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Report details history of slavery in Roxbury

Avery Bleichfeld
Report details history of slavery in Roxbury
This 1799 painting, by John Ritto Penniman, shows the 1744 fourth meetinghouse, as it appeared four years before it was torn down for the construction of the present day meetinghouse. Photo: courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

A new report about the First Church of Roxbury, released Monday, brings new historical perspective about the presence of people of color and enslaved people in colonial Massachusetts.

The report was commissioned by the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry (UUUM), which has operated out of the 1806 meetinghouse since 1976. It outlines the history of race and enslaved people in and associated with the First Church of Roxbury congregation in Massachusetts’ Colonial period, from the church’s founding in 1631 until the American Revolution.

Aabid Allibhai, a Harvard scholar who wrote the report, said he hopes the report brings a greater awareness of the position slavery had in Colonial Massachusetts, both for individuals and the society generally.

“This confirms what a lot of folks already knew, but in the public historical imagination is not as well known, which is the fact that slavery was very prevalent in all parts of New England, including Massachusetts, including the so-called ‘Cradle of Liberty’ — which is Boston — and in the Greater Boston area. And in Roxbury, it was fairly common,” Allibhai said.

Aabid Allibhai, author of the report on the First Church of Roxbury’s early connections to race and enslaved peoples, answers attendee questions Monday evening. The report was commissioned to examine the legacy of the church and the organization in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

The report greatly expands knowledge of the history of race and slavery at the First Church of Roxbury, said Byron Rushing, president of the Roxbury Historical Society, which partnered with the UUUM in commissioning the report.

“There is a history of First Church that was written around 1900, and they listed who they say were the Negroes who were connected with the church in that book, and it comes up to about [14]. When [Allibhai] finished his work, he had gotten over 75,” Rushing said.

The report lists the names of Black and Wampanoag members of the church, whether they were enslaved or free, the name of the colonist who enslaved them and details of their lives, such as marriages, dates of baptism, names of relatives and children, relying on church records. While the church records do not often use the word “slave,” they do at times refer to whites who claimed ownership of Black and Wampanoag church members.

One entry reads, “Anthony a negro man being present Sayes yt he bought his Freedom of his master John Gore of Roxbury, and that Since yt he came into this Town & hath dwelt here a year & Eleven moneths. The Sel[ect] men do warn him to return to his Late master. May 4, 1714.”

Reverend Mary Margaret Earl, executive director and senior minister at UUUM, said the organization produced the report as part of a series of commitments announced in a statement titled “We Speak Now” in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

“It was a statement that was made, making some commitments, and we tried to make those commitments really concrete and clear, to hold ourselves accountable to being with them, so that we didn’t make a statement and then move on,” Earl said.

Reverend Mary Margaret Earl, executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry, addresses attendees at the presentation of the report on the First Church of Roxbury’s early connections to race and enslaved peoples Monday evening. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

She and the UUUM community decided that considering the history of both the organization and the physical space was important, given the long legacies of both.

“We’re historic and we are in a historic location with a lot of history, and we know that it’s really important to understand history in order to understand our present moment,” Earl said. “So, we committed to interrogate our history — both the history of the Urban Ministry, which is nearly 200 years old, and the history of First Church Roxbury, which is much older.”

For Rushing, this report is important because it brings greater awareness of individual people of color in Colonial Massachusetts.

“We want to get more information and more people talking about slavery as it existed for the average enslaved person,” Rushing said.

The report largely relied on the First Church of Roxbury records, which are currently located in the Harvard Divinity School library.

Allibhai said people of color associated with the First Church of Roxbury in its early days were easily identifiable in the church’s records; unlike white members of the congregation, people of color had a racial identifier beside their name. That inclusion, which Allibhai said once othered those members of the community, now allows historians to more easily identify what the church’s community of color looked like.

Rushing said church records provide documentation that governmental documents at the time cannot.

“The government did not keep any records on births of anybody, because they just assumed that the churches were always going to be the source of that information,” Rushing said. “So [if] people wanted to prove when they were born, they would go and look up their baptismal records.”

Earl said the report is the first step in examining the history of the church and the UUUM. What comes next, she said, will be determined by the community.

“What I want to do is to convene a committee that helps to decide what is next, like what should be interrogated next and how should this material be interpreted,” she said.

She said those next steps might include looking further at the church’s history with slavery, or might turn in other directions, depending on what community members think is important.

“Our organization has a long history with Indigenous people. John Eliot [a missionary with early ties to the First Church in Roxbury] had many connections with Native people, and that may be the next step that we want to interrogate, or we may want to interrogate the relationship with enslaved people from the Revolutionary era forward,” Earl said. “I want to involve the community and determining how we move forward and what we do with the information.”

According to the report, Eliot was responsible for the first Bible printed in North America. That Bible, printed in 1663, was produced in Algonquin by Native American translators, interpreters and typesetters.

The new report takes one step toward filling a gap in research. Rushing said there is little academic research on the history of slavery in the Roxbury area aside from a 2021 report, also written by Allibhai, that explored the history of slavery at the Shirley-Eustis House, one of the country’s last remaining colonial governor’s mansions.

“We, as the Roxbury Historical Society, … are just looking for what the next step should be,” Rushing said. “Do we have any other institutions with records like this, whether they exist in Roxbury?”

Rushing also said that Allibhai’s work should serve as model for other churches to do similar work.

“You know, people are going to just put it off, and now we can show them,” Rushing said. “This report is done in a way that you just need to look for the same kinds of [records] that are being looked for. And chances are if they exist, they’ll have a lot of information in them.”

As other churches do similar research, Rushing said it is important that the information is not just collected, but also published.

“We talked to [Earl] and the head of her board about this right at the point when they were trying to decide whether they would invest in in this research and said that it had to be as public as possible,” Rushing said.

The report was presented to the community by Allibhai at a Feb. 6 evening event.

Beyond the presentation and the report’s publication online, Earl said UUUM is discussing other steps for sharing the research. As with plans for future reports, the next steps for publicizing this report’s findings will be subject to community feedback.

“Do we create signage that reflects this? How do we acknowledge enslaved people or the names of freed people of African heritage? How do we acknowledge that history moving forward?” Earl said. “That’s something that I really want the community to help shape and determine what we do.”

UUUM will host a live webinar discussing the report and its findings Feb. 13 at 6 p.m. For more information and to view the report, see www.uuum.org.

first church of roxbury, Roxbury history, slavery