Are you interested in learning more about the history of race, slavery, and African American life in the Cambridge area? This guide highlights many of the resources available that touch on these topics, including primary, secondary, and public-facing sources (such as self-guided tours and websites). While this hub is focused on material related to the 1700s, it also offers relevant material from later periods in Cambridge history.
Address: 159 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Founded in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society, History Cambridge (HC) is dedicated to telling the stories of all of Cambridge and its diverse residents. We recognize that our collections have not fully reflected the rich cultural mosaic that exists in the city, and we are actively working to collect, preserve and share the histories of traditionally underrepresented groups, including Cambridge’s Black community.
- HC hosts the information page about the Cambridge Black History Project (formerly the Cambridge African American Heritage Alliance), which you can find here.
- Our collection includes the records of the East Cambridge Anti-Slavery Society from 1837-1840; you can access the finding aid to this collection here.
- In 2019, HC undertook a research project to uncover the history of enslaved people at our headquarters, the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House. You can read that report here.
- In 2021, HC founded the Tory Row Antiracism Coalition (TRAC) and invited our Brattle Street neighbors to learn more about the presence of Black and Indigenous peoples and their experiences on the land that we now call Tory Row. This group will continue to discover and share more about the lives of BIPOC Cantabrigians on and around Brattle Street.
Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site
Address: 105 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Contact: Kate Plass, Archivist
The Longfellow House is a National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service (NPS). The house was the longtime residence of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the influential American poet. However, their collections and programming extend beyond the history of Longfellow and his family in the 19th century. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington used the house as his base of operations. Even earlier, the house was owned by the Vassall family, one of the largest slaveholding families in the area. While the archival collections at the house are focused on Longfellow’s papers and artifacts, the Longfellow House is in the process of researching the earlier history of the house, with a focus on the experiences of enslaved people who were owned by the Vassall family.
- So far, the Longfellow has released a brief introduction to the history of slavery on the property, a short article on the enslaved people who lived at what became the Longfellow house, and a short video discussing what is known about enslaved people who lived in the Longfellow House. This research centers on the story of Tony, Cuba, and Darby Vassall, who remained onsite after the Vassall family fled to England during the Revolutionary War.
- George Washington also had contact with the Black Vassall family during his stay in the house. Research on Washington has also uncovered some information about Black soldiers in the Revolutionary War who passed through the house. An extensive research report on Washington’s time at the house can be found here.
- There is some indication that Longfellow himself may have supported Black emigration efforts to Africa. For more information on this and the collections open for research at the Longfellow House, contact the archivist using this form.
Tufts sponsors the African American Trail Project, a collaborative public history initiative that maps sites across the Boston area. The Trail marks various sites relevant to the study of slavery in Cambridge, such as Christ Church, the Harvard Law School Slavery Memorial, Lechmere House, and Wadsworth House. However, it is more focused on 19th century African American history, well after slavery was abolished in Massachusetts.
First Church of Cambridge
Address: 11 Garden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
First Church of Cambridge was founded in 1636, just months before Harvard College. For many years, church affairs were interwoven with the governance of what would become Cambridge. Therefore, many of the earliest records about the history of Cambridge are held at First Church.
- First Church has maintained its records since 1632. In 1906, some of their records were compiled into a book, Records of the Church of Christ at Cambridge in New England, 1632-1830. This book contains the birth, death, and baptismal records of all church members, including both enslaved and free Blacks, as well as slaveholders. A digital copy of this book can be found here.
- First Church has also archived the sermons of its ministers and the organizational records of groups within the church; these can be found at the Congregational Library and Archives, located at 14 Beacon Street in Boston. You can view the material available on First Church before your visit. If you’d like to look at what’s available from the collection online, follow this link.
- First Church has also embarked on their own internal research and remembrance project to understand and reflect on the church’s complicity in the history of slavery in Cambridge. To read more about their efforts, visit their website here. As part of this project, the church has used their records to write a report about the church’s history of slavery. The report, written by David Kidder, is available here.
