear the primary responsibility for visitor orientation in Salem? We know that the Peabody Essex Museum is not interested in historical interpretation, but they might be persuaded to loan some things, as would the Salem State Archives (I think!) which has been collecting quite a bit of local history over the past few years. 

20190511_124916Two empty courthouses downtown: can’t ONE play a key public role?

Why can the city of Salem regulate tour guides but not “museums”? Most historical interpretation in Salem is offered by private tour companies and private “museums” which are really not museums at all: they offer presentations and dioramas rather than collections and context. (This is not just my opinion! Check out reviews for the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, the Witch History Museum, and the Salem Witch Museum on Yelp or TripAdvisor: even the people that like these places say “this is not what you would think of as a museum.”) The City of Salem licenses tour guides, but anyone and everyone can open a museum. This seems like an inconsistent public policy regarding historical interpretation to me. The other issue with the “museums” and haunted houses is their seasonality: they can be absolutely deadening if situated in a central location, as is the case with the juxtaposition of the Witch History Museum, Count Orlock’s Nightmare Gallery and the delightful Witch Mansion or whatever it is called along central Essex Street. This is Salem’s main street and you can hear a pin drop on a Friday night as these places are shut up tight; I think the last two were open only in October even during the day–but as you will notice, the Red Line runs right by.

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20190508_153716Thank goodness for Wicked Good Books and the Hotel Salem, otherwise there’s not a lot going on on the Essex Street pedestrian mall, day or night. 

Why can’t we have consistent, attractive, and informative signage? And why do these private “museums” get to stick their signs on all over town on public utility poles?

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Look at these signs! Clearly the owners of the Salem Witch Museum and Witch Dungeon Museum can just place signs wherever they like. I’m assuming the numbers on this last sign refer to the Red Line and (obviously) the Salem Trolley tour, another private purveyor of history in Salem. I think we need some contrast here, so here’s just one of a succession of well-designed signs I spotted around North Adams last weekend.

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While I’m on the subject of signs, I would be remiss if I didn’t commend the City of Salem for putting up some lovely neighborhood and park signs—which they have—but the information presented on these signs has to be correct. I’m particularly concerned about the sign for the relatively new Remond Park adjacent to the Beverly Bridge. This is a memorial to the Remond family, a very successful free black family in mid-nineteenth-century Salem whose members advocated for school desegregation, abolition and myriad other social justice issues while operating several successful businesses. It’s great that they have a park! It’s great that this park is one of only two Salem sites on Tufts University’s acclaimed African American trail project. But the sign has the wrong information: Salem had a vibrant African-American population in the nineteenth century downtown; there was not “a large population of African Americans” who lived in this rather remote section of Bridge Street Neck. As if the location of this park wasn’t off the beaten path (Red Line) enough, Salem’s African-American population is marginalized geographically by this sign, just as they are marginalized (or omitted) from Salem’s history.

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20190511_132347Bridge Street Neck was not “home to a large population of African Americans” in the 19th century: just check the city directories!

Why can’t we protect Salem’s sacred sites? Salem’s downtown cemeteries, especially the Old Burying Point or Charter Street Cemetery, are besieged during October: why can’t the gates simply be shut? I have seen terrible things in Charter Street: many tourists don’t seem to realize that it is a real cemetery rather than some sort of stage set. The City of Salem has an obligation to protect this sacred site, and it could do so by simply locking its gates. Salem’s Quaker Cemetery on Essex Street is always locked up; why can’t Charter Street be locked up for the month of October? This is a question that people have been asking for years and there is never any answer.

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Black History is Salem History

I’m wrapping up February, a month in which educators have focused on African-American history since at least 1970, with a summary of some of the research in which I’ve been engaged and some links to some other initiatives and events in the Salem area. I really learned a lot this month, about Salem’s African-American history, and about Salem’s history: essentially I learned that they are one and the same. I got drawn into the experiences of African-Americans in Salem in the eighteenth century by my efforts to learn digital mapping through a project on enslavement, while the Remonds of Hamilton Hall have always been my point-of-entry for the world of nineteenth-century free blacks in Salem. I’ve been supervising an internship for Hamilton Hall in which the intern has been digging deep into the activities of the extended Remond family, and I have benefitted from directing (and following!) her path. My map is in the very preliminary stages primarily because I haven’t really mastered the process yet, but also because I have yet to establish the full scale of enslavement in colonial Salem. Every discovery leads me down a path in which I struggle to establish context: the Honorable justices William Browne, Benjamin Lynde Sr., and Benjamin Lynde Jr., the Loyalist Captain Poynton of the “Pineapple House”: all slave owners.

