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Bostonians mark city’s history with slavery with Day of Remembrance of the Middle Passage and its Abolition

Ceremony honors those who lived and died in human bondage, acknowledges Boston’s past participation in slavery and abolition

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Bostonians mark city’s history with slavery with Day of Remembrance of the Middle Passage and its Abolition
State Rep. Byron Rushing addresses a gathering during the “Day of Remembrance of the Middle Passage and its Abolition” at Faneuil Hall. The event was sponsored by the Museum of African American History and the National Parks Service.

To many, Boston is known as the Cradle of Liberty, a city where the Boston Massacre and other events provided the opening salvos in the Revolutionary War. But for blacks living here between the 1630s and 1783 — the year slavery was abolished in Massachusetts — the history is more complicated.

On Sunday, the National Parks Service and the Museum of African American History sponsored “The Day of Remembrance of the Middle Passage and its Abolition” which brought to light this little-spoken of history, paid respect those subjected to slavery and provided a more candid view of the past. The ceremony acknowledged the roles Boston played in both furthering slavery and abolition, commemorated the efforts of enslaved and free blacks to achieve abolition and honored the suffering and lives of enslaved Africans as well as those who died on the “Middle Passage”, the harrowing journey across the Atlantic from Africa

The ceremony featured speeches from community leaders and representatives of diverse faith traditions, including Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Quaker, and Catholicism. Interspersed were musical performances and rituals.

“With this ceremony we open a door and invite African ancestors to join us,” said Ann Chinn, founder and executive director of the Middle Passages Ceremonies and Port Markers Project. The MPCPMP works to promote recognition of the transatlantic slave trade by identifying ports that received slaves and encouraging the creation of remembrance ceremonies in those locations.

“These ancestors are our angels, our saints,” said Chinn “[Today they] become complete ancestors. They’ve waited a very, very long time.”

The event also acknowledged the discomforting truth that slavery played a powerful role in shaping the identity and economic vitality of Boston and the nation.

“We are here today to remember three things, three people: Europeans who invaded America; Native Americans who they subdued and sold to into slavery; and Africans they stole and brought here in slavery … They [these three groups of people] are the mothers and fathers of America,” said state Rep. Byron Rushing.

Honored Elder Theresa Clemente Dooley-Frazier (third from right) observes the “Day of Remembrance of the Middle Passage and its Abolition” at Faneuil Hall.

Rushing co-chaired the ceremony along with Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, and Michael Creasey, superintendent of the National Park Service, Boston National Historical Park, Boston African American National Historic Site and Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area.

“Slavery was a part of the fabric of cultural life in Boston. … Slavery was the axis around which so much of Boston’s wealth was generated,” said Creasey. He spoke of the need to look past the popular positive stories of Boston history to “[the] other stories, inconvenient ones. Stories that we cannot celebrate but must acknowledge and experience.”

Indeed, Boston once was a major port that received slaves from Africa. The first known arrival of African slaves to Boston occurred as early as 1638, aboard the ship Desire. Colonists traded Pequot tribe members captured in battle for enslaved Africans.

For 150 years, the Massachusetts Colony participated in the Triangle Trade that ran between Africa, the Caribbean and American colonies, and was a prominent player in the rum-for-slaves trade. Boston newspapers advertised slave sales and many Bostonians made their livelihood repairing and supplying the ships that carried them. In its 300 years of slave importation, the continental United States brought an estimated 125,000 enslaved children and 375,000 enslaved adults from Africa.

Rushing called for a re-envisioning of the history we tell in order to portray the full picture.

“Today when we remember these events [the history of slavery in America] we have the opportunity not only to recall these [enslaved] people but to recollect why we know so little about them. We have the opportunity to cure some of our national amnesia,” he said.

In contrast to its active involvement in the slave trade, Massachusetts also played a notable role in calling for an end to the practice. Blacks protested and organized against slavery in a variety of ways, including petitioning the Commonwealth and filing lawsuits for freedom. In 1783, Massachusetts became the second state to ban slavery after the state court ruled that “the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and [the Commonwealth’s] Constitution,” which declared “… all men are created equal … ” Last year, on August 21, 2014, the Massachusetts legislature adopted a resolution in which it acknowledged both its participation in the slave trade and its later involvement with the abolition movement.

Past and present

The tension of both slavery and abolition having played major roles in shaping Boston’s character was evidenced in the location, Faneuil Hall. Known as “The Cradle of Liberty,” it also once was adjacent to slave markets, and its namesake, Peter Faneuil, actively owned and traded slaves. Speakers sat beneath the inscription “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever,” before standing to talk about the horrors of the past and the work still to be done.

While the ceremony’s main focus was on the enslavement of Africans in the Americas, many spoke out against slavery in all forms and places, and representatives of the Massachusett tribe spoke on the suffering of Native Americans, who were captured by colonists and sent as slaves to Europe.

But the ceremony was not just looking back.

Professor Tony Menelik Van Der Meer of the University of Massachusetts conducted a traditional West African libation. He spoke of the accomplishments and trials of African Americans, from those who fought in the Revolutionary War up through history to “those young people who are terrorized today.” While he poured the libation, Van Der Meer asked the audience to repeat, “black lives still matter.”

Rushing said that thus far black churches have not held annual remembrances of slavery because the memories remain too fresh.

“Slavery lasted 246 years, ending with the adoption of the 13th Amendment. … It will not be until 2111 that black people will have been free as long as they have been enslaved,” he said. He hopes that someone will now organize annual remembrances.

The Day of Remembrance inspired Old South Church in Boston to hold its own service honoring church members who were brought to America through the Middle Passage. Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister of the Old South Church, said that they plan to make this service an annual event.

“This ceremony is an introduction, not a conclusion,” said Ann Chinn. She will continue her efforts to expand Middle Passage remembrances across America and promote the siting of historical markers that will memorialize those subjected to it.

Boston became the twenty-second Middle Passage site out of forty-one in the U.S. to observe the Day of Remembrance. The date, August 23, was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization and adopted by the Massachusetts legislature as an international day of remembrance.

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