Black and white photo of a three story house with tree in front

Self-Guided Tour: Stories from the Early African American Community of Old Cambridge

By Jules Long, Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, 2018 | Edited by Eshe Sherley, History Cambridge, 2021

Slavery in Pre-Revolutionary Cambridge

The oldest existing mention of slavery in Massachusetts was recorded in 1638, when African prisoners arrived in the colony on the slave ship Desire, built in Marblehead the previous year. In 1639, the mention of a “Moor” living in the household of Nathaniel Eaton, master of Harvard College, marks the oldest surviving mention of slavery in Cambridge. Massachusetts was the first American colony to formally sanction human bondage under the Body of Liberties law, which was enacted in 1641 and remained in place until 1783. In 1749, 6% of taxpayers were slaveholders (12 out of 208 in Cambridge). These slaveholders were tanners, judges, innkeepers, and merchants; several owned plantations in the West Indies. In 1759, each Cambridge slaveholder had one slave (aged 12-50) with the exception of Henry Vassall, who enslaved four adults—for a total of fifteen enslaved adults in Cambridge (children were not counted). [efn_note] Susan E. Maycock and Charles Sullivan, Building Old Cambridge: Architecture and Development (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016), 20.[/efn_note] By the 1770s, John Vassall had seven enslaved people on his property, Penelope Vassall had five, and Thomas Oliver had ten.

Parish records from 1754 list fifty-six Black inhabitants in all three parishes of Cambridge[efn_note]Maycock and Sullivan, 20. The three parishes are now separate towns today: 1st Parish, Cambridge; 2nd Parish, Arlington; 3rd Parish, Brighton.[/efn_note], more than three times the number of Black inhabitants in other towns with a comparable population.[efn_note] Samuel Batchelder, “Col. Henry Vassall,” The Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society 10 (1916): 63.[/efn_note] Most of them were enslaved, although the 1777 census lists nine free Black residents who paid a poll tax. By 1765, the number of Blacks had increased to ninety in all three parishes of Cambridge, out of a total population of 1,582 (6%).[efn_note]Maycock and Sullivan, Building Old Cambridge, 20.[/efn_note] In 1790, there were only sixty Black inhabitants listed in all three parishes of Cambridge (2.8% of the total population).[efn_note]Maycock and Sullivan, 20.[/efn_note] This number is lower than previous years because, after slavery ended in the 1780s, many Black Cantabrigians moved to Boston. By the time of the 1800 census, only twenty-five black residents were recorded in Cambridge out of a total population of 2,453 (1%).[efn_note]Second Census of the United States, 1800. Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Records of the Bureau of the Census, National Archives, Washington, D.C.[/efn_note] 

John Vassal House/Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site,105 Brattle Street. Photo Credit: National Park Service
Stop 1: Front Lawn of John Vassall House/Washington’s Headquarters (105 Brattle Street)

This house was built by John Vassall Jr. in 1759 as his “country estate” when he was just 21 years old. Vassall was very wealthy due to his sugar plantations in Jamaica. As such, he was a enslaver; his wealth came directly from enslaved labor and he was served by enslaved people here at the house. His land here consisted of almost 100 acres, from Sparks Street to Garden Street. Vassall and his family fled Cambridge in 1774 after 4,000 colonists protested on the road to Watertown during the Powder Alarm. Vassall intended to return and left the enslaved people to maintain the property while he was gone. However, shortly thereafter, in April 1775, the Revolutionary War broke out and he never saw the house again (he later moved to England).

The Vassall House was then confiscated by the General Court (Massachusetts legislature) and used for the new Continental Army, becoming the headquarters of its commander-in-chief, General George Washington, in July 1775 through April 1776. (when it was then sold to private owners). We don’t know what happened to all of the enslaved individuals left behind by the Vassalls. However, Cuba, and two of her children (probably Darby and Cyrus), lived in a small “tenement” dwelling on the far side of the estate, still legally enslaved. Tony (1713-1811, age 98), a coachman who was Cuba’s husband, was freed by his owner Penelope Vassall across the street and came to live with them. They were still there in 1777, working on 1.5 acres adjacent to their dwelling, “no rent or bondage.” Tony worked on the Vassall property and Royall Estate in Medford where his wife had come from, and also set himself up as a farrier to make a living.

