Walls are divisive. There’s this side and there’s that side. We’ve exhausted an awful lot of energy in recent years on the need for walls: debating which people are free to cross the line between one place and another, and which are not.
Sometimes, however, a wall can be a bridge. There’s a section of brick wall in Medford, built more than 250 years ago, that doesn’t do what a wall usually does. It doesn’t keep anyone from entering the overgrown neighborhood park it abuts.
No, this wall serves a higher purpose. It exists as a necessary reminder of the scourge of slavery.
The wall was built in 1765 by a man known only as Pomp. Pomp was a slave, owned by Thomas Brooks, the patriarch of one of Medford’s founding families. The wall, known to local residents as the “slave wall,” runs a short distance alongside Brooks Park, a modest forested preserve donated to the city by the family almost 100 years ago.
Medford, notes a plaque on the site, was “an early center of anti-slavery activity.” When Massachusetts became the first state to abolish slavery in 1783, West Medford was established as “one of the oldest continuous African-American communities in the United States.”
At a time when monuments to slave owners, Confederate officers, and other racists have been coming down, some relics of American history are ripe for another kind of reckoning. New England, home to Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ona Judge, and many more notable Black figures, is also home to a wealth of historic sites that help tell the story of the struggle for democracy and equality in America. Many are worth a day’s drive; some are right in your own backyard.
Pomp’s Wall is one of more than 200 points of interest compiled by the African American Trail Project, an undertaking of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University. Launched in 2016, the Trail Project ranges from Du Bois’s childhood home in Great Barrington to the Shearer Cottage on Martha’s Vineyard, one of the businesses that helped establish Oak Bluffs as a summer haven for well-connected African-Americans.
An early iteration of the Trail Project contained the word “freedom,” says Dr. Kendra Field, a Tufts professor and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. But they quickly dropped the idea.
“We wanted to highlight the nuances, the whole gamut of things that make humanity humanity,” she says. Massachusetts is the home of the abolition movement and the ugly episodes of the desegregation crisis of the 1970s, she says, but there is more to the narrative than its obvious high points and lows.
“Both of us study Blackness in all its complexities,” says Dr. Kerri Greenidge, Field’s colleague and the author of a well-received biography of the newspaper publisher and civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter, “Black Radical” (2019). The project makes room for not just tourist destinations such as the gravesite of Crispus Attucks in the Granary Burying Ground and the 54th Regiment Memorial across from the Massachusetts State House, but also sites such as the original Twelfth Baptist Church on Beacon Hill (the “Fugitive Slave Church” in Boston) and Mosque 11 in Dorchester, where Malcolm X ministered.
The project draws together the work of various local African-American heritage endeavors, from Roxbury and Concord to the Upper Housatonic Valley of Western Massachusetts and Connecticut. The professors' work was inspired in part by a realization that the directors of several key institutions, including the Museum of African American History on Beacon Hill and the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, were not linked professionally.
“We realized these women didn’t know each other,” says Field.
The Trail Project honors the work of Gerald Gill, a beloved Tufts history professor who died in 2007 at age 59. The number of sites on the trail continues to grow, as historians, museum directors, private citizens, and others make suggestions.
“Some of the sites are unmarked,” says Field, “or under a highway.” Others are prominent features of their communities, such as the Sojourner Truth Memorial Statue in Florence or the monument dedicated to the pioneering cycling champion Major Taylor — the “Worcester Whirlwind” — at that city’s main public library branch.
Every state in New England has significant markers of Black history. In Portsmouth, N.H. — where Greenidge’s grandmother was born — the city unveiled a memorial to its African Burying Ground in 2015. Portland, Maine’s Abyssinian Meeting House, built in the 1820s and still standing, was a major stop on the Underground Railroad. There are African-American heritage trails in Vermont and Rhode Island.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” as Mark Twain once wrote.
Field and Greenidge say they will continue making connections with the custodians of Black landmarks across New England and beyond, as far away as Brazil.
“We have a real interest in the diasporic nature of the history,” says Field.
Greenidge says she has been encouraged by the outreach of students and teachers who are taking cues from the Trail Project, on the Tufts campus and across the state’s primary and secondary education system. Public school teachers are incorporating sites on the trail into their history lessons, she says, and students taking part in demonstrations are using it as a resource for their “present-day movement making.”
Field and Greenidge continue to look for ways to broaden the scope of the project, exploring, for example, the Native American history of the region, the Afro-Latino connection, and the impact of mass incarceration on Black lives.
They want to keep asking questions, says Field: “What is a ‘site’? What is ‘African-American’? We’re interested in pushing those boundaries.”
Because, they believe, boundaries come down as awareness goes up.
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.