In the 1770’s, a man named Case Feen, enslaved in Africa, was chopping wood on a winter’s day for his Concord master. The master’s son pelted him with snowballs as he worked, for fun. Case turned and threw his ax toward the youth, missing. In fear of his life, he took off through Gowings Swamp, a place I pass on my drive into Concord; he ran through the Great Meadows, where I go to bird-watch; and he hid in the shallow waters of the Concord River, where I have skipped stones with my sons; escaping the townsmen who had turned out with guns and dogs in pursuit of a fugitive slave. He gave himself up to a neighbor and slipped away to enlist in the colonial troops – ultimately returning to work in Concord as a freedman, since he had no where else to go and his labor was still needed.
In another story, Brister, a freed slave living in Concord, was never humble enough to find acceptance or even tolerance from his white neighbors, even in his older years. One day, a white man and his friends, decided to test and torment 68-year old Brister, by luring him into a barn with an angry bull, and locking the door shut, leaving him with only an ax for defense. To the men’s surprise, Brister managed to kill the bull and survive, finally emerging through the unlocked door – but “white as a ghost” from his battle, which became the punch-line of the other men’s “joke”-- having turned a black man white from fright, traumatized and silenced for the remainder of his years.
Not every story involving the black population of Concord in its early years is a tragic one, but none is very happy. A young woman, Ellen Garrison Jackson, in spite of discrimination, was a star pupil at the Concord public schools, going on to become an abolitionist before the Civil War, and a teacher to freed men and women after the war, but she left Concord in her late teens, never to return. There was no life for her there. Not long after the Civil war, the small population of black residents in Concord disappeared from the landscape – migrating out, or succumbing to disease and malnourishment, from their lack of ability to own and work viable farmland.
I’ve lived in Bedford, MA, located between Lexington and Concord, for almost 25 years – and am an ardent student of history – there’s hardly a local tour I’ve missed. But, only in recent years have I learned these different versions of their history - through a visit to the Robbins House museum near Concord’s North Bridge battle site, home to black families in the 19th century. And from reading “Black Walden” by hometown author and professor, Elise Lemire – who says she herself was taught nothing of this other history while growing up in Concord. From them, I’ve learned about the lives of people of color who moved here or were brought here, gleaned in large part from a surprising source: the journals of Henry David Thoreau, and “Walden” itself – where Thoreau speculates on former residents – squatters who were allowed only to live on undesirable soil, surviving on the fringes until no more were left.
It’s not just “additional” history that’s come to light, but essential history, that impacts the traditional interpretations. The “freedom” to plot and to act against the royalist government was allowed in part from enslaved, unpaid labor. Abolitionists were willing to upset the social and economic systems of the South, but not to accept people of color as neighbors. And as always, always, we need to “follow the money” of early American prosperity – which in the case of northern businessmen, as well as southerners, was often tied up, one way or another, in the trade of enslaved human beings.