In a 1778 claim to the British government after their holdings were confiscated, the Vassalls listed 105 acres of “Meadow & Orcharding [and] a large Dwelling House with very extensive Gardens and Stabling and three other houses” whose annual income was £150. Among the “property” listed in this claim were seven enslaved people: Cuba, Malcolm, James, William, Dinah, and two small boys (likely Darby and Cyrus), valued at £200. Listed at comparable monetary value were the Vassalls’ livestock, including two yoke oxen, six cows, a bay mare, and two horses.

Tony and Cuba Vassall had at least six children: James (Jemmy), Dorrenda (Darinda), Flora, Darby (Derby), Cyrus, and Catherine. They may have also had another daughter, Nancy, but there is the possibility that she was another (unrelated) woman enslaved by the white Vassalls. Darby (ca. 1769-1861) is perhaps the most well-known of Tony and Cuba’s children. Darby was born here in this house (or property) around 1769 and was about six years old when George Washington arrived. Later in his life, he told the story of the time he met George Washington. He was swinging on the gate when General Washington walked up to him and asked him to send a message to someone. Darby replied, ‘Well, I’m free now—what are you going to pay me?’ Washington didn’t take kindly to that and told him to do as he was told. Darby recalled for the rest of his life that “George Washington was no gentleman, to expect a boy to work for no wages.” He lived to be 91 years old and was a prominent figure in the early Black community of Cambridge and Boston, known for his stories about life in Cambridge during the Revolution and the years after Independence. [efn_note] Batchelder, Samuel. “Col. Henry Vassall.” The Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society (1915-1916), vol. 10.[/efn_note] We’ll be learning more about Darby later on the tour.

Henry Vassall House, 94 Brattle Street. Photo Credit: Jules Long
Stop 2: Henry Vassall House (94 Brattle Street)

There were seven wealthy Loyalist mansions along the “Road to Watertown,” now Brattle Street, which gave this road the nickname “Tory Road.” Most of their wealth was reliant on the slave trade (sugar, rum) and most of them had enslaved servants. The Road to Watertown was already a well-known trail to the Massachusett people by the time it was given that name in 1636. The road ran through a series of agrarian communities; in 1765 the population of all three parishes it encompassed was 1,582, compared to Boston with a population of 15,520.

Among the other properties that comprised the original Tory Row was the Oliver House (Elmwood) at 33 Elmwood Avenue. The Olivers had extensive property holdings in the West Indies, and in 1774 they enslaved 10 people at their Cambridge estate: Buff (blacksmith), Cato (farmer/gardener), Jerry (coachman/groom), Jeoffrey (cook), Mira (cook), Jude (young house maid), Sarah (seamstress/waiting maid), Jenny (young girl), Violet (young girl), and Young Jerry (small boy).[efn_note]Building Old Cambridge, 231.[/efn_note] They also had a Black man, Samuel, working for them as a paid servant. Elmwood was the second-largest estate in Cambridge, and Oliver was the largest slaveholder in Cambridge in the early 1770s. 

The Ruggles-Fayerweather House at 175 Brattle Street was also purchased using the proceeds of enslaved plantation labor in the Caribbean (Jamaica). Owner George Ruggles sold the house in 1774 to Thomas Fayerweather and disappeared, likely fleeing to England before the start of the Revolution. In the summer of 1775, the white Fayerweather family allowed the Continental Army to use the house as a soldiers’ hospital, moving to another estate they owned in Oxford, Massachusetts. Scipio Fayerweather, an enslaved man that the white Fayerweathers left behind in Cambridge when they moved to Oxford, subsequently acquired property on Belknap Street and petitioned the General Court for losses suffered when British troops ruined his property in 1776.

Richard Lechmere, owner of the Lechmere-Sewell House at 149 Brattle Street (originally at 145 Brattle), was a rum distiller who relied on the slave trade for income. Lechmere had enslaved a man named James who sued for his freedom in 1769. Johnathan Sewall, a lawyer and the colony’s last Attorney General, argued for Lechmere, while attorney Francis Dana argued for James. Because Lechmere settled out of court, the case—which otherwise might have been the first to declare slavery illegal in Massachusetts—failed to set a legal precedent.