Black Past Brown

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Poyton Collage

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Black Past Otis Map Advertisements from the Boston EveningPost; 1731 portrait of Benjamin Lynde Sr. by John Smibert; Diary entry and will excerpt from The Diaries of Benjamin Lynde and of Benjamin Lynde, Jr. (1880). I’m using the “Otis Map” or the “Map of Salem about 1780,” based on the Researches of Sidney Perley and the (contemporary) accounts of Col. Benjamin Pickman & Benjamin J.F. Browne with Additional Information Assembled by James Duncan Phillips and Henry Noyes Otis and drawn by Henry Noyes as my old-school working map and adding Xs as I uncover information from newspaper ads, censuses, and diaries–but there are still a lot of family papers to go through.

It’s so odd to think of Benjamin Lynde Sr. (1666-1749) and Benjamin Lynde Jr. (1700-1781), Salem natives, residents, and chief justices of the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature, conducting their legal responsibilities while simultaneously managing their private estates, which included the purchase of new slaves, and the recovery of those who had run away. The elder Lynde mentions purchasing sheep and a young boy named Scipio in the same breath. Benjamin Lynde Jr. presided over the trial of the British soldiers indicted for the Boston Massacre of 1770, and freed one of his slaves in his will six years later. And then everything changes: just one of many remarkable things I’ve learned about Charles Lenox Remond (1810-1873), also a Salem native and son of a free black emigre, is his intense advocacy for the erection of a memorial to Crispus Attucks, the African-American martyr of the Boston Massacre. He would not see that statue erected in his lifetime, but he would be the first African-American to testify before the Massachusetts legislature in 1842: on the timely topic of the the desegregation of the relatively-new railways. Just this past week, an excerpt of the new book Separate: the Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey From Slavery to Segregation by Steve Luxenberg was published in the Washington Post Magazine as ” The Jim Crow Car”: who knew that that phrase had northern origins? Mr. Luxenberg tweeted me a quote from his book referencing Remond’s testimony on February 10, 1842 when the chamber was filled with curious spectators as “Word had gotten out: a man of color would be testifying.”

Remond Train Collage

Before this month, I had a healthy respect for Charles and his equally famous sister Sarah Parker Remond, both very public abolitionist advocates and speakers, but I was a bit more interested in their parents, John and Nancy, a very entrepreneurial couple who kept the home fires burning while supporting their efforts back in Salem. I remain impressed with the entire Remond family, but I got to know Charles a bit more and I really think he was a man ahead of his time. He was not just advocating for abolition, he was going for complete equality: of race and gender. I read in his letters to his fellow abolitionist Ellen Sands in the Phillips Library in Rowley very carefully, and his earnest identification of his enemies as “his majesty Mr. Slavery and her majesty Mistress Prejudice” rings true in all his advocacy work: for desegregation of travel and education, for women’s suffrage, for the end of the Massachusetts anti-miscegenation laws, for the end of slavery and equal opportunities for African-Americans. All of the Remonds petitioned their local and state authorities on a range of social justice issues in the 1840s and 1850s, calling for the the abolition of capital punishment, the desegregation of the Boston schools (having been successful in Salem), and the refutation of the Fugitive Slave Act.

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Black History Remond Petitition 1A

Black History Remond Petition 1BJust one petition with Remond signatures from Harvard University’s Anti-Slavery Petitions of Massachusetts Dataverse.

Because of the presence of the Remonds (and perhaps other African-American families whom I haven’t learned about yet), Salem served as a refuge of sorts for free blacks from eastern cities in search of educational opportunity, particularly young women: two very prominent educators, Charlotte Forten (1837-1914) and Maritcha Remond Lyons (1848-1929), left Philadelphia and New York for Salem in the 1850s and 1860s, and Forten graduated from Salem Normal School (now Salem State University) and became the first African-American teacher in the Salem public schools in 1856. Salem was definitely formative in Forten’s intellectual and personal development, and Salem State is justly proud of its graduate: a permanent exhibition space was opened up on campus last year, and a special tribute to her pioneering roles will be held next week.

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Forten Talk 2Charlotte Forten and Maritcha Remond Lyons, who was named after her mother’s best friend, Maritcha Remond. You can register for Race, Gender and Education: a Dialogue Linking Past and Presenta complimentary event, here.

