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Massachusetts: A leader in the abolition of slavery

Melvin B. Miller
Massachusetts: A leader in the abolition of slavery
“Oh man, we don’t need to go there. Slavery has been over for 235 years.”

There is a human propensity for some people to enslave others. This is a perennial practice that has survived from ancient times. According to surveys conducted by the International Labor Organization and other respected groups there are about 40 million enslaved people around the world at this time. Some black militants give the mistaken impression that slavery is a perverse practice created by Europeans to dominate African Americans.

Slavery was legal in much of the United States until ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on Dec. 6, 1865. Most of the black slaves were then located in the states of the Southern Confederacy, and were agricultural workers. However, Massachusetts had technically ended slavery many years earlier.

As vice president to George Washington and second president of the republic, John Adams was a committed patriot and an inveterate opponent of slavery. He was so impressed with Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence that he paraphrased some of its concepts to be included in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Article I of the constitution, entitled “A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” states “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties.” With the ratification of this constitution in 1780, the practice of slavery in Massachusetts would thereafter be in conflict.

Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett), a black slave, brought suit for her freedom in 1781, in reliance on the constitution. Her suit prevailed before the Supreme Judicial Court in 1783 and served as the legal precedent for a similar successful suit by Quock Walker. Thereafter, slavery in Massachusetts was considered to be unconstitutional, 82 years before the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.

The 1790 U.S. census recorded no slaves in Massachusetts. The total population was 378,787 with 5,463 residents who were not white. It is important to note that blacks were also granted the right to vote in Massachusetts in 1781. Restrictions were removed when Paul and John Cuffee, two affluent black entrepreneurs, challenged the assessment for taxes by relying on the colonial claim of “no taxation without representation.”

Ratification of the 13th Amendment did not completely solve the problems for blacks in the states of the Confederacy. The legal prohibition of slavery did not grant the right to vote. Blacks did not get that right in much of the South until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.

Even more perniciously, wealthy whites found ways to circumvent the end of slavery. The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery “… except as a punishment for crime.” In his book “Slavery by Another Name,” Douglas A. Blackmon provides accounts of devious ways slavery continued for decades after the Civil War.

America’s reliance on slavery laid the groundwork for the racial discrimination that followed. Racial bigotry continues to be an unresolved problem. The historical record shows that Massachusetts and the city of Boston faced up to the race problem early on. There is a continuing resolution among enlightened residents of Boston to eradicate any tolerance of racial discrimination in the Commonwealth and especially in the city of Boston. There is little basis for the specious claim that Boston is the nation’s most racist city.

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