The Henry Vassall House was built in 1746 by Henry Vassall (1721-1769), the uncle of John Vassall, Jr., who built the house in our previous stop. Henry Vassall was a merchant and the owner of a sugar plantation in the West Indies, as well as Loyalist who served in the Middlesex Militia Regiment and helped build the Anglican Christ Church, which we will see in our next stop. Henry Vassall lived very extravagantly, throwing grand parties and owning many books and items of fine clothing inherited from his father, Leonard Vassall (builder of the John Adams/John Quincy Adams mansion Peacefield in Quincy). He even had his own private fire engine imported from England.[efn_note]Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana Papers 1744-1971, “The Vassall Family, 1851-1955, Part 1,” Box 91, Folder 9. LONG NPS.[/efn_note] The lavish lifestyle of Henry Vassall and his wife, Penelope Royall (married in 1739), was sustained by the labor of enslaved people, both in the Caribbean and here on Brattle Street. These Vassalls enslaved more people (up to seven at a time that we know of) than anyone on the block except the Olivers.

Penelope Royall Vassall was the sister of Isaac Royall, Jr., of Medford, whose estate is now preserved as the Royall House and Slave Quarters, and who was one of the founders of the Harvard Law School. Isaac Royall’s estate was the largest slaveholding estate in Massachusetts, with more than sixty people enslaved there over less than forty years. When Penelope married Henry Vassall at the age of eighteen, she brought her enslaved servant Abba and Abba’s six children – Robin, Cuba, Walker, Nuba, Trace, and Tobey – with her to Cambridge. Although we cannot be certain, we believe that Abba and her children lived in a room split into three cells on the third floor of the house.[efn_note]Gozzaldi, Mary I., Elizabeth Ellery Dana, and David T. Pottinger. “The Vassal House.” The Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society (1930-31), vol. 21. 118.[/efn_note] Darby Vassall, whose parents were also enslaved by Henry Vassall, was recorded as saying in 1855 that, “Col. Henry Vassall was a very wicked man. It was a common remark that he was the Devil. He was a gamester and spent a great deal of money in cards and lived at the rate of ‘seven years in three,’ and managed to run out nearly all his property; so that Old Madam when she came back after the peace was very poor. He was a severe and tart master to his people; and when he was dying and asked his servants to pray for him, they answered that he might pray for himself.”[efn_note]Batchelder[/efn_note]

Henry Vassall died in 1769 at the age of 47, and is buried in a tomb under Christ Church. At the time of his death there were five enslaved people at the house: Tony, Dick, James, Dorinda, and Cuba (James and Dorinda were probably Cuba’s children). Penelope sold some of her property, including some of the enslaved servants, to her nephew John Vassall, Jr., across the street, including Cuba.[efn_note]Probably pregnant with Darby.[/efn_note] Cuba’s husband, Tony, was retained by Penelope at the house; he was eventually set free when Penelope fled Cambridge after the Powder Alarm, and he was able to join Cuba across the street. Penelope evacuated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, then England during the Revolutionary War. During that time, the house was confiscated by the Massachusetts General Court and used as a field hospital and prison. Penelope died in poverty in 1800, having returned to Boston after the war.

There are no surviving records written by the people enslaved in this area. Most were not literate, ensuring that the records that do survive of their lives and experiences were recorded by another person and thus may have been changed. Enslaved individuals are very hard to trace; there are often few or no records about people of color during this period, whether enslaved or free. Names are not always consistent and often enslaved people did not have surnames, or they took on the surnames of their enslavers. The contemporary terminology is not consistent, with the words “negro,” “mulatto,” “black,” and “African” being used interchangeably in some instances and conferring different meanings in other contexts. The records that do survive document a very narrow slice of enslaved people’s lives and disproportionately represent probate (sales) and criminal matters. We have records about some of the enslaved people on Tory Row largely because of the economic, social, and political prominence of their enslavers.

