Exhibit explores life of enslaved Cantabrigian
Christ Church examines its role in the enslavement of Africans
For many white northerners, it’s easy to get the impression from history books or high school courses that their ancestors’ role in slavery pales to that of southerners. However, a new art exhibition on display in Cambridge looks to bring the reality of slave owners outsized profits in New England to the forefront.
“Here Lies Darby Vassall” is a co-production between the historic Christ Church on Garden Street and Harvard University’s Critical Conservation program that explores the history of enslaved people in the area that helped build not only the church, but also the city and region.
The exhibition, which premiered last Wednesday night, features video of the Vassall Tomb in the basement of Christ Church where Darby Vassall, a formerly enslaved man, is buried. Overlaid text, and narration tell the story of Darby’s life, and that of his enslaver, John Vassall as it relates to the economics of the northern slave trade.
Darby was born in May of 1769 in John Vassall’s home on Brattle Street in Cambridge to his mother Cuba, also enslaved by John, and his father Tony who was enslaved by elder Vassalls Penelope and Henry. He had at least five siblings, and the family was separated multiple times through sales and property exchanges by John. Darby was enslaved for years by a man named George Reed and asserted his freedom in 1775 by escaping the home of his master who failed to return from the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Young Darby fled back to the residence of his parents on the Vassall estate, whose owners had allied themselves with the British and fled the country. Years later, Tony and Cuba legally gained their freedom by petitioning the Massachusetts General Court for the right to the land, which they had been occupying unencumbered for several years as war raged on.
Notably, the six-year-old Darby recalls an encounter with then-General George Washington who insisted the child stay on to work for the estate — Washington’s Cambridge headquarters at the time — without pay.
Darby, in a retelling of the story reprinted by the National Parks Service, recalls Washington as, “no gentleman, he wanted [a] boy to work without wages.”
The video, which also features Christ Church parishioners gathering around the tomb, is accompanied by narration, telling the story of this church’s “collusion with, dependency on, and profit from the slave trade” that allowed Vassall to build the church, his enormous mansion known as the Longfellow house, and contribute to the local economy.
The other Vassalls, Henry and Penelope, had ties to notable investments including Harvard University, with Penelope’s brother Isaac leaving an endowment that went on to be the foundation of Harvard Law School.
“I wanted to push back against the myth that the North is kind of absolved from ever being involved in slavery or it wasn’t really that bad or there weren’t that many or we were on the good side,” said Nicole Piepenbrink, whose research project for her masters sparked the public art project.
“I think this among many other sites, plugs into telling a different kind of story,” Piepenbrink said.
The project premiere was held at Christ Church where remarks were heard from living descendants of Darby. Darby’s legacy, largely unknown and not paid attention to, was brought to the surface for the first time in 2016 by Roberta Wolff-Platt, Darby’s great granddaughter eight generations removed. Wolff-Platt made the initial discovery on ancestry.com before sharing her findings with her children, and scholars looking into local slavery connections.
Wolff-Platt went on to discover her ancestors’ impact on the abolitionist movement, and his prominent position in the Black community. Darby, alongside his brother Cyrus, became a founding member of the African Society which looked to provide mutual aid to the Black community in the area for decades. And in 1844, he attended the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston.
Anastasia Curry, Wolff-Platt’s daughter, reflected on her ancestry to the crowd Wednesday night, sharing both her gratitude for the project and frustration that Darby’s legacy is not better preserved.
“We all stand here today as an example of his resilience, his courage and his love for his family and his community,” Curry said. “I can’t understand how his name isn’t common knowledge in this community. He isn’t even an asterisk in February in the school system. He deserves a lot more than what he has received.”
Another descendent of Darby, Dennis Lloyd, also spoke to how despite not being aware of his identity, Darby’s legacy is continuing to be felt in the local community.
“The spirit of Darby is wrapped around this community. In the summer of 2021, institutions embraced Juneteenth. And before that, the Lloyd family, along with its affiliated organizations, founded the Slave Legacy History Coalition,” he said.
Lloyd’s coalition hopes to connect descendants of slaves and the general public to repositories of slave legacy history in the Boston and Cambridge communities.
Darby was buried in the tomb beneath the church by special permission from Catherine Graves Russell, the granddaughter of Henry and Penelope Vassall in 1861. It’s unclear why he chose this location to find eternal rest.
The film, made with support from the church’s leadership, screened on the Christ Church front lawn Wednesday evening. Rev. Katherine B. Ekrem, who led much of the evening’s festivities, said the project is part of an ongoing effort by the parish and the diocese to explore its role in the slave trade and racial inequity.
“We don’t know how much of the funds went to build the church, but a certain amount did come from Henry Vassall,” she said. “So our racial justice committee really wanted to explore this.”
Ekram added that the Massachusetts Episcopal diocese will be discussing the possibilities of reparations at its upcoming meeting.
“We’re just learning from a lot of other institutions, other churches our wider diocese of how we can be engaged in reconciliation and in reparative action.”
Several of Boston’s iconic religious and educational institutions have had to come to terms with their involvement in the slave trade in recent years. In 2021, Boston’s Old North Church received a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to overhaul the church campus, the visitor experience and its educational programming related to the slave trade.
Harvard, with its connection to Darby and likely other slaves, has said it would establish a $100 million fund to enact a series of recommendations including working with historically Black colleges and slave ancestors to honor the legacies of the enslaved.
Installation-related programming is free and open to all. Programs, which include tours and lectures, will continue through Nov. 6, with some registration required.
More information can be found at hereliesdarbyvassall.art.