The Hard-to-Find History of Slavery in Bedford

Town Historian Sharon McDonald tells people about the Blacks buried in The Old Bury Ground. Staff photo by Wayne Braverman

This is the speech given by Bedford Town Historian Sharon McDonald at the Juneteenth ceremony on June 19, 2023 outside at the First Parish Bedford on the Bedford Common:

Here is a riddle:

How many slaves were freed in Bedford on Juneteenth 1865?

None, because there were no slaves in Bedford, of course! The Massachusetts Constitution, which was passed in 1783, had implied, and court cases proved, that slavery was illegal in Massachusetts.

The only African Americans in Bedford during the Civil War were the Grant Family, who had moved here – by way of Boston from Maryland, most probably to escape slavery. They stayed in Bedford just a few years, free and making their living as farmers. But soon after the war ended, they returned south.

Another riddle:

Which was the first colony to make slavery legal?

Virginia? 

No. It was the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The law dates from 1649 and was called the “Body of Liberties.”

There shall never be any bond-slavery, villenage, or captivity amongst us, unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves, or are sold to us.

 So Bedfordians were not disobeying the law when they bought African Americans at a slave market down in Boston – or from their Bedford neighbor. 

The Bedford Historical Society has the actual 1756 bill of sale for a five-year-old child named Jeffree. For the sum of 24 pounds, ownership of the child passed from Joseph Fitch to Joseph Hartwell. I want to add that as an adult, Jeffree moved to Dracut and took the name Jesse Freeman.

My research has found that at various times during the years between 1690 and 1775, about 30 African Americans lived here in the place we call Bedford. Almost of all them were enslaved. Their owners were wealthy and prominent people – the Lanes, the Pages, the Fitches, the Hartwells – even the minister, Rev. Nicholas Bowes, held a slave – a young woman named Nanne. Their wealth and prominence stemmed in part from being able to do “more important things” than menial work.

I don’t mean to point my finger at certain people. I mean to say, that there was slavery in Bedford and it was not hidden from anyone. But now, most of the remembered history of Bedford skips right over it. It was very hard for me to find anything at all.

I do know a few of their names. Three of the African Americans who fought in the American Revolution are named on a memorial stone in the Old Burying Ground: Caesar Prescott, Cambridge Moore, and Caesar Jones.

We’re about to go and lay flowers on that stone. As we do, let us remember the others beneath our feet – the men and women and children who have become one with the ground in the African Reservation:

Nanne. Quimby. Dinah. Jack. Torrey. Cyrus. Cuff. Tony. Ishmael. Abraham. Violet. Pomp…and all the people whose names have been lost. 

We vow to remember. 

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Brian Hart
June 24, 2023 7:08 am

Thanks Sharon for this interesting and important research

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