Robin was one of the children of Abba who was taken by Penelope Royall to Henry Vassall’s estate; he was the sister of Cuba, and uncle to Darby. On May 9, 1752, Robin broke into the house of William Brattle (now the Cambridge Center for Adult Education at 42 Brattle Street) with the white indentured servant William Healy while the house was under quarantine. The two men stole a chest of gold and silver that was to be given to Brattle’s daughter as wedding gift, having been told of its location by Brattle’s enslaved servant Dick. Robin buried the chest in Henry Vassall’s yard and gave some of the money to Tony, who took it to Boston to exchange for copper coins. Their plan was to use the money to buy clothes to disguise themselves in order to escape to freedom in Nova Scotia, and then travel on to France. The men were caught, put on trial, and found guilty. Both were whipped, and Brattle was allowed to sell Healy into servitude for 20 years and Robin permanently.[efn_note]Black Walden, pp. 43-44[/efn_note] Robin was then sold to Dr. William Clarke of Boston. He was later sought out for his experience in escaping by Mark, a man enslaved by Captain John Codman of Concord. Robin advised Mark as to how much arsenic to give to Codman as a fatal dose.[efn_note]Abner Cheney Goodell, The trial and execution for petit treason, of Mark and Phillis… (1883), 11–13.[/efn_note] Mark and his fellow enslaved servant, Phillis, were executed for their crimes in 1755; Phillis was burned at the stake, and Mark was hung in a gibbet on Charlestown Square. In his affidavit on his ride of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere mentioned seeing Mark’s bones still on display nearly twenty years later[efn_note]Letter from Paul Revere to Jeremy Belknap, ca. 1798, page 2 (Massachusetts Historical Society[/efn_note].

Christ Church (Episcopal). Photo Credit: Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts
Old Burying Ground, Harvard Square. Photo Credit: Jules Long
Stop 3: Christ Church & Old Burying Ground (0 Garden Street)

In Cambridge, there were four known black soldiers: Cato Bordman, Neptune (or Nipton) Frost, Cato Stedman, and Cuff Whittemore. In 1763, Neptune Frost was enslaved by Deacon Gideon Frost, who lived in a home on Massachusetts Avenue near Porter Square—British soldiers drank from the well on this property on the way back from the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1770.[efn_note]An Historic Guide to Cambridge, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Daughters of the American Revolution, Hannah Winthrop Chapter, 1907), 139. Gideon also purchased what is now the Cooper-Frost-Austin House, the oldest house in Cambridge.[/efn_note] He became a drummer boy in the Continental Army and was granted freedom after his service. He and Cato Stedman are believed to be buried in an unmarked grave in the Old Burying Ground in Cambridge (although one record states that Neptune Frost was buried in his enslaver’s tomb there[efn_note]An Historic Guide to Cambridge, 144.[/efn_note]).

Cato Stedman (Cato Freeman) served for six years in the Cambridge militia and fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill, receiving freedom from his enslaver, Ebenezer Stedman. Cate then changed his surname from Stedman to Freeman and went back and forth between Cambridge and Rhode Island (Providence and Cranston), as he couldn’t find a town that would accept him. He was evicted from Providence, most likely because they were worried they would have to support him financially. Cambridge selectmen wrote to Providence saying they would support his care in Rhode Island, but Cato returned to Cambridge in the 1790s with his wife and child. He died in 1799 in Cambridge, listed as “negro stranger” (not a resident of Cambridge).[efn_note]Carla Charter, “New England Mysteries: The Graves of Cato Stedman and Neptune Frost,” Discover All of New England,[/efn_note]

Henry Vassall’s granddaughter Catherine Russell gave Darby Vassall (son of Tony and Cube Vassall) a “pass” to be buried in her grandfather’s tomb underneath Christ Church upon his death. This was even more remarkable because, although previously black soldiers had been buried in the cemetery, in the 1800s they were no longer allowed to do so. Darby was proud of this pass and would show it to people in the neighborhood when he came to visit from Boston. In 1855, he visited Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the house where he had been enslaved and may have shown Longfellow this pass. Longfellow wrote, “Old Mr. Vassal (born a slave in this house in 1769) came to see me.  And stay so long that Fields [publisher] is driven away.”[efn_note]HWL journal 1855[/efn_note] Darby died in 1861 at the age of 91 and was buried in the tomb. So were several of his children, all of whom preceded him in death.

Slavery at Harvard University

The Wadsworth House (1341 Massachusetts Avenue, now housing the Harvard Office of the University Marshal) is the second-oldest surviving building at Harvard. It was constructed in 1726 to be the house of clergyman and fourth Harvard President Benjamin Wadsworth (term 1725–1737), who enslaved two individuals here: Titus and Venus. Venus was purchased by Wadsworth in 1726 when she was less than 20 years old; he recorded her purchase in his journal. She was baptized at First Church Cambridge fourteen years later in 1740. Titus may have had Native American ancestry in addition to African ancestry, as he was called “mulatto.” The Harvard faculty minutes of March 21, 1740, record that it was forbidden for students to interact with him; he was also forbidden from entering campus and the university steward was not allowed to send him on errands: “resolved [that] . . . the above-mentioned Titus be prohibited coming into any part of the college or even into the Yard or within any Inclosures of the College whatsoever.”[efn_note]Harvard & Slavery page 34[/efn_note] There is no record of what instigated this order, however.

