Remembering the Meaning of Juneteenth and The Early History of Blacks in Bedford

June 19, 2023

The First Parish in Bedford Unitarian Universalist hosted an informal gathering on Monday morning to commemorate Juneteenth. The outdoor ceremony included readings, music, and a message from Town Historian Sharon McDonald, who briefly talked about the history of slavery in Bedford.

On June 19, 1865, the day that the end of slavery was announced in Texas, the last state to acknowledge slavery and the end of the Civil War, there were no slaves in Massachusetts. Slavery was declared illegal here in 1783, although the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first to make slavery legal, which it did in 1649 with the “Body of Liberties” law.

McDonald said that there is not much in the town records about slavery. The Bedford Historical Society has a bill of sale from 1756 of a five-year-old child named Jeffree being sold by Joseph Fitch to Joseph Hartwell for 24 pounds. Jeffree later fought in the American Revolution. Then, as a free man, he changed his name to Jessie Freeman and moved to Dracut.

McDonald acknowledged that her research found that at various times between 1690 and 1775, “about 30 African Americans lived here in the place we call Bedford. Almost all of them were enslaved,” noting “their owners were wealthy and prominent people.” 

Among the owners was Rev. Nicholas Bowes, who “owned” a woman named Nanne. A plaque with her name on it resides in the First Parish sanctuary. To find more about Nanne and Rev. Bowes, read this story from The Bedford Citizen at https://thebedfordcitizen.org/2020/02/black-history-and-first-parish-on-bedford-common-nannes-life-matters.

During Monday’s ceremony, people were invited to share their thoughts on Juneteenth. Dorothy Africa read “Ode to Moore, Prescott, and Jones,” written by Bedford’s first METCO Director Irene P. Parker in 1976.

People then walked to the African Reservation in the Old Burying Ground on Springs Road. Although many are buried there, the only surviving marker is for the three Blacks – Caesar Prescott, Cambridge Moore, and Caesar Jones – who served as soldiers in the American Revolution. Flowers were placed on the grave site.

The ceremony closed with music by violinist Melinda Ballou. 

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Wayne Braverman is the Managing Editor of The Bedford Citizen. He can be reached at [email protected], or 781-430-8837.

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