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Contact: Archaeology


It is impossible to understand the colonization of New England without including slavery. By the time Puritan settlers established Boston in 1630, Europeans had been enslaving Indigenous Americans and Africans for more than a century. After 1492, the Spanish began enslaving Native people to mine gold and silver, farm, and construct settlements. As European brutality and disease destroyed Indigenous communities in the decades following contact with the Americas, colonizers began looking far and wide for new sources of labor.

Spanish slavers raided as far north as what is today New England to capture more Native people. Meanwhile, the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English turned to Africa, purchasing captives. They sold them to the Spanish and trafficked them to their own colonies to produce valuable crops like sugar and tobacco. 

The Spanish brought the first enslaved Africans to what became the United States when they colonized Florida in the 1560s and in 1619, African slaves arrived in the English colony of Virginia. 

The Puritans who settled Boston were part of this wider world of colonization and enslavement. They understood slavery and its usefulness from the moment they arrived in New England. Shortly after arriving, Puritan colonists chose to purchase and enslave other human beings.

Boston is part of the traditional homelands of the Massachusett Tribe. Early English invaders took members of local Native nations including Massachusett, Wampanoag, and Nipmuc into service for their abilities to communicate and navigate within Native spaces. Prior to 1700, most enslaved people in Boston were Native.  By the 1690s, most New England colonies had banned Native slavery and replaced captive Native workers with enslaved Africans.

This exhibit confronts Boston’s role in slavery through stories, documents, and objects. It reveals the lives of individual enslaved people: the persistence of their community, their fight for freedom, and how the struggle for freedom continues today. 

It explores how laws and policies in Boston helped create and maintain the institution of slavery, how most Bostonians directly benefited from and were complicit in slavery and how many residents of Boston still experience the aftereffects and legacy of slavery today.

View of the Middle Passage marker overlooking Boston Harbor

The Middle Passage Marker was erected in 2020 at the end of Long Wharf to mark the place where ships carrying enslaved individuals landed. One side looks out to sea, while the other looks down State Street toward a location where people were bought and sold as property.


Contact: Archaeology


In the 1620s, English colonists began to enslave Native people in and around Boston. Later, English colonists captured and enslaved Native people during the Pequot War (1636-1638) and King Philip’s War (1675-1676).

Enslaved Native people worked in households, farms, and various industries. English colonists also trafficked many captured Native people to places as far away as the Azores, Barbados, Bermuda, Jamaica, and Madagascar. There are still descendants of these Native people living in the Caribbean today.

In July 1637, Captain William Peirce sailed the Desire from Boston with 17 enslaved people from the Pequot Nation, including 15 children, eventually selling the enslaved Pequots in the Caribbean. In February 1638, the Desire returned to Boston carrying cotton, tobacco, and the first recorded arrival of enslaved Africans.

“We sent fifteen of the boys and two of the women to Bermuda, by Mr. Pierce…Mr. Pierce, in the Salem ship, the Desire, returned from the West Indies after seven months…and brought some cotton, and tobacco, and negroes, etc., from thence” Governor John Winthrop’s Journal, 1637-1638


The 17th century gravestone of William Paddy

William Paddy's 1658 gravestone is the oldest marker in the oldest cemetery in Boston: King's Chapel Burying Ground. Paddy enslaved an unnamed Black man who may have arrived in 1637 on the Desire. Many enslaved people were buried in downtown Boston's historic burying grounds, but if any had gravestones, none survive. 

The Desire’s voyage began a cycle of trafficking local Native people to the West Indies where they were sold as slaves in exchange for African captives and other goods.

Prominent townspeople of Boston and the surrounding area enslaved many members of the Pequot Nation. Governor John Winthrop enslaved Wincombone and her children as domestic servants and messengers

Wincombone was the wife of Pequot Sachem (leader) Mononnotton and known for her patience, intelligence, compassion, and diplomacy.  Following the Fairfield Swamp Fight during the Pequot War of 1636, English colonists captured Wincombone and her children. 

A 1638 etching of the Mystic Massacre showing a circular palisade surrounding the Native settlement and fighting between the inhabitants and English and Native attackers.

1638 etching of the 1637 attack on a fortified Pequot village at Mystic Connecticut by English and allied Native forces. The attack killed over 400 Pequot men women and children in less than an hour. There were reports of only 12 survivors of the village, including 5 people who successfully escaped and 7 Pequot who were taken captive and likely enslaved.

Silhouette of a Native woman in traditional clothing holding an infant in her arms



Close-up of a roughly triangular Native projectile point made from Lynn rhyolite, a deep reddish stone with white veins and phenocrysts.

This stone tool was found under Faneuil Hall during archaeological excavations. Its form suggests it is between 400-1000 years old, and it is made from stone found naturally in Lynn, north of Boston. This tool was likely made and used by a member of the Massachusett Tribe, the holders of the place we now call Boston.

Native people were first to be enslaved in Boston.

By 1700, there were more than 1000 enslaved Africans and Natives living in New England. Over the next six decades, the enslaved population grew dramatically and became overwhelmingly African. Between the 1630s and the 1760s, more than 17,000 enslaved Africans arrived in New England.

During Metacomb’s Rebellion (King Philip’s War) of 1675, English settlers captured and enslaved more Native people from the Massachusett, Wampanoag, and Nipmuc nations.

Before 1700, most enslaved people in Boston were Native American.

A 19th century engraving of the silhouette of Captain Paul Cuffee over an image of a sailing ship surrounded by palm and other trees with the date 1812 below.

