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Legislature backs Emancipation Day

Observance would mark the 1783 date Massachusetts ended slavery

Anna Lamb

After months of discussion, a proposed holiday to mark the end of slavery in Massachusetts is one step closer to becoming law. At the end of October, both branches of the state legislature passed a bill that would mark July 8 as “Emancipation Day.”

Also referred to as Quock Walker Day, the holiday will celebrate the little-known former slave who, through clever legal maneuvers, effectively ended slavery in the Commonwealth.

In 1781, the 28-year-old Walker self-emancipated from his enslaver Nathaniel Jennison after being promised freedom and not being granted it. He subsequently was brutally beaten by his former enslaver when found working on a neighboring farm.

Walker, using the credo that would become recognizable as part of the United States Constitution — that all men have certain inalienable rights — sued for assault and battery and was found to be a legally free man by a jury of the Worcester County Court of Common Pleas. The ruling was appealed and then upheld in front of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

His case served as the precedent that ended slavery in the Commonwealth on constitutional grounds and led to Massachusetts becoming the first state in the nation to abolish slavery, 82 years before the 13th Amendment was ratified, ending slavery in the rest of the United States.

Inspired by Walker’s story and wanting a day to reflect on the state’s involvement in the slave trade, Lexington resident Sean Osborne began advocating for the observance back in 2020.

“It started off with an editorial that I wrote and was published in a couple of papers,” Osborne said in a conversation with the Banner.

He said he wanted to share the lessons he had gleaned from Walker’s story with the greater community.

“In 1783, the contest between liberty and property was won by liberty, thanks to Quock Walker’s audacity, faith and fortitude,” Osborne said.

An engineer by day and historian by night, Osborne has dedicated the last year and a half to sharing Walker’s story. He said one of the parts of the story that speaks most to him is Walker’s commitment to the community, as he continued to reside in the same town he freed himself in.

“That story of that fortitude, not just in the midst of the Worcester trials, as they’re also known, but that fortitude to continue to stay in that community with his former enslaver and to work and get paid,” Osborne said. “It’s that story that we can look back at and say, what do we want for ourselves that we think is impossible?”

In January 2021, state Sen. Cindy Friedman and Rep. Michelle Ciccolo, recruited by Osborne, filed identical bills in the Senate and House to create Emancipation Day.

On Monday, Oct. 24, the bodies jointly gave their final approval of the legislation — following final senate hearings the previous week and preliminary house approval at the end of September. Now the bill is set to land on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, where he will have the choice to make it law.

“The inspiration for this bill comes from Sean Osborne, a Lexington resident and historian who founded the Association of Black Citizens of Lexington,” Ciccolo said at the Oct. 24 meeting. “I am looking forward to annually commemorating Quock Walker’s significant place in our state’s history.”

Friedman, in February, said the bill acknowledges an important part of Massachusetts heritage.

“Passing this bill is one of the many ways the Massachusetts Senate is celebrating Black History Month this year, as we work to acknowledge the injustices in our history as well as celebrate our state’s part in setting a nationwide precedent for human rights,” she said.

Osborne, who expressed hope that the governor will sign the bill into law, has a vision of Massachusetts residents coming together to enjoy a combination of New England and West African cuisine while reflecting on Walker’s legacy.

“How does our community react to the other?” Osborne said. “Do we invite them in to be our neighbors? Do we ensure that that they are able to find justice?”

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