On a recent Sunday, dozens gathered at Boston’s Long Wharf to witness the dedication of a new monument, a towering glass and metal structure marking the city’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
A few days before, on the other side of the city, Acting Mayor Kim Janey honored the recent designation of the Shirley-Eustis Place in Roxbury as an official landmark. It’s one of the few remaining Colonial governor’s mansions in the country, and one of its outbuildings may be one of the only remaining slave quarters in the North.
Both events marked efforts by historians and public officials to highlight the history of slavery in Boston, a story that’s often been erased or marginalized, but, thanks to social justice movements of recent years, is increasingly coming into focus.
“The image of Northern cities like Boston as centers of abolitionist activity has overshadowed the history of their role in slavery,” said Jared Hardesty, an associate history professor at Western Washington University and author of “Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston.” Segregationist laws, racial violence, and the trafficking of Black people into bondage in the early 1800s contributed to the erasure of the history of slavery in the North; white abolitionists preferred to focus on antislavery sentiment here, Hardesty said.
“These myths we largely believe about New England slavery are abolitionist propaganda,” he said. “When they were confronted with the fact that slavery was in Massachusetts, too, they would always fight it.”
Social activists and historians alike, propelled by calls for justice following the killing of George Floyd, have called for Boston to recognize its role in the slave trade, and the wealth that white Bostonians derived from it. City councilors have pressed Boston to consider paying reparations to its Black residents. And activists continue to clamor for the renaming of Faneuil Hall, named for slave trader Peter Faneuil, who built the marketplace and meeting hall for the city in 1742.
“We’re all experiencing the effect of what’s gone on with Black Lives Matter,” said Vivian R. Johnson, retired Boston University emerita associate professor and one of many who provided research for the newly dedicated Middle Passage marker, which was installed in October 2020. “In many cases, we’re having discussions for the first time about [slavery in Boston].”
The Shirley-Eustis Place was built in 1747 by William Shirley, the royal governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, as a summer home; it later became the residence of William Eustis, who served as governor from 1823 to 1825. Its estate includes a three-story house, carriage house, orchards, and possibly — long ago — an outbuilding.
The two-story, cream-colored duplex at 42-44 Shirley St., across the street from the estate, may have once housed Africans enslaved by Shirley, according to a story neighborhood residents have passed on from generation to generation. Historians are working to confirm whether the building, now a residence, is in fact a former slave quarters, which would make it one of only two remaining slave quarters in the northern United States.
Aabid Allibhai, a doctoral student in Harvard’s Department of African and African American Studies, researched Shirley’s ties to slavery for the Boston Landmarks Commission’s report on the house. He found records of eight enslaved people living at the Shirley-Eustis Place.
“A lot of people rented slaves that are less likely to show up in the records, so I’m sure Shirley [had] a lot more slaves that we don’t know about,” Allibhai said.
Suzy Buchanan, who became the site’s executive director in 2019, said there’s more research to be done. She’s learning more about the home’s role in slavery and incorporating that history into official tours.
“2020 made me think, ‘I’m not doing enough. I just . . . need to lay this story out there,’ ” Buchanan said.
“It’s not about just doing the right thing,” she added. The need for a more truthful account of Boston’s history is “a crisis.”
The Middle Passage marker took years of work to complete. It memorializes the brutal journey enslaved Africans were forced to endure by ship from Africa to ports across the New World, including Boston.
The port marker includes an explanation of Boston’s role in the slave trade — as well as descriptions of the legacies of notable Colonial-era African Americans, including Crispus Attucks, believed to be the first casualty of the American Revolution, Black Freemason and abolitionist Prince Hall, and poet Phillis Wheatley.
About 200 recorded slaving voyages departed from Boston between 1638 and 1858. Early on, Boston merchants exchanged Indigenous peoples for enslaved Africans and raw materials in the West Indies. They also exported rum to West Africa in exchange for enslaved Africans, who were forcibly brought to West Indian sugar plantations that supplied crops for the industry.
Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783, but indentured servitude and the selling of freed Black people back into slavery persisted.
At the marker’s dedication, dozens of attendees and curious tourists gathered at Long Wharf for a ceremony of spoken word, balafon music, and remarks. Members of Jamaica Plain’s OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center tossed white carnations into Boston Harbor in memory of the first 50 enslaved Africans named in the city’s oldest church records — and millions more whose names will never be known.
L’Merchie Frazier, director of education and interpretation at the Museum of African American History — Boston and Nantucket, read the names of the first 10 enslaved Africans baptized in five of Boston’s oldest congregations.
“This afternoon, it is our sacred obligation to recognize them, to weep for them, ask pardon of them, eulogize them, memorialize them,” Nancy S. Taylor, senior minister and CEO of Old South Church, said at the ceremony. “As an African proverb asserts, ‘As long as you speak my name, I shall live forever.’ ”
The port marker in Long Wharf is one of 52 sites recognized in the continental United States through the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, an initiative aimed at providing accurate accounts of enslaved Africans’ arrival, presence, and contributions to history.
“We share concerns about honoring the memory of our ancestors,” said Johnson, who serves as the project’s Boston representative. “These are human beings that are a part of our history.”
Frazier said in an interview that providing more transparency about Boston’s benefits from slavery allows the city to join in a global call for justice.
“This is Boston’s opportunity to participate in uplifting humanity,” she added.
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.