Wadsworth House was home to a total of eight Harvard presidents. Edward Holyoke (Harvard’s oldest president; age 79 at death in 1769) succeeded Wadsworth as Harvard president in 1737 also enslaved at least two individuals here: Juba and Bilhah. In 1747, Juba married Cicely, who was enslaved by Judah Monis.[efn_note]Thomas W. (Thomas Williams) Baldwin, Vital Records of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Year 1850, vol. 2 (Boston: [Wright & Potter], 1914), 441–42.[/efn_note] Bilhah was enslaved by Holyoke for at least ten years. She gave birth to a son around 1761 and died four years later in 1765. [efn_note]Drew Faust, “Wadsworth House Plaque Dedication,” Harvard University, April 6, 2016,[/efn_note][efn_note]Wadsworth House was also the first temporary headquarters of General George Washington in 1775 before he moved over to the abandoned John Vassall Estate on Brattle Street. This building also housed Ralph Waldo Emerson as a student.[/efn_note]

Other Harvard presidents were slaveholders as well; acting President Edward Wigglesworth enslaved a man named Hannibal and Hannibal’s son (whose name we do not know), born in 1754.[efn_note]Thomas W. (Thomas Williams) Baldwin, Vital Records of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Year 1850, vol. 1 (Boston: [Wright & Potter], 1914), 936.[/efn_note] Many of the enslavers discussed in this presentation were also students at Harvard, such as John Vassall, Jr. and Isaac Royall, Jr. Harvard students and faculty have created a website to chronicle research on the connection between Harvard and slavery:

There have been two memorial plaques dedicated to the enslaved people who helped build Harvard. On April 6, 2016, a plaque was dedicated on the Wadsworth House to the memory of Titus, Venus, Juba, and Bilhah. At the dedication ceremony, President Drew Faust spoke of them. She pointed out that, “[t]heir work, and that of many other people of color, played a significant role in building Harvard. The plaque is intended to remember them and honor them and to remind us that slavery was not an abstraction but a cruelty inflicted on particular humans. We name the names to remember these stolen lives.”[efn_note]Faust, “Wadsworth House Plaque Dedication.”[/efn_note] On September 5, 2017, Harvard Law School unveiled a memorial plaque to the people enslaved by Isaac Royall, Jr., whose wealth helped establish the Harvard Law School 200 years earlier in 1817. The plaque, located on the plaza outside the Caspersen Student Center, reads, “In honor of the enslaved whose labor created wealth that made possible the founding of Harvard Law School. May we pursue the highest ideals of law and justice in their memory.”[efn_note]Liz Mineo, “Harvard Law School Plaque Honors Those Enslaved by Royall Family,” Harvard Gazette, September 6, 2017,[/efn_note]

In 1707-1816, the Old Courthouse was located in the middle of what is now Harvard Square, possibly in the Lyceum building. An old mile stone sits on the eastern edge of the original courthouse site (marking 8 miles to Boston); this original stone was removed, buried in the stables, found again and placed near Dane Hall (the old Harvard Law School building), then moved to its current location in the Burying Ground. In 1816 the courthouse was moved to East Cambridge and rebuilt on land donated by Andrew Craigie, helping to increase the growth and development of that area of the city.

Prince Hall Memorial, Cambridge Common. Photo Credit: History Cambridge
Stop 4:  Cambridge Common (Prince Hall Memorial, 6 Garden Street)

Numerous petitions and court cases brought by enslaved or formerly enslaved people led to the end of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783. Among the most prominent of these was Prince Hall, whose monument stands on the Cambridge Common. Hall’s background is not clear – we don’t know if he was enslaved as a child or was always free. He may have served in the Revolutionary War in a regiment from Medford, but the existence of six “Prince Halls” in the militia records makes it difficult to know for certain. Hall was a self-taught lawyer who may have written Belinda Sutton’s petition for freedom. He is perhaps best known for founding the African Lodge No. 1 (Prince Hall Freemasons) in 1775 after he was not permitted to join the Boston St. John’s Lodge. He was Grand Master of this first all-Black lodge until his death in 1807. Hall worked as an abolitionist and for racial equality throughout his lifetime, and was involved in the Back-to-Africa movement of the post-Revolutionary era. He is buried in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in the North End of Boston.

