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Black Walden

Elise Lemire discovers a local history of slavery in the freethinking capital of nineteenth-century America.

By Craig Lambert | HUMANITIES, September/October 2010 | Volume 31, Number 5

The leafy, affluent town of Concord, Massachusetts, holds a unique place in the national imagination. Many call it the birthplace of liberty: There, after Paul Revere’s ride, the minutemen engaged British troops on April 19, 1775, an occasion reenacted each year on Patriots’ Day, a state holiday. Native son Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” written in 1837, famously declares, “Here, the embattled farmers stood, / And fired the shot heard round the world.” In Emerson’s own time, he and his fellow Transcendentalists arguably built the intellectual foundations of liberalism in the United States, promoting free thought, self-determination, and the questioning of established authority. No American commands higher stature as an independent thinker—and as a seminal figure in the environmental movement—than Concordian Henry David Thoreau, whose cabin site at Walden Pond, which attracts five hundred thousand visitors from around the world each year, has reached iconic status. Yet few of us realize that Concord, the wellspring of freedom, was also a slave town.

In Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Elise Lemire (rhymes with sheer), a literature professor at Purchase College of the State University of New York, describes an aspect of Concord’s history that most accounts have overlooked.

In the eighteenth century, slave holding was common among Concord’s wealthier citizens—a badge of social status no more unusual than a swimming pool or guesthouse might be today. “It was part of the equipage of being a gentleman,” Lemire says. “A rich father would give his son a slave as a gift.” Slave labor not only allowed landowners to cultivate large farms, but gave professionals like ministers and doctors the free time to write sermons or develop a medical practice.

To be sure, slavery was not integral to the Northern economy, as it was in the South. In Concord, slaves never made up more than 2 to 3 percent of the local population, and by 1800, the practice had generally disappeared. But Lemire’s painstaking research into old county records, supported by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, revealed that more than twice as many slaves lived in eighteenth-century Concord than scholars had previously believed. She tallied thirty-two just before the Revolution, as opposed to thirteen counted on a much-cited 1771 valuation list. Furthermore, the town’s free inhabitants then unanimously accepted the institution of slavery and helped maintain it—for example, questioning a slave if there was any reason to suspect that he or she might be a runaway. Once, when one slave did make a break for freedom, virtually the entire town took part in the chase to hunt him down.

Perhaps it required an outlier like Henry David Thoreau to keep alive the memory of Concord’s enslaved residents. In a passage from Walden, Thoreau sets down some fragmentary knowledge about three local slaves—Cato Ingraham, Brister Freeman, and Zilpah White. Lemire makes these three paragraphs her epigraph. “The whole book is a gloss to explain this passage in Walden,” she says. “I started by pulling on the threads Thoreau gave me.” His famous cabin in the woods, in fact, was built in a black part of town—once freed, many local slaves had been forced onto Concord’s worst farmland, the wooded area surrounding Walden Pond. “Thoreau knew he was moving into the part of town where all the social outcasts lived,” Lemire explains. “And when he heard stories of former slaves, he wrote them down.”

One such former slave, Brister Freeman, is the hero of Black Walden. He was named with a diminutive form of Bristol, after the English slave-trading port, whose ships plied routes to both Africa and the West Indies. Black Walden’s other main protagonist is Colonel John Cuming, a wealthy landholder and doctor in Concord who was Brister Freeman’s master for twenty-five years, having received the nine-year-old slave boy as a wedding present from his father-in-law. Cuming was such an eminent Concord citizen that long after his death, the town declared holidays in his honor.

Ironically, history has reversed the two men’s positions. “Unlike Brister Freeman, whose name survives in Walden the book and at Walden the place, where a hill [Brister’s Hill] bears his name,” Lemire writes, “John Cuming has been largely forgotten.” His large estate was broken up long ago and is now the site of a state prison; Cuming’s mansion house is a prison office building. The Cuming name survives only on a local medical building.

