Tag Archives: Slavery

Slaves in the Hunt House

There were two prompts for today’s post, both of which came as I was getting ready for the spring semester, after a productive sabbatical in which I thought and wrote very little about Salem’s history. The first prompt was the wonderful recognition of the work of one of my colleagues, Dr. Bethany Jay, whose book (co-edited with Dr. Cynthia Lynn Lyerly of Boston College) Understanding and Teaching American Slavery won the prestigious James Harvey Robinson prize for the “most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history in any field for public or educational purposes” at this year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The second prompt came from a former student of mine, now an archivist-in-training and public historian-by-passion, inquired as to the location of the remains of the burial ground of Salem’s Bulfinch-designed Almshouse on Salem Neck, a property which is now the site of a 1980s condominium development. I looked through the usual sources to try to help her, but then (as usual), got distracted: by this obituary in the Liberator, dated April 30, 1836.

slavery collage

Here we can read of the death of a long-time resident of the Almshouse, centengenarian Flora Jeans, an African-American woman who was once the widow of Bristow Hunt, a slave belonging to Capt. Wm. Hunt, who resided at the corner of Lynde Street. At the time of the general emancipation of the slaves in New England, Bristow partook of the sweets of freedom, in common with others of his race, and in the elevation of his feelings consequent on his being placed on a level with his fellow men, he nobly fought for the liberties of his country and was killed in battle by the side of a connection of his master’s family, who is now living. Sigh. Yet another amazing Salem story, drawing me back in: this city’s African-American history, as well as its revolutionary history, and its nineteenth-century history, and virtually all of its history, is so minimized and marginalized because of the incessant drumbeat: 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692. 1692, 1692.

bucks of america mhsThe paint-on-silk “Bucks of America” flag in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1785-86, commemorating what is “believed to have been a Massachusetts militia company composed of African Americans and operating in Boston during the American Revolution, although no official records of the unit seem to exist”.

I don’t know much about American history; I began this blog partly because I wanted to learn more about Salem’s history because it seemed so overwhelmingly focused on the Witch Trials and I was curious about other eras and institutions. The last time I studied American history was in high school, where I can assure you I learned nothing about slavery and its myriad consequences. I avoided American history in college studiously, because it seemed so short and one-dimensional compared to the European and Asian history (I didn’t even think about African history). By the time I finished my doctoral program and started teaching I had learned a lot about slavery in the early modern Atlantic world, or about the slave trade, and I assumed that it formed a larger part of the secondary-school curriculum than when I was in high school. But that’s not the case, even now. Dr. Jay consulted with the Southern Poverty Law Center on their Teaching Toleration project, which surveyed 1000 American high-school seniors, 1700 history teachers, along with popular textbooks and state standards, in 2017 about their knowledge and presentation of slavery. The results were alarming, to say the least, and really surprising to me, although I suspect not as surprising to my Americanist colleagues: only 8% of high-school seniors identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War, few than one-third identified the 13th amendment as the formal end of slavery in the United States,  and less than half could define the “Middle Passage”. Eight percent.

I feel fortunate to have learned a lot about slavery—its structures, consequences, and abolition—from my colleagues as well as my students. It’s not an easy subject; I really would prefer to look at our founding fathers as heroes rather than hypocrites, believe me (but Martin Luther and both Cromwells are troublesome creatures too). I teach our capstone seminar, in which students write long research papers over the course of the semester, pretty regularly, and I let students choose whatever topic they like, within reason and with my qualifications. Because Dr. Jay is such a popular professor, I’ve supervised papers on slave children, anti-slavery societies, the circumstances surrounding the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, and The Liberator, among other related topics. So I’m not surprised to see such a detailed obituary of a poor African-American woman in 1836. Another popular professor in our department is Dr. Dane Morrison, who teaches the Colonial and Federal eras: he has inspired a full range of Revolutionary topics in my seminars, including one on African-American soldiers who fought for the American side despite the enticements of the British. So I’m not surprised to read about Bristow Hunt either: despite the flowery rhetoric in the obituary, I assume he was offered manumission in exchange for his military service, rather than absolutely, as slavery was not formally abolished in Massachusetts (by judicial review) until 1783. I don’t really know this to have been the case, but the fact that he died by the side of a connection of his master’s family is pretty telling. I wish I knew more about Bristow—and Flora—and their lives rather than just their deaths. I wish we all knew more about them, and I’m a bit embarrassed of my previous preoccupation on the house in which Bristow and others were enslaved. I’ve always been fascinated by this first-period house, which was demolished during the Civil War. It survives in paintings and photographs, neither of which offer us any insights into what went on inside.

hunt-house-cousins-and-riley

hunt-house-on-washington-and-lynde-streets-salem-hneCirca 1857 photograph of the Hunt House in Frank Cousins’ and Phil Riley’s Colonial Architecture in Salem (1919); undated drawing, Historic New England.