Prince Hall’s son, Primus Hall, continued his father’s work for racial equality, founding the Abiel Smith School on Beacon Hill, Boston’s first Black school. Founded in 1798 as the African School, it met first in Primus Hall’s home, then in the basement of the African Meeting House before moving into a newly-constructed building in 1835. Primus Hall served under Col. Pickering during the Revolutionary War and helped build fortifications on Castle Island during the War of 1812. He recalled several stories about interacting with Gen. George Washington. On one occasion, Col. Pickering was gone when Washington showed up, apparently looking for some exercise. Primus helped him by driving a stake into the ground with a rope attached and essentially played jump rope. Hall reported that this happened several times, with Washington saying to him, “Primus, I am in need of some exercise.” In another story, Primus said he gave up his bed on the ground for Washington to sleep on. When Washington arose in the night and saw Primus dozing on a stool, he insisted that Primus join him on the bed under the blanket together.[efn_note] William Cooper Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution: With Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons (Boston: Robert R. Wallcut, 1855), 29–32.[/efn_note]

Darby and Cyrus Vassall were also active in the Black community in Boston, and were among the founders of the African Society, a mutual aid society started in 1796. Darby signed a local petition against Fugitive Slave Act in 1861,[efn_note]Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions; Passed Acts; St. 1861, c.91, SC1/series 229. Massachusetts Archives. Boston, Mass.[/efn_note] and both Darby and Cyrus added their names to a petition created by Primus Hall to build a Black school in Beacon Hill in 1812.

A woman we now know as Belinda Sutton submitted one of the most famous petitions for freedom of the Revolutionary Era. Born in West Africa (Nigeria or Benin), Belinda was captured by slave traders at age 12 and taken first to Antigua and then on to Massachusetts, where she was enslaved for more than 50 years on the Isaac Royall Estate in Medford. After the Loyalist Royall fled Massachusetts during the Revolution, Belinda petitioned the General Court for a pension from the Royall Estate in 1783. Despite petitioning five separate times, her pension was only granted once, but its symbolic importance to the legal fight for monetary compensation for enslaved labor cannot be underestimated. Belinda had long been known by the last name of her enslavers, Royall, but upon their flight from Massachusetts she changed her last name to Sutton. We know that she gave birth to at least two children – Joseph and Prine, and that they were both baptized in 1768, but no other records of them survive.

In 1781, when the General Court finalized sales of confiscated Loyalist property, Tony Vassall petitioned the General Court to allow him “squatter’s rights” to the house where his family lived. He was an old man at the time, and ill. His petition reads, “that though dwelling in a land of freedom, both himself and his wife have spent almost sixty years of their lives in slavery and that though deprived of what makes them now happy beyond expression yet they have ever lived a life of honesty and have been faithful in their master’s service,” hoped “that they shall not be denied the sweets of freedom the remainder of their days by being reduced to the painful necessity of begging for bread.” He was not allowed to stay on the property but did receive a pension of £12 annually from public funds. After Tony died in 1811, his wife Cuba petitioned the legislature for his pension from the estate of John Vassall, but it was declared that she was a “domestic slave and dependent of the said John Vassall, and her said husband was not” – so she received his pension ($40) only one year.[efn_note]Batchelder, Samuel. “Col. Henry Vassall.” The Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society (1915-1916), vol. 10. 69.[/efn_note] She died the following year in 1812. In 1787, Tony purchased a house and an acre lot on North Road (now at 1654 Mass. Avenue near Shepherd Street). In 1791, he bought an adjacent lot and, in 1793, purchased five more acres across the street. Tony and Cuba’s sons Darby and Cyrus later moved to Beacon Hill in Boston and were among the prominent members of the Black community there, but Tony and Cuba’s daughter Catherine stayed in Cambridge, inheriting her father’s property. 