The city of Salem is fortunate that institutions such as Salem State, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and Hamilton Hall are engaging in the interpretation of African-American history, but I think this topic—along with many others—deserves the coordination and amplification that a historical society/museum/center could bring to its presentation. A few tweets from the city’s tourism organization about the existence of an audio guide to African-American sites in Salem does not suffice. Despite the residency and advocacy of the Remonds, of Charlotte Forten, of Robert Morris and Jacob Stroyer, and the fact that the Salem Ship Desire delivered the first documented cargo of enslaved Africans to Massachusetts in 1638, Salem has only two sites on the map of the comprehensive African-American Trail project at Tufts University: Stroyer’s grave and Remond Park. While it’s lovely that Salem has paid tribute to the Remond family with a seaside park, this gesture should not suffice either–especially when the information conveyed in its signage is wrong: a large population of nineteenth-century African-Americans did not live on Bridge Street Neck, remote from the center of the city. And their presence and stories—like those of their predecessors and successors—should not be confined to the margins of Salem’s history.

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Remond Park CollagePart of the AfricanAmerican Trail Project at Tufts including an evening last fall in which projections of the University’s first African-American students were photographed: here is Claude Randolph Taylor from 1924. Photograph by Erik Jacobs, Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University. I’m sure that the Remond Park sign will be corrected soon, but why was this sweeping and incorrect assertion included in the first place?


African-American History at the Phillips Library

On the occasion of the Martin Luther King holiday here in Salem and across the country, I thought I would highlight some sources for African-American history in the major repository for local history in our region, which is of course the PEM’s Phillips Library. I am aware of several scholars interested in various aspects of Salem’s rich African-American history: in the community, at Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and at Salem State University: my colleague Bethany Jay’s bookUnderstanding and Teaching American Slavery, is serving as a resource for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance initiative on slavery, and two of our graduate students received SPLC research fellowships last year. Bethany’s work is national in scope, but I don’t know how anyone interested in Salem’s African-American history could possibly engage in research, given the present closure of the library, the restriction of hours and staff before that, and the decade-long disinterest in digitization. That said, the digitized catalog reveals some amazing sources, including the papers of the Waters family (MSS 92), members of which were actively engaged in both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation ownership, as well as records of Salem’s various abolitionist societies, the records of the Salem Freedmen’s Aid Society, various diaries, lists and logbooks, the Remond family papers, and two letters from the author, poet, educator and activist Charlotte Forten Grimké to John Greenleaf Whittier (which I’m not sure are available anywhere else, certainly not in this 1911 collection of Whittier’s correspondence, published in Salem). Unfortunately the finding aid for the Whittier letters refers to Forten incorrectly as a former slave: she was in fact a “free woman of color” sent by her relatively affluent and connected Philadelphia family to Salem to receive an integrated education in the Salem public schools (while living with the Remond family) after which she enrolled in the Salem Normal School (the precursor of SSU), as its first African-American student, in 1855. Just before her graduation a year later, she was summoned to the Principal’s office to hear the happy news that she was to be offered a teaching position at the Epes School on Aborn Street Court. The entry in her wonderful journal cannot contain her excitement: in the conservative, aristocratic old city of Salem!!! Wonderful indeed it is!…..Can it be true?

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Charlotte Forten

AA Phillips Liberator Forter 1856 Aug 1

The records of the country’s first female abolitionist society, the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (of which Forten was a member), are in the Phillips Library, as are those of the Salem Lyceum, which hosted the Society’s lecture series, as well as those of many other Salem organizations. A cabinet photo of Charlotte Forten [Grimké], c. 1878, New York Public Library, and a story on Forten in The Liberator, shortly after her appointment in 1856.

In the broad sweep of Salem’s African-American history, as in its general history, there are moments of achievement and pride and moments of disgrace and regret. Locally, we are accustomed to hearing about Salem’s glorious China trade but not its more abhorrent exchanges. But we appear to be in the midst of a Renaissance in the study of American slavery, with the impact of slavery and the slave trade in the North subject to particular revision and reexamination. PEM curator Gordon Wilkins’ reexamination of two prized colonial portraits that have been in the Museum’s collection since 1878 views Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Fitch, the former a very active slave trader, in a new light, reflected by this revisionist history.

Fitch Portraits

Portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Fitch in Peabody Essex Museum’s American art galleries (photo courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum).

Wilkins asserts that PEM is committed to examining overlooked histories embodied in the objects that comprise our vast collections, and one hopes that this commitment will one day extend to the papers in the vast collections of the Phillips. Because there is a lot more to learn, and a lot less to overlook. I’m going to close with the comments of one of our graduate students at SSU, Thomas Landers (because I find that engaged graduate students are always very good at telling us what they–and us–need), in reference to the Waters-owned ship Abeona, which engaged in the slave trade between Senegal and Cuba in the 1790s. There’s a court case that sheds some light on the Abeona’s trade but its owner’s papers “sit locked away among the documents from other Salem families which traded in human flesh–names such as Fairfield, Smith, Ropes, Crowninshield, Grafton–in the Phillips Library collections, threatened to be removed from the city to which we owe their creation and preservation”.


