North Enders of African Descent

Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress

North Enders of African Descent

According to the journal kept by John Winthrop, we know that the first Africans were brought to Boston in February of 1638.  During that first decade of Boston's existence, there was certainly no guarantee that it, or the rest of Massachusetts, would survive, let alone thrive.  Emanuel Downing, who migrated to Salem, MA, from England, summarized the need for bringing Africans to Massachusetts in a 1645 letter to John Winthrop, his brother-in-law.  The letter said, in part:

“… If upon a Just war the Lord should deliver them [Native Americans] into our hands, we might easily have men women and children enough to exchange for Moores [Africans], which will be more gainful pillage for us than we conceive, for I do not see how we can thrive until we get into a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business, for our children’s children will hardly see this great Continent filled with people, so that our servants will still desire freedom to plant for themselves, and not stay but for very great wages.  And I suppose you know very well how we shall maintain 20 Moores cheaper than one English servant.”

Downing and Winthrop knew that if Massachusetts were to survive in the Atlantic economy, which Crispus Attucksincluded western Europe and Africa as well as eastern portions of North and South America and the Caribbean, then the young colony would have to purchase an unpaid labor force so as to be competitive.  Downing explained that the New World was so large that the Puritans would never have enough descendants to fill it up, and without people to work the land, it was not quite so valuable.  In addition, any white servants or slaves brought from Europe would certainly want to get their own land in the vast wilderness of North America, unless they were paid very high wages.  Therefore, the Puritans of Massachusetts concluded, slavery would need to become an integral part of their economy.

However, slavery was not always a lifetime condition in Massachusetts, and, furthermore, people of color did not lose their rights as persons before the law.  As a consequence, there are free people of color in the historical records living in and around Boston as early as the 1650s.  According to historians, genealogists, and diarists of the 19th and 20th centuries, many of these free Africans, as well as some enslaved individuals and families, created a settlement in the least desirable part of the North End:  Copp’s Hill, facing Charlestown.

Colonial Bostonians who had a choice did not live on hills in general.  Copp’s Hill was not only steep and far the front of the North End (North Square and the harbor), but it also had wind and water mills, busy ferry traffic, and a burying ground.  These undesirable qualities left it open for other individuals and institutions not entirely welcomed in the main areas of the town, including the First Baptist Church in Boston and, most likely, the earliest black community in Boston.

We have not yet found any contemporary records (i.e. from the 1600s through the 1770s) that state exactly where the black community in Boston was located in colonial times.  Obviously this creates an interesting opportunity for further research.