Although not immediately local to Cambridge, the case of Elizabeth Freeman, better known as “Mum Bett,” was integral to the ending of slavery in Massachusetts. Mum Bett was enslaved by William and Hannah Ashley in Sheffield, Massachusetts. While enslaved, Mum Bett had heard about the new Massachusetts Constitution and that it proclaimed liberty for all. On one occasion, Hannah Ashley attempted to beat Lizzie, another enslaved woman who may also have been Mum Bett’s sister, but Mum Bett stepped in front of her and weathered the blow, leaving a permanent scar. Mum Bett then left the Ashleys to get legal help from Theodore Sedgwick, an abolitionist lawyer in Stockbridge. Sedgewick took her case and combined it with that of Brom, an enslaved man, bringing suit in both of their names in 1781. The jury ruled in their favor, forcing Ashley to free her and to pay 30 shillings in damages. Once freed, she worked for the Sedgwick family and changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman.

The other seminal case in the legal challenge to Massachusetts slavery was that of Quock Walker. James Caldwell purchased the Walker family in 1754, when Quock was just an infant, and promised his parents that Quock would be freed at age 21. When Caldwell died, his widow’s new husband refused to free Quock. Quock ran away from his enslaver, Nathaniel Jennison, and took refuge at the farm of Caldwell’s brothers Seth and John Caldwell. Jennison arrived at the Caldwell farm and beat Walker in an attempt to recapture him. Walker sued Jennison, and Jennison in turn sued the Caldwell brothers for “inciting” Walker to run away. There were several court cases beginning in 1781 but, in 1783, a jury declared that Walker was a free man according to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Constitution. This case, along with that of Elizabeth Freeman and others in the early 1780s, effectively ended the legal practice of chatel slavery in Massachusetts.

Map of Lewisville showing Enoch and Samuel Lewis’s house (upper left) and the Lewis Tomb (lower right). Photo Credit: Cambridge Historical Commission
Stop 5: Lewisville: Garden Street & Concord Street (15 Concord Avenue)

In the early 1800s, this corner (previously a one-acre field) became the “nucleus” of a small black community known as “Lewisville” (after the number of Lewises who lived here).[efn_note]Building Old Cambridge, 282.[/efn_note] Lewisville emerged from the relationship between the Black Vassalls, who remained in the area, and a Black family from western Massachusetts, the Lewises. African Americans in Cambridge, as elsewhere, faced discrimination even after the legal end of slavery. It was very difficult for them to make a living, as many people would not hire them, and this became worse as the 19th century progressed and slavery was outlawed on the federal level.

Catherine and Adam Lewis were among the founders of Lewisville They were heavily involved in the early antislavery movement in Massachusetts, and ended up in Ontario for a time during the early 1850s because their outspoken opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made them prime targets for white violence. The Lewises eventually returned to Cambridge before moving to Liberia with the Cambridge Liberian Emigrant Association. Catherine was daughter of Tony and Cuba Vassall who inherited her father’s house on North Avenue/Mass Avenue in 1814 and lived there until 1816. She married Adam Lewis, the nephew of Quock Walker, whose parents were Peter and Minor Walker Lewis (sister to Quock) of Barre, MA. Peter was a free Black yeoman from Middlesex County while Minor had previously been enslaved in Worcester. They had eleven children and moved to Cambridge in the early 1800s. They sold their first Cambridge residence and moved here to the intersection of Garden Street and Concord Avenue, building a new house in 1820.[efn_note]Longfellow House Bulletin 16.1 (June 2012).[/efn_note]

While Adam and Catherine Vassall Lewis were in Ontario, they lived at the Dawn Institute, a colony for runaway enslaved people from the United States started by the Black Methodist preacher Josiah Henson.[efn_note]Longfellow House Bulletin 16.1 (June 2012).[/efn_note] Henson visited Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1846, prompting Longfellow to write in his journal, “In the evening Mr. Henson, a Negro, once a slave, now a preacher, called to get subscription for the school at Dawn, in Upper Canada, for education of blacks. I had a long talk with him, and he gave me an account of his escape from slavery with his family. There was never anything more childlike than his manner. Not one word of abuse. The good-natured ebony face, the swarthy-bearded lip, the white teeth, the whole aspect of the man so striking and withal so wild,- it seemed as if some Egyptian statue had come to life and sat speaking in the twilight sonorous English not yet well learned. What pleased me most in the Negro is his bon-homie. Moreover, almost every Negro has the rheumatism. This man had it. His right arm was crooked and stiff. It had been broken with a stake from a fence.”[efn_note]Journal entry by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, June 26, 1846.[/efn_note] Longfellow was so moved by Henson’s testimony that he gave “Father Henson” a donation of $10.00 in 1856 and again in 1860.[efn_note]HWL Account book, October 1858, quoted from “Longfellow Account Book-African-American Connections” in Abolition Subject File.[/efn_note]

