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Celebrating New England Black History

New England black history offers some of the most inspirational and sobering insights into the region. The New England Historical Society has written about some of them. For Black History Month, we bring together short descriptions and links to some of the most popular stories we’ve published over the past year and a half.

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Black kings dancing

Black kings dancing

Black Kings and Governors

One month after Selma, Martin Luther King, Jr., led 22,000 civil rights marchers through the streets of Boston. He was amazed such a march could happen in the city where he had formed his philosophy of non-violent resistance and met his wife. (Read more about his time in the city he considered his second home.)

Dr. King was by no means the first black leader in New England, nor was he the first to overcome tremendous obstacles.

There were at least 31 black kings and governors in the region between 1750 and 1850. African-American communities selected their own leaders when white people gathered for election day. It was a way to express pride in their African heritage, a rehearsal for their role as free civic participants and a way to establish an informal government and a social order over which the black king or black governor was magistrate, spokesman, negotiator and leader. Read more about the Black Kings and Governors of Early New England.

Paul Cuffe of Westport, Mass., was a wealthy mixed-race Quaker who decided Americans of color would never achieve equality with white Americans. He embraced the new Back-to-Africa movement, and in 1815 brought 38 black Americans to Freetown, Sierra Leone. He was also the first free African-American to meet with a U.S. president. Read more about Paul Cuffe's extraordinary life here.

Slavery

From the Mettatuck Museum's Fortune's Story Exhibit. Fortune as he may have looked in life. Painted by William Westwood, a medical illustrator, based on Fortune's skeleton.

From the Mettatuck Museum's Fortune's Story Exhibit. Fortune as he may have looked in life. Painted by William Westwood, a medical illustrator, based on Fortune's skeleton.

A tragic aspect of New England black history is that more than 10,000 African-Americans were enslaved around the time of the American Revolution. Fortune was one of them. He was bonded to a doctor in Waterbury, Conn., who used his body as a scientific specimen after Fortune died in 1798. Two hundred years later, the people of Connecticut gave Fortune a proper burial.

Venture Smith, a six-year-old African prince, was captured by an invading tribe around 1735 and sold as a slave to a Rhode Island ship steward. Read how Former Slave Venture Smith Tells the Story of His Capture in Africa at Age 6. During the 60 years he lived in the United States he worked hard and bought his freedom. He bought his family’s freedom. And he bought the freedom of several other slaves. In 1798, he was a prosperous farmer in East Haddam, Conn., who dictated the story of his life.

Ona Judge Staines was a 20-year-old slave who outwitted George Washington and escaped to Portsmouth, N.H. After she slipped out of the President's House in Philadelphia, Washington found out where she was. He tried to get her back.  He enlisted the help of family, friends and local officials, using persuasion, threats and finally attempted kidnapping.

Lewis Hayden became a leader of the abolitionist movement in Boston after escaping slavery from a Kentucky plantation. As a boy, he didn't know he was worthy of respect until the Marquis de Lafayette, traveling through the state on his tour of the new country, tipped his hat to him.

‘Treat us like men, and there is no danger but we will all live in peace and happiness together.’ So beseeched David Walker in his stirring call to resist slavery, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World and Expressly to the Coloured Citizens of the United States. It is popularly known as David Walker’s Appeal. David Walker was a Boston clothing store owner who wrote a pamphlet in 1824 that caused as much commotion – possibly more – than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Read how Walker distributed his incendiary pamphlet – and the danger he faced -- here.

Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in Maryland and settled in New Bedford, Mass. In 1845,  published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, and it received so much publicity his friends urged him to flee the country. He had put himself in danger by naming the names of people who abused him, with places and dates. On Aug. 16, 1845, he set sail for Ireland. While overseas, he wrote a letter to his friend William Lloyd Garrison, venting about his former master. Read what he said here.

Fighting for Freedom

Soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

Soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

African-Americans fought against slavery during the Civil War as part of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, dramatized in the film Glory. One year after the regiment's African-American soldiers marched through Boston Common past cheering crowds, they soldiers had not been paid. They were promised the same pay as white soldiers: $13 a month, clothing and rations. The War Department paid them only $10, and took $3 out for clothing. The soldiers decided if they could not receive equal pay, they would accept no pay. For 18 months they fought without receiving any wages, while their impoverished families suffered.

Henry Monroe was the regiment’s 13-year-old drummer boy who directed maneuvers for the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry Regiment during the ill-fated attack on Fort Wagner. He became a Methodist minister who published his Civil War recollections in the weekly church bulletin.

African-American soldiers served in the Continental Army as well. Find out how many here.

Black Athletes

Integrating Major League baseball was just one of the challenges facing Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ great second baseman. Buying a house in Connecticut’s white suburbs was another. Read how Jackie Robinson bought a house for his family in Stamford, Conn., here.

Twelve years after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers, Pumpsie Green broke the color barrier for the Boston Red Sox. Read about his emotional first at-bat here.

Harrison B. Fitch was a standout UConn basketball player, the first African-American to play on the team. Read how he held his head high in 1934 before a hostile opposing team here.

Pumpsie Green, left, with Boston Red Sox, manager Billy Jurges

Pumpsie Green with Boston Red Sox manager Billy Jurges. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 championship victories. He brought such intensity to the fame that he often threw up beforehand. Before one big game, coach Red Auerbach wouldn’t let the team practice until they’d heard Russell vomit in the bathroom. Read more about the Celtics’ star player here.

Education and The Arts

In 1772, a group of prominent Bostonians was asked to attest to the authenticity of a collection of the poems of Phillis Wheatley.  Governor Thomas Hutchinson and Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, seven ministers – 17 people in all – investigated the poet and swore that Phillis Wheatley had written the poems she claimed.

Connecticut native Ann Petry wrote a bestselling novel in 1946 acclaimed as a masterpiece and the first book by an African-American woman to sell more than 1 million copies. Critics called The Street a ‘black protest’ novel. One critic called it ‘the most powerful protest novel authored by a black woman.' Ann Petry rejected those labels. She wrote other novels and short stories that sought a more ‘universal and introspective tone.’

Alexander Twilight, a Vermonter from birth, was the first black man in America ever to receive a college degree. Researchers believe his father was Ichabod Twilight, a soldier who served in the Revolutionary War representing Warner, N.H. Today, a building at Middlebury College bears Twilight’s name and his achievements, thanks largely to his own determination and character, are still celebrated to this day.

Sissieretta Jones

Sissieretta Jones

Sissieretta Jones, who grew up in Providence, broke the color barrier in opera during the 19th century. Read why she refused to wear makeup to disguise her race here.

Marian Anderson had a rich contralto voice that was heard 'once in a hundred years,' according to Arturo Toscanini. Born Feb. 27, 1897, she rose from a poor childhood in South Philadelphia to acquire international fame and the warmth of a community in Danbury, Conn. She sang one of the most extraordinary concerts in history before the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939.

When Edward Bannister of Providence stepped to the stage at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition to accept a bronze medal for his monumental painting Under the Oaks, he sent shock waves through the crowd that watched. They did not expect to see a black man.

On April 19, 1859, Harriet Wilson copyrighted a copy of her novel and depositied it in the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. Our Nig Or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House was the name of the novel. It was the first ever published by an African American on the North American continent. In it, Harriet Wilson told her own story: of her mother’s abandonment, of her indentured servitude to a cruel mistress, of her eventual decision to fight for herself.

Over the coming year, look for more stories about New England black history.

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