The end of slavery in Massachusetts rests with the court cases of two enslaved people: Mum Bett and Quok Walker. While both individals are discussed in the Salem State University course that we support during the summer, it is the Quok Walker case that we are most excited to revisit next year.
For the 2019 iteration of the class, Dr. Bethany Jay and I changed the focus of the course to look at the “long” nineteenth century through the lens of African-Americans and archaeology. This decision was made so that the class could better support history educators as they navigate new changes to the Massachusetts Frameworks.
Part of the process of examining the nineteenth century and it’s impact on the experiences of African Americans through events like the Civil War and Reconstruction, is to better understand specific events prior to 1800, and Quok Walker’s legal case is one of the most important.
Most people do not realize that Massachusetts was the first colony to create laws legalizing slavery. The economy of Massachusetts and New England was heavily dependent on West Indian slavery; enslaving native people in New England and importing Africans into the colony was common practice in the 1700s as well. It was not until the American Revolution, when enslaved people began using the colonists’ language demanding freedom from England, that the legality of slavery changed in Massachusetts.
In 1781, Quok Walker ran away from Nathaniel Jennison to a farm owned by Seth and John Caldwell. After Jennison and others captured and beat Walker, he used the legal system to prove his freedom. This is because his original owner had promised to free Walker.
Over the course of the three trials, it was declared that Walker was in fact “a Freeman and not the proper Negro slave” and the state Supreme Court also found that the state’s Constitution was not compatible with the institution of slavery. These decisions, while not codifying the abolishment of slavery into state law, made slavery legally untenable in the state. Thus, Massachusetts, the first state to allow slavery, became the first to legally end it.
With the change in focus for the Salem State University class, we added new partners, including Ellen Berkland, archaeologist for the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). While working with Berkland regarding the DCR property Camp Meigs – which is the place outside of Boston where the African American Mass 54th regiment was encamped before fighting in the Civil War – she informed Dr. Jay and I that DCR had a property that was related to the life of Walker and proposed that we might bring our 2020 class to dig at the site.
And to say that Dr. Jay and I were excited would be an understatement! Why? Because that is the land that Quok Walker lived on after he gained his freedom. The idea that we might be able to find objects that are connected to him and could help historians and others better understand his life is an exhilarating opportunity!