Massachusetts Historical Society
The Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) is the United States’ first historical society, and is an invaluable resource for materials related to both Cambridge and the state and region more broadly. Their collections are particularly strong in the areas of the American Revolution and its prominent figures from the area.
- The materials in the MHS Library are free and available to the public, Monday-Saturday. In order to be able to access materials while visiting, you must first register here. An FAQ on how to use the library can be found here.
- The MHS’ online collections include primary sources on African American Life, the American Revolution, and the Colonial Period. These are a good place to start if you aren’t sure what you’re looking for, and all include information on African Americans.
- For a more extensive discussion of primary sources related to African Americans available at the MHS, take a look at this research guide. Some particular collections of interest mentioned in this research guide include the Winthrop Family Papers, the William Pepperrell Papers, and the Hugh Hall papers.
Harvard University has many resources on the lives of enslaved people in Cambridge.
- Professor Sven Beckert and Dr. Katherine May Stevens conducted research on the relationship between Harvard and slavery with their undergraduate classes. This research culminated in a website called Harvard & Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History. The full report that came from this project can be found here. The project also created a walking tour and student videos, which can also be found on the site.
- The Harvard University leadership have now started their own project on the university’s connections to slavery, Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, run by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. The project will be releasing a report soon. Until then, their website includes public talks and short articles on the history of race in Cambridge, and New England more broadly.
- Harvard Library has many resources on 18th and 19th century Cambridge. The Harvard Library is made up of many sub-libraries that hold different kinds of information.
- Harvard’s libraries have started an anti-racism project to highlight people of color in their archives. If you’re interested in criminal justice, scientific racism, or public health and how they intersect with race, this is a great place to start.
- Librarians at Harvard have also developed a guide to abolitionists at Harvard.
- Houghton Library holds many manuscripts and personal papers from 1600-1800, including those of people with connections to Cambridge such as the Vassall family, one of the biggest slaveholding families in the city. The best way to see whether their collections have what you’re looking for is to send the staff an email at Houghton_library@harvard.edu. Houghton has also launched an initiative dedicated to identifying records related to African Americans. You can read more about that effort here and here. However, there are several collections at the Houghton that might be of interest:
- Petitions by enslaved people were crucial to the end of slavery in Massachusetts. These petitions, including well known ones by Belinda Sutton and Quock Walker, can be found here.
- The signature of Tony Vassall on the pension he received from the State of Massachusetts compensating him for his labor at the Longfellow House can be found here.
- The papers of slaveholders can also be found in the Harvard archives, including those of the Bordman Family, Benjamin Wadsworth, and the Vassall Family. These papers include wills, diaries, and other materials that identify the enslaved people owned by members of these families.
Cambridge Public Library
Address: 449 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02138
Contact: Alyssa Pacy, Archivist, 617-349-7757
The Cambridge Public Library is a great place to find information about Cambridge history. The Cambridge Room has several resources that can help you to research African Americans in Cambridge since the late 18th century.
- The CPL holds two collections about enslaved people who fled to Cambridge from the U.S. South: the Johnson Cardoso Family Papers and the Takaka Salvi Papers. Both families settled in Cambridge for many generations. These papers are not available online, so if you would like to learn more about them, contact the library using this form.
- The CPL also holds the property and poll tax records of Cambridge residents from 1789-1900. These records can be used to identify Black Cantabrigians who registered to vote or owned property in the city during this period.
- The library also holds transcriptions of the birth and death records of the local churches starting in 1600, which allows you to identify both enslaved people and slave owners who lived in Cambridge. Contact the archivist to learn more about how to access these.
- The library has digitized Cambridge’s historic newspapers as well. You can use keyword searches to look for specific people or Black Cantabrigians in the newspapers. Sometimes, writers will post columns remembering former Cambridge residents; searching for these can also uncover information about enslaved and free Black Cambridge residents from earlier time periods.
Cambridge Historical Commission
Address: 831 Massachusetts Ave # 2, Cambridge, MA 02139
The Cambridge Historical Commission (CHC) is the city’s historic preservation agency. They also hold a public archive of the city’s history. The Commission has many materials related to Black Cantabrigians, and their staff has a wealth of knowledge on these issues.
- The CHC led the creation of the African American Heritage Trail. It includes a brief history of African Americans in Cambridge, biographical sketches of prominent Black Cantabrigians, and a walking tour. History Cambridge and the Commission both have copies you can pick up in person; however, if you’d like to buy one online, you can find copies on the History Cambridge website.
- Two staff members at the Commission, Charles Sullivan and Susan Maycock, have written one of the most important books on the city’s history, Building Old Cambridge. The book includes some of the best research we have on Black Cantabrigians in the context of the city’s broader history. You can buy the book from MIT Press or wherever books are sold.
- The Commission archives are also a rich source of information, containing tax records from the 18th century, which can help you identify which Cambridge residents held enslaved people. They also have the papers of Samuel Batchelder, who researched the history of Cambridge and whose family was involved in the cotton trade.
Royall House and Slave Quarters
Address: 191 Main St, Medford, MA 02155
The Royall House and Slave Quarters was the home of the largest slaveholding family in the United States. Now, it is a museum dedicated to interpreting and preserving the history of slavery in the Northern U.S., containing the only surviving structure in the North where enslaved people were known to live. The Royall family intermarried with Cambridge’s Vassall family, making it a rich site for materials on slavery in Cambridge as well as New England more generally.
- One of the best ways to learn about the history of slavery in New England through the Royall House is by taking a tour. Tours are offered on weekend afternoons in May-October. Tour participants will learn about the wealth the Royall family built through their exploitation of enslaved labor, and about the lives of enslaved people on the property.
- The Royall House has also digitized primary sources related to the Royall House and Slave Quarters. You can access these documents here.
- The Royall House has also taken the primary and archeological material they’ve collected and written short reports on historical topics related to the property. Topics include how slavery operated at the Royall House and the activities of the Royall family on their Caribbean plantations.
How do I use these resources?
Historian and friend of History Cambridge Dr. Caitlin DeAngelis has developed a series of video tutorials on how to do research on slavery, Cambridge, and African American life with a focus on the 18th century. Topics already covered include:
- How to do research on British slaveholders
- Using Legacies of Slave Ownership Database
- Online Resources from Harvard University
- Database of Ships Involved in Slave Trade
Dr. DeAngelis occasionally uploads new videos, so check out her channel here.
Where can I read more about these topics?
Blanck, Emily. “Tyrannicide Forging an American Law of Slavery in Revolutionary South Carolina and Massachusetts.” Book. Studies in the Legal History of the South. Athens, GA : The University of Georgia Press, 2014.
Blanck, Emily. “Seventeen Eighty-Three: The Turning Point in the Law of Slavery and Freedom in Massachusetts.” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 24-51. [I downloaded this paper if you’d like the pdf to make available to people]
Finkenbine, Roy E. “Belinda’s Petition: Reparations for Slavery in Revolutionary Massachusetts.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Jan., 2007), pp. 95-104. [I downloaded this paper if you’d like the pdf to make available to people]
Greene, Lorenzo J. “The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776.” Book. Studies in History, Economics and Public Law. No. 494. New York, London: Columbia University Press; P. S. King & Staples, Ltd., 1942.
Hardesty, Jared. “Unfreedom, Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston.” Book. Early American Places. New York: New York University Press, 2016.
Manegold, C.S. Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North. Princeton University Press, 2011.
Maycock, Susan E., and Charles Sullivan. Building Old Cambridge: Architecture and Development. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016.
Moore, George Henry. Slavery in Massachusetts. Additional Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts. New York, NY: D. Appleton & Co., 1866.
Roberts, James W. “‘Yankey Dodle Will do Verry Well here’: New England Traders in the Caribbean, 1713 to Circa 1812.” Order No. 3492579, The Johns Hopkins University, 2011.
Warren, Wendy. New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.
This resource hub was originally created by Eshe Sherley, History Cambridge intern, in 2021. Special thanks to the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati for funding this research.