Yet the two men’s lives were so intimately intertwined that Lemire suggests it is “more than coincidental” that the ex-slave who established the highest profile in Concord grew to adulthood as the property of the town’s leading patriarch. Freeman, who served alongside Cuming in the Revolutionary War, had acquired a wide range of farming and survival skills while managing the Cuming estate during his master’s numerous absences, and likely learned a good deal about local politics by watching Cuming rule the town of Concord. Though many liberated slaves continued to live on their masters’ estates as paid servants (their options being few), Freeman, who took his telling surname after gaining his liberty during the Revolution, instead managed to buy and farm an acre of “lousy, sandy soil” near Walden so that he could marry and have children. “He was harassed all the time,” Lemire says, “but he never gave up. I see why Thoreau saw him as heroic.”

Another form of heroism was that of Zilpah White, who, with no money to buy land or seed, squatted near Walden Pond and managed to survive alone for forty years. “People talked of her as a witch,” Lemire says. “Zilpah had her garden, spun linen, kept chickens, and probably bartered. Once, one of Thoreau’s friends went ice fishing and heard her singing in her house—he stopped and gave her a fish.” Zilpah’s cabin was not unlike Thoreau’s, but she “was forced to go one step further than even Henry ever did,” Lemire writes, “because she had only the thin strip by the side of the road on which to squat. She used her one room as both her residence and her barn. She housed not only her dogs and cats in her ‘hut,’ as one local resident called her home, but her hens as well.”

At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the slave-owners who became eminent citizens often could do so because their unpaid help was raising the food and taking care of the necessities of life. It wasn’t always wealth that made a Concord slave-owner. The thing that made it most likely, Lemire discovered, was being a professional—a minister, a lawyer, a doctor. In the eighteenth century, the minister was the most important person in town, and an eminence like the Rev. William Emerson, grandfather of Ralph Waldo, could leave his Concord home in August 1776 to serve as chaplain to the Continental troops at Ticonderoga and write his wife from there with a long list of farm chores for their slave, Frank. “Having Frank is what allowed William Emerson to be a Patriot,” Lemire explains.

Notwithstanding Samuel Johnson’s remark, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” the Patriots of Concord appeared to feel no conflict between their own struggles for freedom and their acceptance of slave labor from blacks. The slaves themselves, however, were keenly aware of the political tensions between the colonists and the British, and sometimes exploited those divisions. For example, Concord slave Luck Russell testified against his Loyalist owner in a politically charged case, hoping that the Patriots would protect him, and he intentionally became a nuisance to his master.

A slave might also expose his master to the British as a Patriot. “They [slaves] began to make it clear to their owners that in the midst of this political chaos, ‘We are not going to make things any better for you,’” Lemire says. “‘We are going to make ourselves a liability—so it would be in your best interest to abandon us.’ And that’s what ended up happening: They were abandoned; they weren’t emancipated. And the fact that they were so impoverished for generations—living on the worst land in town, with terrible mortality rates among their children and grandchildren—is because they were abandoned. I talk about them being ‘abandoned to their freedom.’”

The freedom for which Concord is most famous is the kind that Emerson and Thoreau embodied and championed: inner freedom. Lemire grew up in Lincoln, a town next to Concord—she and Brister Freeman were christened in the same church, and she admires the Transcendentalist legacy but wants to fill out our picture of Concord’s past. “We need to know that Walden was a black space before it was a green space,” she says.

There’s now a local organization, the Drinking Gourd Project, working to raise awareness of Concord’s African and abolitionist history. The group has recently published the first tourist map that shows where former slaves and prominent abolitionists lived, and hopes eventually to create an iPod tour of the town.

One house built by a slave, the Caesar Robbins house, still stands in Concord. Thanks to an intensive educational effort by the Drinking Gourd Project, the town has purchased the house and will move it to the Old North Bridge area, where it will become a museum and educational center. “The beautiful thing about this is that when tourists get off the bus and visit this place that says, ‘Concord is the birthplace of freedom,’ that other piece of the story—which is the American story!—will be there. You will be able to experience all this in one place,” says Lemire. “And for Walden Woods, my goal is that someday, people will come there and say, ‘This is nice, that you can show me the location of Thoreau’s cabin—but I’d also like to see where Brister Freeman lived.’”

Craig Lambert is deputy editor of Harvard Magazine.

Elise Lemire, a literature professor at Purchase College of the State University of New York, received $45,000 in NEH support for her research on Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts.