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JP researchers probe local ties to slavery

Avery Bleichfeld

A Jamaica Plain community group exploring the neighborhood’s ties to enslavement and enslavers presented preliminary findings to a local audience this past Sunday.

The group, Hidden Jamaica Plain, has found at least 27 people who were enslaved in the area in the 1700s and identified the family lines of free Black people and early anti-slavery voices in its early history as part of a rural extension of the town of Roxbury.

An audience of about 200 showed up at the First Church of Jamaica Plain on Jan. 28 to listen to group leaders discuss their first two years of research. More than 100 others joined by Zoom.

“It’s very important to know what happened and to tell this chapter of history, which has been lost and forgotten,” said Mimi Pichey, the convener of Hidden Jamaica Plain.

The group’s research covered a long history of enslavement on the farms and in the homes of Jamaica Plain’s early arrivals.

Originally part of Roxbury, Jamaica Plain became part of the town of West Roxbury before annexation to Boston in 1873. By that time, slavery had been outlawed for 90 years in Massachusetts, which in 1641 became the first colony to legally recognize slavery.

A key piece of the group’s work is highlighting specific individuals, which former state Rep. Byron Rushing, president of the Roxbury Historical Society, called essential. Barbara Brown, who runs Hidden Brookline, which inspired the Jamaica Plain group, said a focus on people allows for community members to connect more personally.

“They understand it in their mind, and until people understand it in their heart and mind, we won’t be able to break the bonds that have occurred because of slavery.”

At the event Sunday, members of Hidden Jamaica Plain highlighted the stories of five slaves in the neighborhood who ran away or petitioned in an attempt to secure their freedom, as well as free Black community members at the First Church of Jamaica Plain and others, who were early anti-slavery voices in the area.

One enslaved boy identified by the group’s research, named Dick Morey, also known as Dick Welsh, was born into slavery in the 1780s. At 5 years old, he was sold to David Stoddard Greenough, whose name is now on the Loring Greenough House on Centre Street where he lived. A year after the sale, in 1786, Greenough officially changed Welsh’s status to indentured, another form of unpaid labor. Indentures typically ended for men at age 21 and women at 18 and were considered more legally enforceable after the state officially abolished slavery in 1783 but still required enslaved people to petition for their freedom.

Welsh attempted to run away to freedom in 1798, and Greenough placed an ad in a local paper offering a $1 reward for his return. Census records suggest that his attempt to escape was unsuccessful.

Another, named Prince, attempted to run away from slavery in 1769. His owner, Eleazer Weld, a founder of the First Church in Jamaica Plain and ancestor of former Governor Bill Weld, offered a $4 reward for his return, according to an ad in The Boston Evening Post at the time. No evidence exists documenting whether his escape was successful, though Weld posted the ad three times in two months.

Cuba, an African woman, was enslaved after the Connecticut navy in 1777 seized the Weymouth, a British ship on which she was a passenger. Though it is unclear if she was free or enslaved prior to her capture, Cuba was detained in a house in Jamaica Plain. In late 1777, she received assistance to submit a petition for her freedom, which was granted by the Massachusetts Council.

Pichey said she hopes the information the group has gathered will help spread awareness that slavery existed in Jamaica Plain and New England, even if its structure was different from its larger-scale deployment in the South.

In the North, instead of large plantations, households might keep one or two enslaved people, Brown said.

Educating the Boston public about slavery’s history should leave no one with the excuse of being unaware of the existence of human bondage in the city’s past, said Rushing.

“No one in Jamaica Plain — and hopefully no one in Roxbury, if we’re successful in publicizing what we do — will be able to say ‘Oh, no one ever taught me that,’” said Rushing, an advisor to Hidden Jamaica Plain.

With steps towards reparations being considered by the City of Boston, neighborhood efforts like Jamaica Plain’s could contribute to broadening support to compensate the descendants of slaves for unpaid labor and hardships that helped make Massachusetts one of the richest colonies and states in North America.

The work stands out from other local efforts to bring attention to New England’s connection to slavery. In recent years, individual buildings and institutions have led that work — often churches in particular, due to their early status as the prominent recordkeepers on births. For example, First Church in Roxbury published a report last year detailing connections between the historical congregation and enslaved people.

Instead, Hidden Jamaica Plain operates independently as a community organization in partnership with local institutions.

Running that work on a neighborhood level makes it much more relatable for the community, as people consider who might have walked and lived on that same land, Pichey said.

“Every time I walk or drive by the locations where I know that somebody had been enslaved, I think about what their lives must have been like,” she said. “I think it affects us in a much different way than just reading about it in some history book.”

Another of the group’s priorities is publicizing the information they’ve found. Written reports from the group detailing an overview of local slavery and information on the lives of individual slaves and enslavers are published on the Jamaica Plain Historical Society’s website.

Pichey said it’s too early in the work of Hidden Jamaica Plain to know what this information will mean or how it will impact the community, but the group will consider installing markers and informational signage. She also said the group is planning to expand its research to examine other periods of history, like Jamaica Plain’s connection to the abolitionist movement or the all-Black 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments in the Civil War.

Work by Hidden Brookline has led to the renaming of two schools and the creation of a unit for the third-grade curriculum that teachers who piloted it said had strong impact in their classes.

Rushing said the work of Hidden Jamaica Plain and the broader push to bring open, published attention to the history of slavery in the United States is still new, but is a positive step.

“I don’t know where this is all going to end up. What I know is, to me, we’re heading in the right direction,” Rushing said.