In 1858, Enoch Lewis (Adam Lewis’s brother), who had spent 40 years as the superintendent of Harvard’s residence halls,[efn_note] Kanterwitz, More than Freedom[/efn_note] formed the Cambridge Liberian Emigrant Association, which comprised more than 150 people, including “some of the most respectable colored persons among us.”[efn_note]Cambridge Chronicle, July 10, 1858.[/efn_note] In November 1858, he and 23 other black Cantabrigians (14 of whom were Lewis family members, including Catherine and Adam Lewis) sailed from Baltimore on the Mary C. Stevens to settle in St. Paul’s River in Liberia. The Association’s charter identified it as “a nation among nations, like the Pilgrim Fathers… to establish… civil and religious liberty.”[efn_note]Longfellow House Bulletin 16.1 (June 2012).[/efn_note] We do know that Longfellow was also a supporter of their efforts, as his account book from October 1858, records his donation of $10.00 for “Negroes to Liberia.”[efn_note]HWL Account book, October 1858, quoted from “Longfellow Account Book-African-American Connections” in Abolition Subject File.[/efn_note] No records of the Association’s activities after 1858 survive, however, and we do not know what happened to the colonists after their arrival in St. Paul’s River.

Quaku Walker Lewis (nephew of Quock Walker and uncle of Enoch Lewis), a barber also known just as “Walker Lewis,” was considered a member of the “Old Guard” according to the Black Boston journalist William Cooper Nell. Lewis helped found the Massachusetts General Colored Association in 1826 to combat racism at home and slavery across the country; the Association later came under the umbrella of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, which merged with the New England Anti-Slavery Society.[efn_note]William Cooper Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution: With Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons (Boston: Robert R. Wallcut, 1855), 345–346.[/efn_note] In 1843, Lewis joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and received the Mormon priesthood, becoming the church’s second ordained Black priest after Elijah Abel. Lewis migrated to Utah but found racism and discrimination there, so returned to Cambridge. Walker Lewis married Elizabeth Lovejoy, who was of mixed race, in 1826 and they had a son named Enoch, named after his uncle. Enoch married a white wife and had biracial children, which may have in part led to the Mormon Church’s ban on black men holding the priesthood, as Mormon founder Brigham Young was appalled by mixed race children and marriages.

In 1830, Peter Lewis acquired a one-acre field on Garden Street from Samuel Haven, the heir to Vassall House owner Andrew Craigie, who had purchased the Vassall-Craigie House at 105 Brattle Street. Peter Lewis died intestate in 1844, and the probate court appointed Richard Henry Dana, Jr., administrator for his widow Minor. Two white men, George Rayne and Ebenezer Francis, Jr., ultimately bought the lot.[efn_note]Building Old Cambridge, 283.[/efn_note]

Although it does not survive intact, the 19th-century presence of a “Lewis Tomb” underscores how important the extended Lewis family was to this area of Cambridge, as well as their gradual erasure from the historical record over the past two centuries. The first mention of the tomb was in 1835, and its first occupant was most likely for Joseph Lewis. Located off of Garden Street between Chauncey and Wallace (now Walker) Streets, the tomb was later incorporated into the backyard of 33 Walker Street. By the 1870s, the tomb was dug up and its contents reburied in an unmarked grave in the Cambridge Cemetery, thereby erasing the experiences and identities of those residents of Lewisville. The demographic makeup of the Lewisville neighborhood changed too during the middle of the nineteenth century; in 1850 there were six Black families (19 people) living in five houses in Lewisville, but by 1870 only three Black families remained. One of the last members of the Lewis family to live in the neighborhood was George Washington Lewis, Jr., (1848-1929), who worked as a steward at the Porcellian Club. Lewis bought a house on Parker Street in 1890, where his descendants lived until the 1970s.