The untold stories of slaves who lived in Abigail Adams’s birthplace
Abigail Adams wasn’t shy about expressing her political beliefs. Long before her husband, John, became the nation’s second president, she wrote him letters advocating for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.
“I wish most sincerely there was not a Slave in the province,” she wrote on Sept. 22, 1774.
Yet documents show that before her marriage, Abigail grew up in a Weymouth home where her father had owned at least four slaves: Phoebe, Tom, Cato, and Tower. Even when she lived with her husband in what is now Quincy, she kept in touch with Phoebe.
This aspect of her background is widely acknowledged at the Abigail Adams Historical Society, a nonprofit that educates people about her legacy and preserves her Weymouth birthplace.
It still comes as a shock to people, however. Historian and author Michelle Marchetti Coughlin said she was taken aback when she first learned the details upon joining the birthplace’s board of directors several years ago.
“It was surprising, reconciling the idea of slavery with Abigail Adams, who we all know is someone who is very much opposed to slavery,” Coughlin said.
In fact, slavery existed in communities spanning Massachusetts before the practice became illegal in 1783.
The public is invited to learn more about this chapter of history on Tuesday, Feb. 12, when the Abigail Adams Historical Society and the Thomas Crane Public Library present a talk by historian Kerima Lewis titled “Discover Historic New England: Captives from Africa via the Caribbean.”
The talk, planned in honor of African American History Month, begins at 7 p.m. in the ground-floor community meeting room of the library at 40 Washington St., Quincy.
“We have an obligation to tell the story because their history is intertwined with the history of the birthplace,” Coughlin said. “It’s not just about the birthplace’s history, but American history.”
Lewis, a history professor at Emerson College who was recruited by Coughlin for the project, said she will try to trace the origins of Phoebe, Tom, Cato, and Tower as a way of shedding light onto some of the experiences slaves had in New England.
“Who were they? Where did they come from? How did they come?” Lewis said.
Lewis analyzed various primary source documents in the effort to answer those questions. She said their stories probably resembled those of other slaves in New England, who came through the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Abigail Adams’s father, the Rev. William Smith, was a farmer and minister of the First Congregational Church in Weymouth. But Lewis recently discovered family records suggesting the Smith family’s history of slavery may go farther back and connect to the Caribbean.
“I never want these individuals to be forgotten,” Lewis said. “In my work, I seek to put a face to these people who are sometimes just called ‘slaves,’ ‘Negroes,’ ‘Africans.’ It’s important to know about all humans who contribute to this history.”
Coughlin and the Abigail Adams Historical Society provided Lewis with background information from letters, diary entries, and other documents. Coughlin scoured Weymouth town records and birth, death, and marriage certificates on her own as well.
Lewis took it upon herself to research even further into the lives of Phoebe, Tom, Cato and Tower, searching through ship logs and asking the Massachusetts Historical Society for sources from other members of the Smith family.
Records show that out of all four slaves, Abigail Adams maintained the closest relationship with Phoebe and Tom.
Abigail wrote about Phoebe, “I love and respect and venerate her.” In 1798, she told John that Phoebe was “the only surviving Parent” she had.
She was also present during significant events in Phoebe’s life. Phoebe married a free black man named William Abdee at Abigail and John’s home.
Rev. Smith died in 1783 shortly after slavery was abolished with rulings by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In his will, Smith wrote that he gave “unto [his] Negro Woman Phoebe” a choice of “freedom” or to live with one of his daughters and be given 100 pounds.
“Phoebe wanted her own individual life so she left,” Coughlin said.
Still, Phoebe was often asked to house-sit at the Adams’s home while Abigail and John were away, and did so even after her freedom.
“Abigail always had access and she relied on Phoebe,” Lewis said. “She was there when Phoebe died.”
Tom, one of the other slaves, also appeared significant in Abigail’s life. Tom delivered letters between Abigail and John after his smallpox inoculation and shortly before the two married in 1764. In 1766, John wrote in a diary entry how the family mourned Tom’s death.
Lewis and the Abigail Adams Historical Society continue to research each of the four slaves, as little information was documented about them at the time due to racism and the low status of a slave. Visits to the Massachusetts Historical Society for family records seems like one route.
“We’re still researching the slaves, and it’s something really important to us to find out as much as we can about this topic,” Coughlin said.
“People will take tours at the Abigail Adams Birthplace, and more than once I’ve heard someone say ‘There were slaves in the North?’ ” Coughlin said. “People have a lot of questions.”