Magazine article Humanities

Black Walden

Magazine article Humanities

Black Walden

Article excerpt

THE LEAFY, AFFLUENT TOWN OF CONCORD, Massachusetts, holds a unique place in the national imagination. Many call it the birthplace of liberty: There, after Paul Revere's ride, the minutemen engaged British troops on April 19, 1775, an occasion reenacted each year on Patriots' Day, a state holiday. Native son Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concord Hymn," written in 1837, famously declares, "Here, once the embattled farmers stood,/ And fired the shot heard round the world." In Emerson's own rime, he and his fellow Transcendentalism arguably built the intellectual foundations of liberalism in the United States, promoting free thought, self-determination, and the questioning of established authority. No American commands higher stature as an independent thinker - and as a seminal figure in the environmental movement - than Concordian Henry David Thoreau, whose cabin site at Waiden Pond, which attracts five hundred thousand visitors from around the world each year, has reached iconic status. Yet few of us realize that Concord, the wellspring of freedom, was also a slave town.

In Black Waiden: Slavery and its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Elise Lemire (rhymes with s/itvr), a literature professor at Purchase College of the State University of New York, describes an aspect of Concord's history that most accounts have overlooked.

In the eighteenth century, slave holding was common among Concord's wealthier citizens - a badge of social status no more unusual than a swimming pool or guesthouse might be today. "It was part of the equipage of being a gentleman," Lemire says. "A rich father would give his son a slave as a gift." Slave labor not only allowed landowners to cultivate large farms, it also gave professionals like ministers and doctors the free time to write sermons or develop a medical practice.

To be sure, slavery was not integral to the Northern economy, as it was in the South. In Concord, slaves never made up more than 2 to 3 percent of the local population, and by 1800, the practice had generally disappeared. But Lemire's painstaking research into old county records, supported by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, revealed that more than twice as many slaves lived in eighteenth-century Concord than scholars had previously believed. She tallied thirty-two just before the Revolution, as opposed to thirteen counted on a much-cited 1771 valuation list. Furthermore, the town's free inhabitants then unanimously accepted the institution of slavery and helped maintain it - for example, questioning a slave if there was any reason to suspect that he or she might be a runaway. Once, when one slave did make a break for freedom, virtually the entire town took part in the chase to hunt him down.

Perhaps it required an outlier like Henry David Thoreau to keep alive the memory of Concord's enslaved residents. In a passage from Waiden, Thoreau sets down some fragmentary knowledge about three local slaves - Cato Ingraruim, Blister Freeman, and Zilpah White. Lemire makes these three paragraphs her epigraph. "The whole book is a gloss to explain this passage in Wnlden," she says. "I started by pulling on the threads Thoreau gave me." His famous cabin in the woods, in fact, was built in a black part of town - once freed, many local slaves had been forced onto Concord's worst farmland, the wooded area surrounding Waiden Pond. "Thoreau knew he was moving into the part of town where all the social outcasts lived," Lemire explains. "And when he heard stories of former slaves, he wrote them down."

One such former slave, Brister Freeman, is the hero of Black Waiden. He was named with a diminutive form of Bristol, after the English slave-trading port, whose ships plied routes to both Africa and the West Indies. Black Waidcn's other main protagonist is Colonel John Cuming, a wealthy landholder and doctor in Concord who was Brister Freeman's master for twenty-five years, having received the nine-year-old slave boy as a wedding present from his father-in-law. …

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