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Lexington confronts history of slavery in liberty’s birthplace

Historian and scholar Robert Bellinger outside the Buckman Tavern in Lexington. The town’s Historical Society has launched a study of the presence of enslaved people during the Revolutionary War in Lexington.
Historian and scholar Robert Bellinger outside the Buckman Tavern in Lexington. The town’s Historical Society has launched a study of the presence of enslaved people during the Revolutionary War in Lexington.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Every spring, just in time for Patriots Day, Lexington’s Colonial-era house museums throw open their doors and welcome visitors to tours run by the Lexington Historical Society. One such property is the Hancock-Clarke House, where guides describe the pivotal role the house holds in US history: Once the town’s parsonage, it was here that overnight guests John Hancock and Samuel Adams were awakened by Paul Revere in the early hours of April 19, 1775, just before the first battle of the American Revolution.

Less likely to come up in the conversation is the fact that some of the same Lexington townspeople who took up arms to fight for American freedom were slave owners.

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“It’s a dichotomy,” acknowledged Erica McAvoy, executive director of the Lexington Historical Society. “Lexington, the birthplace of freedom and liberty, is also someplace where enslaved people were living.”

For years, McAvoy said, the approach of local tour guides has generally been to recognize the unfortunate reality of slavery in the town and move on. But that’s finally changing. A surge of interest in exploring these untold stories has resulted in the Historical Society receiving a grant of $10,000 from the Foundation for MetroWest to uncover more of the truth about slavery’s presence in Lexington’s past.

“We’re still at the very beginning of the effort,” McEvoy said. She and her staff began by forming a working group and actively seeking Black representation for it, recruiting both Sean Osborne, founder and president of the Association of Black Citizens of Lexington; and Robert Bellinger, who is an associate professor of history at Suffolk University as well as director of Suffolk’s Black Studies Program and its Clark Collection of African American Literature.

“I’ve long thought about the way history is taught in Lexington,” said Osborne, a self-proclaimed history buff who’s a civil engineer by profession. “Unfortunately, there’s still this idea that there were no slaves in New England, or in the north. Even at this particular time when we are having so many important conversations on race and reckoning, these falsehoods still exist among folks I would hope would know better. It’s time for Lexington and Concord to take the lead in providing a counternarrative to this popular myth.”

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According to Bellinger, who will spend this summer researching the lives of enslaved people in Colonial Lexington, historical archives show that in 1754, there were 24 Black people living in Lexington, the majority of whom were enslaved, though others were paid as servants. In Massachusetts as a whole at that time, Bellinger said, enslaved Black people made up about 1.7 percent of the population.

The life of Prince Estabrook, an enslaved man who served as a member of the Lexington militia, is commemorated by a plaque outside the Buckman Tavern.
The life of Prince Estabrook, an enslaved man who served as a member of the Lexington militia, is commemorated by a plaque outside the Buckman Tavern.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Twenty years later, at the start of the American Revolution, the enslaved Black population included a man named Prince Estabrook, who served as a member of the Lexington militia and was struck by a musket ball in the Battle of Lexington, according to materials published by the National Park Service. Estabrook survived, and went on to fight in several more battles. His life is commemorated by a plaque outside the Buckman Tavern.

Also in the Lexington Historical Society’s working group are members of Follen Church, a local Unitarian Universalist congregation whose members researched and published a brochure called “Slavery in Colonial Lexington” in 2020.

In 1728, according to the brochure, the town allocated £85 to the Reverend John Hancock, grandfather of the signer of the Declaration of Independence and one-time occupant of the Hancock-Clarke House, to purchase an enslaved teenager named Jack. Jack was later joined by an enslaved young woman named Dinah. Jack is believed to have lived in slavery at the Hancock-Clarke House for the rest of his life, while Dinah was eventually granted her freedom. Jack and Dinah’s stories will be featured in the new narrative.

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“What’s exciting about this initiative is that it’s really coming from a range of energies,” said Bellinger. “It’s not just one person or group saying ‘Hey, we need to do this and all of you need to get to work on it.’ It’s coming from the Historical Society, the Association of Black Citizens of Lexington, Follen Church, various individuals. It’s coming from the town in a very organic way.”

According to McAvoy, the grant will cover Bellinger’s research as well as an overhaul of the materials at the Lexington Historical Society’s main sites, to be officially unveiled in April 2022. Audio tours and interpretive panels will be updated, and the staff at each historical house will undergo training on the subject of slavery and how to present it to visitors as well as engage in the dialog it is sure to spark.

“Talking about slavery is something people often aren’t comfortable with,” McAvoy said. “They don’t want to say the wrong thing. The history of slavery and enslaved people is difficult, and even when we want to tell it, the information can be difficult to dig up. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of good record-keeping related to enslaved people. It’s not like researching John Hancock or Sam Adams.”

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But Osborne hopes that this is only a launching point for a new historical narrative in Lexington.

“Through forging connections, you can make the story of the complex simple,” said Osborne. “We can start by talking about Jack and Dinah, and then ask: What about the other first- and second-generation Black folks who were in Lexington? Some were enslaved, some were indentured, some were free. Reverends Hancock and Clarke baptized Black folks at their church, and down the street from the Hancock-Clarke House lived a free Black family. Why was Jack enslaved for life, when in other households enslaved people were treated more as indentured, and given their freedom once they reached a certain age? It’s a complex story. But we can start looking at it right here.”

The goal, said Bellinger, is to “broaden the vision and the idea of what Lexington is, and to come to terms with the fact that Lexington was a town that had slavery. Even though that may not be its defining element, it is part of the story that often doesn’t get told or gets overshadowed by the Battle of Lexington and the Revolutionary War. We often talk about issues related to American freedom. We don’t always address the un-freedom that existed simultaneously.”

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.

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A view from the Buckman Tavern in Lexington.
A view from the Buckman Tavern in Lexington. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff