Celebrating Black History in the Bedford Archives

February 13, 2023

~Submitted by Bedford Town Archivist Ashley Large 

I was conversing with a co-worker recently and the subject of Black History Month came up.  We were discussing how to honor the theme of the month when she said, “Black History is American History.”  

This resonated so clearly with me – it was so obviously true.  Somehow, I had not settled on it before. It made me think of the history of Bedford and how Black citizens had contributed to the historical narrative throughout the town’s nearly three centuries of existence.

Let’s go back to the beginning and gain some historical perspective on the Black experience in Massachusetts. Chattel slavery affecting Black people existed in New England from the early years of European settlement.  

Between 1755 and 1764, it is estimated that 2.2 percent of the population was enslaved. These were individuals of African and Indigenous descent.  

Massachusetts abolished slavery over time, as legal action and case law were established to set the stage for ending this unjust institution. Finally, in 1783, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that slavery was incompatible with the new state’s constitution. This meant that there would be no further legal protection of slavery and, although it did not explicitly free slaves, it had that effect.  By the time of the first American census in 1790, Massachusetts was the only state to claim zero enslaved persons.

With this in mind, I went to the records vault to find documentation of Black history in Bedford.  I was not disappointed. One instance stuck out.  

In 1791, the town was divided into sectors (called “classes”) for the purpose of hiring soldiers.  A chairman was appointed in each sector and after recruiting able-bodied men to serve, he made a report of his success to the Selectmen (now Select Board). As it was recorded, Captain John Moore hired a Black man by the name of Cambridge to continue to serve in the army for an additional three years. Cambridge was given 20 head of three-year-old horned cattle for his service. This same bounty was given to another Black man hired by Lieutenant Moses Abbott.  Most likely, these were not the only Black men in Bedford to answer the call of duty.

This Bedford register from 1791 lists Black men who joined the Army. Courtesy photo from the Town of Bedford archives

If recorded history is correct, Cambridge and his compatriot were freemen when they signed up to serve in the military. Perhaps they owned land on which to keep their cattle and grow their families. Despite the fact that they were not granted the same rights as White men including voting privileges, they joined the nation’s military.

It begs the question – why did they do that if they were not given the full rights and dignities of any White male citizen under the law? It is possibly indicative of their desire to support the young nation that they called home, despite these limitations. It is definitely likely that they wanted to establish themselves just like any other man. They deserved to be just as prosperous and successful as any other Bedford farmer. Without a doubt, they wanted to be recognized as human beings. They are part of the town’s narrative. Black history is Bedford history.

Fast forward nearly 200 years. Bedford becomes a well-established municipality growing with new roads, new schools, and new businesses. Things are on the upswing, aren’t they? Perhaps the picture is more nuanced.  

In 1975, Concerned Black Citizens of Bedford was founded. Its purpose was to “raise funds for recognized charities, education assistance for Blacks and other minority groups, and to serve as an instrument through which financial aid, comfort and support may be channeled to needy minority families.” 

Further emphasis was put on finding beneficial activities and resources in the area by which CBCB could render services or benefits. Clearly, there were societal issues to be confronted and mediated, in addition to a bit of community building, in Bedford. 

Although not affiliated with town government, CBCB repeatedly makes an appearance in Bedford’s archives, mostly within the annual town reports. 

In 1976, group members requested information on Bedford’s history from the Town Historian, which was published in her report that year. Most likely, they wanted to immerse themselves in the town’s past when they would be helping to steer its future.  

When CBCB chair James Holloway passed away in 1992, he was eulogized in a memorial resolution at town meeting. Not only was Mr. Holloway a member of Concerned Black Citizens, he was also an active participant on town committees and organized the library’s annual Black History display.  

From 2006 to 2014, CBCB participated in Memorial Day ceremonies to honor Bedford’s dead at the Old Burying Ground. Over time, Concerned Black Citizens of Bedford members have helped to weave the town’s narrative into a stunning tapestry. Just like Cambridge in 1791, they desire to make better lives for themselves. They seek to do so through organized activity that has left its mark on the town.  

Black History is Bedford History.   

This is the second in a series of articles by Bedford Town Archivist Ashley Large. She shares some of the interesting items that are in the town’s archives.

[1] History of Slavery in Massachusetts.  Wikipedia, accessed Feb. 10, 2023 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_slavery_in_Massachusetts

[1] “Two Generations Reflect on the Evolution of Bedford’s Black History.” The Bedford Citizen, Feb. 24, 2021www.thebedfordcitizen.org/2021/02/two-generations-reflect-on-the-evolution-of-bedfords-black-history/

[1] “Articles of Organization” Concerned Black Citizens of Bedford, Inc., Feb. 21, 1975 [1] Annual town reports can be found online at: www.bedfordma.gov/277/Archives-Virtual-Reading-Room

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