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Students confront slavery’s past on ‘the ground we walk on’

On the steps of the former Tyng mansion (from left): Jack Turner, Alexya Lee, and Katharine Hinkle, a teacher at Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsborough.
On the steps of the former Tyng mansion (from left): Jack Turner, Alexya Lee, and Katharine Hinkle, a teacher at Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsborough.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

When Alexya Lee was a senior at Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsborough, she and fellow student Jack Turner began researching the history of the land surrounding their school.

They learned about the indigenous people who fished in the Merrimack River, the wealthy English family that settled the area in the 1600s, and the enslaved people who lived in a mansion built nearby.

Now a freshman at Mount Holyoke College, Lee has earned the Girl Scouts’ highest honor for her research into the history of slavery on the property and her efforts to educate other students about the lives of those who were enslaved.

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“The focus of my project was helping young people realize that history isn’t so distant,” said Lee, of North Chelmsford, who is now double-majoring in politics and geology.

The project began a year ago when Lee was a senior in Katharine Hinkle’s historic archaeology class at Innovation Academy. The charter school for grades 5 through 12 is located at 72 Tyng Road, in a building erected in 1922.

The area was originally used for fishing on the Merrimack River by the Pawtucket and Pennacook people. In the 1600s, it was settled by the Tyng family, which had emigrated from England. (Originally a part of Dunstable, Tyngsborough became its own town in 1809.)

Around 1675, a gambrel-roofed mansion was built on the property by Colonel Jonathan Tyng, who along with his son, Eleazer Tyng, is believed to have owned numerous slaves.

Using prior research and their own findings, Lee and Turner worked to piece together the Tyng family’s slavery practices, and their classmates joined the effort to uncover the full history of the land.

Although the Tyng mansion burned down in the 1970s, archeological digs conducted at the site by UMass Boston research scientist Christa Beranek, Innovation Academy students, and others have unearthed pottery shards and other artifacts.

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Hinkle credits her former co-teacher, Caitlin Ayala, with locating magazine ads placed by Eleazer Tyng seeking runaway slave Robbin Tyng, complete with a description of his clothing and penchant for playing the fiddle.

Lee said she and her fellow students found evidence of other slaves whose stories were previously known – such as 5-year-old Dinah, who was sold in 1756 – in town records and local libraries.

With assistance from John Hannigan, head of reference services at the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum, Lee discovered two additional names with ties to the property that she hadn’t previously seen mentioned in historical records.

Boston and Cornwall Tyng were listed on muster rolls in the Seventh Massachusetts Regiment, which fought during the Revolutionary War in the battles of Saratoga, the Cherry Valley massacre, and the Sullivan Expedition. After returning to the Tyng mansion, however, the men were forced to go back to their former roles as slaves.

“I started asking faculty members about them, but no one knew anything,” said Lee, who was “appalled” that the stories of the Tyng family in history books included so few references to slavery. “Jack and I decided that wasn’t right.”

Lee set out to change that with her Girl Scout Gold Award project, through which young women are challenged to devote 80 hours of service in order to solve a community issue in a lasting way.

In “The Ground We Walk On: Remembering Local History,” Lee created a curriculum for the middle school social studies students at Innovation Academy. While conducting interactive lectures and campus tours of artifact sites last spring, she said her goals were to confront the property’s ties to slavery and raise awareness of the native peoples who originally lived on the land.

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She received her award last fall from the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts.

Hinkle said the school community’s support has been gratifying. The basis of the course, she said, is derived from local poet Paul Marion’s essay, “Cut From American Cloth,” in which he writes, “To understand America, a good place to start is where you are.”

“The students learned that slavery wasn’t something bad that happened in the South. It was right here, and it was just as ugly,” Hinkle said. “Lexie was our class archivist, and she was all in, so I was thrilled when she wanted to keep going with the project for her Gold Award. She is a bubble of passion and energy, and a furious note-taker and recorder of all things. I’m so lucky I got to be her teacher because she is a phenomenal young woman.”

According to Lee, the COVID-19 pandemic has put plans on hold for a memorial plaque honoring the lives of those who lived as slaves on the property, specifically Boston and Cornwall Tyng. Still, she is proud of what she and her colleagues have accomplished.

“I hope more people will learn there was slavery on the campus of the high school, hear the names of those who were enslaved, and understand their contributions,” Lee said. “When you look at any landscape, it’s important to recognize there were so many people here before us who helped transform it. And very few have any records left.”

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Cindy Cantrell can be reached at cindycantrell20@gmail.com.