The antiquarian approach focuses on the house, on physical remainders rather than social history. So I was being an antiquarian, just like Sidney Perley, who wrote in the Essex Antiquarian [Volume II, 1898] that William Hunt (whom he does not call Captain) died in 1780 possessed of the “mansion house”, bake house, barn and lot; in the division of his real estate in 1782, the buildings and eastern portion of the lot were assigned to his son Lewis Hunt [who was] a baker, and had his shop in the front end of the house”. When William Hunt died in 1780, slavery was still technically legal in Massachusetts despite its brand-new constitution’s provision that “all men are born free and equal, and have….the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties”. And in the early 1770s, when the public discourse calling for freedom and condemning tyranny was intense and incessant, he placed a series of advertisements in the Salem papers offering a reward for the return of another of his slaves, Cato. This much we do know.

slavery 1771 essex gazette may 28Essex Gazette, May 28, 1771.


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?

AA Phillips collage

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”.


The ABCs of Slavery

I’ve always been a hunter and gatherer of old stuff, and the first “collection” I assembled while still in my early 20s was of nineteenth-century pearlware children’s plates, primarily ABC and nursery plates intended for instruction and edification: I had quite a few of Franklin’s Maxims, a few domestic scenes, animals, and lots of Robinson Crusoe: I still have the latter, one elephant plate, and a fortune-telling scene, but I sold off the rest a decade or so, along with all of my transferware. When I was hunting around for these little plates, I remember seeing some that were a bit political, and wondering: why would children care about free trade? But slavery was a far more passionate and accessible topic, and quite a few abolitionist ABC plates appeared in the mid nineteenth-century, especially after the production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These plates were produced primarily in Britain for the northern American market, and the Staffordshire potteries had the dual motivation of meeting (and perhaps creating) demand in America while presenting themselves as morally superior to their cousins across the Atlantic: there is an amazing transfer-printed jug in the collection of the Winterthur Museum which advertises all the available patterns along with one scene in which showing “Britannia Protecting the Africans”. The British were so very clever at catering to both sides in the struggle over slavery in America: preaching to the North while buying cotton from the South! The Winterthur collection also contains an anti-slavery ABC plate based on the work of Mary Belson Elliot, “blending sound Christian principles with cheerful cultivation”, and a popular children’s mug first sold at the 1846 Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Fair, along with the wonderful Anti-Slavery Alphabet produced by the Townsend sisters.

Anti-slavery plate Winterthur Collection

Anti-slavery Mug Winterthur Collection

anti-slavery alphabet primer 1846 Letters A and B

anti-slavery alphabet primer 1846 Letters M and N

From the Winterthur Museum Collections:  Staffordshire pearlware jug made by Christopher Whitehead, c. 1817-1819, ABC plate, c. 1800-1830, and child’s mug, c. 1795-1865; Pages from the Anti-Slavery Alphabet of Philadelphia sisters Hannah and Mary Townsend, 1846.

The particular plate that returned my attention to ABC plates in general and anti-slavery ABC products in particular is a lot in the upcoming Memorial Day Auction at Northeast Auctions: “Gathering Cotton”. This is a Staffordshire plate as well, but produced later than the Winterthur pieces (between 1850 and 1865) and its meaning/purpose is far less straightforward:  I can’t tell if it’s for or against slavery! With children front and center, I assume it is anti-, but it projects a far less strident message than other plates that were produced at this time, primarily based on  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with scenes such as “The Buyer and Seller of the Human Article” and  “Uncle Tom Whipped to Death” depicted. Once the Civil War began, the messaging of ABC plates became even more straightforward, with simple depictions of Union generals produced, of course, in Great Britain.

ABC Plate Gathering Cotton

ABC Plate Human Article

ABC Uncle Tom plate

General McClellan Plate Cowan's Auctions

“Gathering Cotton” and other mid-nineteenth century Staffordshire ABC plates, from the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Decorative Arts Database, referenced in two great articles: Louise L. Stevenson’s “Virtue Displayed: the Tie-Ins of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (available here), and Jill Weitzman Fenichell’s “Fragile Lessons: Ceramic and Porcelain Representations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (available here). “The Arrival of General McClellan” Staffordshire ABC plate, Cowan’s Auctions.


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