Untold stories of the past: Historic Northampton examines city’s legacy of slavery

  • Emma Winter Zeig, education and interpretive programs manager at Historic Northampton and Shara Denson, a member of the museum board, discuss the project to document enslaved people and slaveholders in colonial Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • At right, Emma Winter Zeig, education and interpretive programs manager at Historic Northampton, and Shara Denson, a member of the museum board, who have both been involved in the museum’s effort to document enslaved people and slaveholders in colonial Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A painting of Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century Northampton preacher and theologian who may have been the largest slaveholder in town. Researchers at Historic Northampton say he enslaved at least four people, though it’s not clear if all of them lived in his home at the same time. Photo from Princeton University Art Museum/public domain

  • This image is from the 1754 will of Joseph Bartlett of Northampton, who granted freedom to two Blacks, Dinah and Peter, who Bartlett referred to as “servants,” though they had been enslaved in his home. Image courtesy Historic Northampton

  • This 18th-century record from Northampton’s First Church of Christ lists the baptismal record of “Amos Negro” — Amos Hull, a Black man who was enslaved by Jonathan Hunt III. Image courtesy Historic Northampton

  • An image from the 1727 will of Samuel Marshall of Northampton, in which he instructed his three daughters to sell “My Negro Servant Coffee” and divide the proceeds amongst them. Image courtesy Historic Northampton

Staff Writer
Published: 11/10/2022 4:38:23 PM

For at least the last three-plus decades, Northampton has been known as a very liberal community, where protesters regularly hold rallies against social injustice, war and racism, and where abolitionist Sojourner Truth is remembered with a larger-than-life statue and memorial events.

But colonial Northampton, like many communities in early America, was a town where slavery was a part of everyday life. As researchers at Historic Northampton have now determined, there were likely at least 50 Black men and women enslaved in the city, primarily from the late 17th century through much of the 18th century — and at least two Native Americans were enslaved here, too.

In the “Slavery Research Project,” staff at Historic Northampton, with the help of several college interns and a number of local scholars, have combed through some 12,000 pages of digitized and paper records dating back to 1654 to try and identify these enslaved people and tell something of their lives.

The three-year effort, the results of which are now posted on the museum’s website, was an outgrowth of the museum’s exhibit “Making it on Main Street: 400 Years of History,” which opened in 2019 and aimed to tell a broad story about downtown Northampton’s past.

“We thought then that the story wasn’t complete because it didn’t include much on enslaved people,” said Elizabeth Sharpe, co-executive director of Historic Northampton. “We needed to learn more about it, and a lot of our visitors wanted to know more about it.”

To do that, project leader Emma Winter Zeig, the museum’s education and interpretive programs manager, enlisted the help of 10 interns from the Five College community to read what she calls a “huge” number of primary sources: church and probate records, family papers, old newspapers, records from the Hampshire Council of Governments.

The work included examining historical newspaper databases from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New York — there was no local newspaper in Northampton during this era, Zeig notes — as well as a number of contemporary and modern secondary sources.

Then there were websites such as Ancestry.com to investigate, and cross-checking with other historical sites and researchers such as staff at Forbes Library, she says.

“In the end, it was really a community effort,” said Zeig, who notes that members of Historic Northampton’s Board of Trustees and Native American consultant Margaret Bruchac also helped out with the project. (Bruchac is a former Valley resident of Abenaki descent who’s now a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.)

One noted takeaway from the project? “Enslaved people were very much part of the community,” said Zeig. “They were part of daily life here — they were visible in the streets and markets, they were part of the economic fabric of the town. Yet trying to learn more about them as people is a challenge.”

The murky record

Just identifying enslaved people in the first place was also a challenge, Zeig and Sharpe say. Almost none of the sources that researchers examined referred to “slaves” or “enslaved” people; the most common term was “servant,” which made no distinction between a free person who did domestic work or someone who was owned outright.

The term “Negro” occasionally cropped up, too.

“We also saw references to ‘my man’ or ‘my woman,’ with a person’s first name, in personal papers or different records,” said Zeig. But, she added, a lot of the information seems to have been hidden or deliberately made obscure.

As the museum website puts it, using the vague term “servant” was “a deliberate choice to rhetorically push away the reality of what enslavers were doing to their fellow humans. The choice to refer to Black and Native people without their full names serves further to deny their humanity and to erase them from the record.”

All told, the research team was able to identify, by at least a first name, 37 enslaved Black people and two Native Americans; 13 additional enslaved Black people have been identified, although their names are not known. And Zeig, for one, believes the number of people enslaved in Northampton was higher.

Also identified: 33 Northampton couples or individuals who owned slaves. Many of these people were prominent men in town such as lawyers, doctors, business owners and selectmen. (Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts by 1783.)

Yet even given the murkiness of the records they looked at, researchers have been able to piece together fuller portraits of numerous enslaved people. They also determined that only a handful of Northampton households had more than one or two people in bondage, compared to Southern plantations where dozens of people or even hundreds might be enslaved.

Jonathan Edwards, the famous revivalist preacher and theologian who lived in Northampton from 1726 to about 1751, enslaved at least four people, the museum says — the most of anyone in town — though it’s not clear if all of them lived in his home at the same time.

The Historic Northampton website also includes a timeline that reveals changes over the years, as well as a “relationship map” that helps show the connections between some of the people featured in the project.

Among the fuller portraits of enslaved people is that of Rose Binney, who was owned by Edwards but later earned her freedom. She married Joab Binney, enslaved by a different Northampton man, Jonathan Hunt III. The couple later lived as free Blacks in Stockbridge and may actually have been married by Edwards.

In a few cases, research has also uncovered the personal connections that could be forged even across the stark barrier of slavery. Shara Denson, an Historic Northampton trustee, points to two people, Dinah and Peter, who were enslaved by Joseph and Mercy Bartlett and then granted their freedom in 1755 following Joseph’s death.

Both continued to work for Mercy Bartlett as free Blacks until her death in 1759; they then received numerous items through her will, such as horses, beds, a spinning wheel, some kitchen and dining goods, clothing and other material.

“On one hand (Dinah and Peter) were property, but the Bartletts also must have formed some kind of emotional bond with them,” said Denson.

Still, says Denson, learning about the extent of slavery in Northampton has been, if not shocking, “then certainly surprising. I came to Northampton about 40 years ago (to attend college), and I never knew this story.”

It’s a story Historic Northampton wants to broaden, possibly through a physical exhibit that could, as one example, include handmade goods from the museum’s collection that were made with slave labor. The museum has already received inquiries from some local teachers, Sharpe says, about using some of the material in their classes.

“We definitely want to build on this research,” said Sharpe.

More detailed information about the Slavery Research Project can be found at historicnorthampton.org.

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