MARBLEHEAD — No one was supposed to remember the enslaved people who lived in this seaside town in the 17th and 18th centuries. They toiled in the shadows of merchants and Revolutionary War heroes, meant to be forgotten.
But, thanks to a few mysterious twists of history and strong-willed locals, Agnes will not be forgotten.
Agnes, a woman who the town’s prominent Russell family enslaved as a domestic servant, died in 1718 at about age 43. For reasons that remain unclear, Agnes was buried in the Russells’ family plot atop Old Burial Hill overlooking the town and given a slate headstone, equivalent to many of the town’s white residents.
On Sunday afternoon, more than 50 residents turned out to watch as leaders of the Marblehead Racial Justice Team, a local advocacy group, unveiled a new replica of Agnes’s original headstone, which spelled her name Agnis.
“Agnes stands for all … people of color who have been forgotten, who built this country out of their blood, their sweat, and their toil, unknown and unpaid,” the Right Rev. Gayle E. Harris, the Episcopal bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Massachusetts, told the crowd. “We stand here remembering Agnes and all those others who go unnamed in our history books.”
The original headstone disappeared sometime in the mid-1970s.
The headstone includes several inaccuracies, Louis Meyi, a leader of the Racial Justice Team, explained in his remarks to the crowd. Agnes’s name is misspelled “Agnis” and the name of her owner, Samuel Russell, is also misspelled as “Russel.” Such mistakes were common at the time, Meyi said. However, the group, and the cemetery commission, wanted the replica to include the mistakes. The group hopes to erect a small informational sign in the future, Meyi said.
The vast majority of the town’s enslaved people, the current thinking goes, were unceremoniously dumped in a nearby swamp after death, according to the Rev. James Bixby, the pastor of Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead.
“This is not the standard story. This is the exception to the rule. The standard story is no marker, no dignity. You were an asset until you weren’t anymore,” said Bixby, one of the Racial Justice Team’s leaders. “The only thing we can think and that the story tells is that somehow she really found the favor of the Russell family.”
Agnes was baptized about two years before her death, according to documents kept by St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Marblehead. The Anglican Church, which later became the Episcopal Church in the United States, saw the baptism of enslaved people as part of its Christianizing, colonial mission. Several other enslaved people in Marblehead were baptized at St. Michael’s, but none memorialized as was Agnes, Bixby said.
The replica grave serves as a reminder of historical injustices in Marblehead and should reinvigorate efforts for change today, Joe Whipple, a member of the Marblehead Task Force Against Discrimination, told the crowd.
“If we are going to work against discrimination,” Whipple said, “we have to let our history inform us of who we are and how we have become who we are.”
The project to replace the headstone began about four years ago and was championed by Meyi and Judy Gates, two Racial Justice Team members, among others, Bixby said.
Dan Cedrone, the owner of Marblehead Memorials, helped design the stone to replicate the original. The stone was carved by a manufacturer in Vermont and installed in March, Cedrone said. The replica is made from African Impala granite rather than the original slate, because it’s much more durable but looks similar, he said.
In recent years, especially since the racial reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s murder, historical societies and advocacy groups around Boston have stepped up efforts to highlight slavery in Colonial Massachusetts. Students in Andover erected a gravestone to an enslaved woman in 2019 and the historical society in Cambridge opened an art exhibit to commemorate the enslaved people of Brattle Street this summer.
“This land is only better when we remember who we were,” Harris told the crowd before the headstone was unveiled and she blessed it. The bishop said humanity is “a fabric woven together of different strands making something beautiful and one of those strands was Agnes, who lies at peace.”