It would be impossible to understand what life was like for late 18th- and early 19th-century African Americans in Massachusetts without some knowledge of the history of slavery in Massachusetts. Even after slavery officially ended in Massachusetts by the 1780s there were still laws that enforced segregation in Massachusetts, including restrictions on railroad travel, inter-racial marriage and in schools. In 1822 the Massachusetts Legislature commissioned a report to revisit the never enforced 1788 Massachusetts Law restricting Blacks from other states from migrating to Massachusetts. This 1822 report provides an interesting and concise history of slavery in Massachusetts. We’ve digitized and transcribed the report here and highlighted some of the main points here. There is a much more detailed account of slavery in Massachusetts written in 1887 by Beverly’s Robert Rantoul entitled “Negro Slavery in Massachusetts”. We’d also like to offer you a searchable finding aid to the 1754 Massachusetts Slave Census.
For many men and women who lived as slaves, all we know of them are epitaphs inscribed on gravestones. But sometimes, there are records available at local, state and federal institutions that allow us to describe them in a way that allows us to better imagine what their lives were like. Read the story of Salem Poor as an extraordinary example. For a great model on how one might go about doing this for others, see Christine Comiskey’s research on Cuffee Dole.
We began with outreach to Essex and Middlesex counties, but have since expanded our search to the state of Massachusetts (as well as Maine as it was part of Massachusetts before 1820). Help add to the list of slave gravestones by city or town. If you know of slave gravestones in your area, please let us know. We are looking for photos as well as transcribed inscriptions. Feel free to use the list of questions to the right as a guide.