Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts

Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts

Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts

Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts


Concord, Massachusetts, has long been heralded as the birthplace of American liberty and American letters. It was here that the first military engagement of the Revolutionary War was fought and here that Thoreau came to "live deliberately" on the shores of Walden Pond. Between the Revolution and the settlement of the little cabin with the bean rows, however, Walden Woods was home to several generations of freed slaves and their children. Living on the fringes of society, they attempted to pursue lives of freedom, promised by the rhetoric of the Revolution, and yet withheld by the practice of racism. Thoreau was all but alone in his attempt "to conjure up the former occupants of these woods." Other than the chapter he devoted to them in Walden, the history of slavery in Concord has been all but forgotten.

In Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts, Elise Lemire brings to life the former slaves of Walden Woods and the men and women who held them in bondage during the eighteenth century. After charting the rise of Concord slaveholder John Cuming, Black Walden follows the struggles of Cuming's slave, Brister, as he attempts to build a life for himself after thirty-five years of enslavement. Brister Freeman, as he came to call himself, and other of the town's slaves were able to leverage the political tensions that fueled the American Revolution and force their owners into relinquishing them. Once emancipated, however, the former slaves were permitted to squat on only the most remote and infertile places. Walden Woods was one of them. Here, Freeman and his neighbors farmed, spun linen, made baskets, told fortunes, and otherwise tried to survive in spite of poverty and harassment.

Today Walden Woods is preserved as a place for visitors to commune with nature. Lemire, who grew up two miles from Walden Pond, reminds us that this was a black space before it was an internationally known green space. Black Walden preserves the legacy of the people who strove against all odds to overcome slavery and segregation.


Each year, half a million people visit Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Most come to pay homage to Henry David Thoreau, who for two years lived a quiet, contemplative life in a small cabin he built not far from the pond’s shores. and yet in Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854), his famous account of his experiment in subsistence living, Thoreau asks us to experience the Walden landscape as a rich repository of a long and complicated human history that began well before his arrival in 1845. He devotes the better part of a chapter to a community of former Concord slaves who lived not far from his cabin during the first four decades of the new nation’s existence. Their experiences after emancipation were one reason Thoreau was drawn to live in Walden “Woods himself. He regarded the former slaves’ persistence in the face of isolation and harassment as heroic, and like them he sought to live independently He also enjoyed living in a part of town where, because of its past association with former slaves and other outcasts, few of his white contemporaries chose to linger.

Mary Minot was one of those people who avoided Walden Woods when she could. Her story, which Thoreau uses in Walden, is a good place to start a book that investigates the long-forgotten connection between Walden Woods and Concord’s slave history. Mary was born in Concord six years after her father Ephraim fought the British at Concord’s North Bridge in 1775. While her father could say he helped set in motion one of the great political revolutions in western history, Mary led a relatively quiet life. She never married and lived with her younger brother George and her business partner, Elizabeth Potter, in an unpainted, four-room cottage. George Minot, who also never married, spent his days farming and fishing, rarely venturing from the town . . .

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