Clarissa Lawrence of Salem

The intertwined histories of Salem’s African-American community and Abolitionist movement in the mid-nineteenth century are often referenced and represented by the work of two strong women, Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837-1914) and Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894), both born into families that were free, prosperous, and ardent advocates of abolition. Charlotte was a Philadelphia girl who came north to receive an integrated education in Salem: she graduated from the Higginson and Salem Normal Schools and became the first African-American to be hired to teach white students in a Salem public school when she accepted an appointment at the Epes School on Aborn Street. While in Salem she lived with the Remonds and became an active member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, and thereafter her continued advocacy for abolition was expressed primarily through her writing and her teaching, especially during her experience as a teacher of formerly enslaved children on the Union-occupied Sea Islands of South Carolina during the Civil War. Sarah Remond was a Salem native who followed in her parents’ and brother Charles’ footsteps in her dedication to the cause of abolition: she gave her first public speech for the cause when she was a teenager and was appointed a traveling lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society when she was twenty. In late 1858 she sailed for Britain to expose the horrors of slavery to a country which had close economic ties to the South, and delivered 45 lectures in the next few years, all of which attracted considerable crowds and press coverage–both abroad in the United States. Sarah never returned to Salem: after her citizenship status was questioned by the United States government upon her departure for Paris, she decided, in effect, to renounce it: she remained in Britain for several years, lecturing and taking classes at the Bedford College for Women, and then left for Italy after the Civil War.There she remained for the rest of her life, completing her medical degree, marrying, and entertaining family and friends from home.

There’s a lot more to say, and a lot more has been said, about both Charlette Forten Grimké and Sarah Parker Remond, but I’m interested in another African-American woman from Salem today: older, much lesser-known, but also an educator and an abolitionist: Clarissa Lawrence, also known as Chloe Minns, or “Mrs. Minns”. Her origins are obscure: we hear of her only in the Reverend William Bentley’s chatty diary when she is hired to run Salem’s first black public school in 1807. A “mulattoe” woman who could read but not write at the time of her appointment, Bentley is increasingly impressed with her as time goes by: every time he visits the “African School” on “Roast Meat Hill” he notes its “good order”. After he and Salem’s treasurer conducted a tour of all of Salem’s public schools in 1809 he observed that “In south Salem we found 40 children not provided with the best instruction. The African School by Mrs. Minns, 30 blacks, was better kept & several blacks repeated their hymns with great ease and propriety.” After the Reverend officiated at Mrs. Minns’ marriage to Schuyler Lawrence (her third, his second) in 1817 he commented that she “has acquitted herself with great honour, as to her manners & as to her instructions” and opined that the Lawrences were “the first grade of Africans in all our New England towns”. They settled on High Street, 8 High Street to be precise, where his seemingly-successful chimney-sweeping business was also located. She continued to teach (until 1823) and also held leadership positions in both the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem. She cast off “Chloe Minns” (a name given to her in slavery?) and became Clarissa Lawrence, or Mrs. Lawrence. Like Charlotte Forten, she combined the causes of free education for blacks and abolition into an engaging appeal, and (two years after Forten was born in Philadelphia) traveled to that city to address the third national convention of the Women’s Anti-Slavery Society, asking her mostly white audience to “place yourselves, dear friends, in our stead”, and observing that “We meet the monster prejudice everywhere….We cannot elevate ourselves….We want light; we ask it, and it is denied us, Why are we thus treated? Prejudice is the cause.”

And that’s all I know about Clarissa Lawrence, which is just not enough. Compared to the well-charted lives of Forten and Remond, hers is relatively marker-less, especially her early life. The divergent circumstances of birth, wealth, and family created different paths for these three women, but the existence of slavery led them to a common place. I am writing about Clarissa today because I unexpectedly came upon a fruit of her labors yesterday, a beautiful sampler produced by one of her students in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. Sarrah Ann Pollard’s sampler, produced at the “Clarrisa Lawrence School” in 1818, bears the inscription: virtue the [the] chief beauty of the ornament mind the nob/lest virtue of the female kind beauty without virtu[e] is [no value]. And now I’m wondering if I’ve even spelled “Clarissa” Lawrence’s name correctly, the way she would have wanted it.

Clarissa Lawrence School Sampler CWC

Clarrisa Lawrence School Sampler detail CWC

High StreetFramed Sampler by Sarrah [Sarah] Ann Pollard, 1818, Salem, Massachusetts. Collections of Colonial Williamsburg. 8 High Street, Salem: the former home of Mr. and Mrs. Schuyler Lawrence.


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