August 24, 1619 is a less-remembered date that lives in infamy. On that day, a ship landed near Jamestown, Virginia, with a cargo of the first 20 kidnapped Africans who survived the Middle Crossing and were brought America to be sold into slavery.
On August 24, 2019, church bells rang for four minutes, marking four centuries, across the country, including at Medfield’s First Parish Unitarian Universalist.
The event also served as a reminder of a vivid historical society presentation in March, 2014 by Alice Crawley, a former member of the historical society’s board. Her presentation on African slavery in colonial Medfield drew a crowd of some 75 people to the program at the old meetinghouse, now First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church.
Alice told the stories of three 18th Century Medfield men and their families. Two of the men, Warwick Green and Newport Green, both of whom fought for Medfield in the Revolutionary War, came to Medfield as slaves. The third subject, John Greene, was a Boston-based merchant and a slaveholder, whose house still stands at 503 Main Street.
As part of her program, Alice quoted from a very moving and eloquent letter the town of Medfield sent in 1774 to the Boston Committee of Correspondence: “We wish the blessings of law and government…and therefore cannot but think it incumbent upon us to bear testimony against that iniquitous practice of enslaving Africans. … The poor Africans, when taken from all that is dear to them in their native soil, have not the least shadow of liberty remaining. They have nothing they can claim as their own; their time is entirely devoted to the service of their absolute lords, their bodies are at their disposal to be bartered and sold from man to man as the senseless beasts; their children, if any they have, are born in an estate of abject servitude, than which nothing can be more repugnant to liberty, for which we so universally contend.”
Slavery ended in New England about 1780.
There were several reasons why African slavery did not take hold on a large scale in New England.
Climate was critical. The 17th and 18th centuries were much colder than today – it was a mini ice age. For farmers, the growing season was much shorter. The cold climate was much healthier for people of northern European origin. Many insect- and water-borne diseases which ravaged southern whites were mild or unknown in Massachusetts, and here our mortality rate was much lower than average in the western hemisphere.
But Africans suffered especially from lung diseases in the New England winters, and their mortality was twice as high as whites’. In Virginia mortality was about the same for blacks and whites. In South Carolina, white mortality was higher than black.
Our ancestors had large families. Despite high infant mortality, children could help with the farm. European visitors often reported how healthy and energetic New Englanders were. Their diet was very healthy, though we would find it unappealing. One visitor reported that children here never seemed to walk, but always ran at full speed.
We’ll never know for certain what they did and how they lived in Medfield. Medfield was a town of under a thousand people in colonial days. Inhabitants made their living by farming small tracts, and there were small manufacturing operations and other small businesses – certainly no large plantations! So it’s reasonable to assume the slaves did a little bit of farm and manufacturing labor, and perhaps some domestic service…but not much else. It appears that in Medfield there weren’t the economies of scale that would make slavery profitable. And since blacks were property, they were not considered important enough for elaborate record-keeping.
But trading in slaves was at one time important to the New England economy…and in particular to the founders of Brown University.
According to the eminent scholar and historian John Hope Franklin, blacks were generally better treated here than in the south. Unlike the south, many northern blacks learned to read and write, and they seemed to have more freedom to come and go. However, you must still remember the slave trade – buying and selling African people – was very important to the New England economy.
One of the few places in Massachusetts that had slave labor on any significant scale was the Connecticut River Valley, for tobacco farming. Robert Romer of Amherst College, author of Slavery in the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts, found estate records and bills of sale that showed, of the 300 people in Deerfield about 1750, 21 were African slaves. Five were named Cesar, two were named Titus (owners apparently liked giving slaves classical names), and Lucy Terry was the only slave who was dignified with a surname.
Romer found almost no information about the slaves’ lives.
The source for much of this information is a fascinating book called Albion’s Seed, written in 1989 by Brandeis Professor and Pulitzer Prize winner David Hackett Fisher.