Friday, November 2, 2007

They Didn't Teach Us This At The Agassiz School

Growing up in Jamaica Plain, local history meant Lexington and Concord, and a trip to the Freedom Trail in Boston. I suspect that events of the first half of the 20th century had just overwhelmed the memory of the city and the community. And needless to say, no one wants to put skeletons out of the closet and parade them about. And then comes the Intergoogle, which ruthlessly exposes all sores and scars.

The following is an excerpt from Drake's history of Roxbury. I have a particular interest in the list. As I began looking into the history of Jamaica Plain, I enjoyed finding the origins of street names. Since I lived for 10 years on little Brewer street, I was naturally curious about who Brewer was. It turns out that a Brewer was one of the earliest settlers of the town of Roxbury, and an Abagail Brewer left land to support the Elliot School. Later, Capt. Charles Brewer owned a house on land that became the start of the Arborway and Prince street near Jamaica Pond. In 1914, a Joseph Brewer owned a house and nursery on Centre street between Greenough and Harris avenues.

After I had found all of the previous Brewer information, I found this casual mention in Drake's book.

The Town of Roxbury

Francis S. Drake


Some wealthy families had colored servants who were slaves: most households, however, had hired "help", American girls or men who lived on terms of equality with the family. The signatures of the principal slave-owners in Roxbury are attached to the following petition:

"Roxbury, February 28, 1789. Whereas it hath been too much the unhappy practice of the negro servents of this town to be abroad in the night at unreasonable hours to y great prejudice of many persons and familys as well as their respective masters, the petitioners pray that it may be prevented or punished.

Edward Ruggles
John Holbrook
James Jarvis
Noah Perin, Jr.
Ebenezer Dorr
Nathaniel Brewer
John Williams
Ebenezer Weld
Ebenezer Gore
Thomas Baker
Jonathan Seaver
Joseph Williams"

Most of those men probably lived in Roxbury proper, but Weld and Brewer were probably among those who settled in what is now Jamaica Plain. This isn't the first reference to slaves in Jamaica Plain, but I haven't seen this source cited before. Slavery in Massachusetts certainly did get swept under the rug until recent years. That's a shame. History is much more interesting when you get the whole story.

*** Correction: Slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts in the early 1780s, so by this time, the negroes would not be slaves. I think we can assume, however, that they probably had been slaves up until emancipation, and probably worked for the same men. It would take some deep digging and a lot of luck to determine this, so maybe we'll never know.

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