Engraved for Abrm. L. Pennock by Mason & Maas., From a drawing by John Pole, M.D., of Bristol, Eng., Library of Congress.

Many Native enslaved people maintained connections to their nations despite their status.

Paul Cuffee and Crispus Attucks both had Wampanoag and Black parents. Enslaved Black men outnumbered enslaved Black women in Boston 3 to 2 resulting in many children born from Native and Black couples. Cuffee found ways to use his Native and Black heritage to find wealth and success as a ship captain and merchant. Attucks, a sailor, was the first person killed during the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1775.


A speculative portrait of Crispus Attucks

Speculative portrait of Crispus Attucks. Artist unknown. 

19th century depiction of the events of the Boston Massacre in 1775 emphasizing the death of Crispus Attucks, a Black and Wampanoag man.

A 19th century depiction of the death of Crispus Attucks during the Boston Massacre


Photo showing the Boston Massacre site marker. It is a circle of pavers embedded in the sidewalk surrounded by a brass ring bearing the text "Site of the Boston Massacre March 5, 1770"

The Boston Massacre Site Marker is located at the intersection of State and Congress Streets, near the approximate location of the violent confrontation.


Contact: Archaeology

When the English colonized the place we now call Boston, they enslaved members of local Native nations. The first ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived in Boston in 1638. In 1641, Massachusetts became the first English colony in North America to make slavery legal. Legalized enslavement in Boston would continue for nearly 150 years. 

Massachusetts Body of Liberties

91. There shall never be any bond slavery, villinage 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. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israel concerning such persons does morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be Judged thereto by Authority. 


A handwritten copy of the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties

This law established that Native and African people could be enslaved if they were taken as war captives, forcibly sold into slavery before they were purchased and sent to Massachusetts, or sentenced to enslavement by the Courts.

By adopting the Body of Liberties, Massachusetts was the first to legalize slavery in the English colonies that became the United States. This became the first step in Massachusetts creating a system of race-based, chattel slavery that was hereditary. Over the next 150 years, Bostonians revisited this law and refined their understanding of slavery until legally abolishing it in the late-1700s.

A painting of State Street in 1801 showing the old State House with many 3 story buildings around with horse drawn carriages and people in the street e
1801 Painting of State Street including the home of Caesar, Will, Scipio, Ben, Mimbo, and their enslavers, the Apthorp family. Their home is the three story red building on the right. Note the black man pushing the cart on the left of the image.


The business of slavery also contributed to the rise of industry in Boston. The town’s distilleries used molasses imported from the Caribbean in order to create rum in large quantities. Distilleries in Boston also relied heavily on enslaved labor.

The few Boston ships that sailed with captives from Africa sold them to Caribbean plantations. It was rare for ships of captured Africans to head directly to Boston.

Ultimately, the business of slavery also helped to hide the importance of slavery to Boston. Unlike the American South and Caribbean where slavery was visible everywhere and enslaved people could constitute upwards of 90% of the total population, Boston's ties to slavery were commercial and enslaved people comprised a minority of the population. 

Everyday Bostonians were complicit in slavery, and all free Bostonians benefited in multiple ways from the presence and labor of enslaved people. The local government hired enslaved laborers, while institutions, including churches and Harvard University, received their endowments from the profits of slavery and sometimes even owned enslaved people.

It was common for Bostonians to own slaves, and it was a normal part of everyday life in Boston. One in four Boston households owned enslaved people. A typical household with enslaved people was part of the “middling” classes- artisans, small merchants, and ship captains. Most enslaver households had 1-2 enslaved people.

Unfree and Unpaid

Contact: Archaeology

Enslaved people in Boston worked as domestic servants, artisans, and sailors. Boston’s enslavers used slaves in their own homes or businesses or hired their labor out to others. Some allowed their enslaved people to conduct their own business, although the enslaved would not financially benefit.

 Enslaved people were visible on the streets of Boston because their daily tasks brought them in close contact with other Bostonians.

By 1720, there were more than 1500 enslaved people living in Boston, or about 12% of the town’s population at the time. Enslaved people would make up between 10-12% of Boston’s population throughout the early and mid 1700s. Boston was the center of New England slavery and more than 30% of the region’s enslaved population lived in the town. As such, enslaved people were always readily available for purchase or sale. Beyond those buying and selling enslaved people, many Bostonians supported the slave trade including printers, who facilitated slave sales through advertisements in local newspapers.

Some Bostonians participated directly in the trafficking of enslaved people:

  • They trafficked enslaved Native people and exchanged them for African captives in the Caribbean until the 1680s.
  • Most commonly, they trafficked enslaved Africans between places in the Americas.
  • Infrequently, they engaged in the transatlantic slave trade, which trafficked captives from Africa to the Americas.

Faneuil Hall is known as the “Cradle of Liberty,” yet Peter Faneuil built the fortune that paid for this building, in part, by buying and selling enslaved people.

Peter Faneuil was personally responsible for trafficking African captives to Boston where they were enslaved.

Caesar was an enslaved Black boy living in the same house as Thomas Apthorp, the young white son of Charles Apthorp, one of the richest men in Boston. Charles Apthorp, like Peter Faneuil, was a slave importer and dealer.  

The Apthorp mansion stood on what is now State Street. There, Caesar and the other four people enslaved by the Apthorps, Will, Scipio, Ben, and Mimbo, were expected to serve members of the family. These people helped care for Charles and his wife, Grizzell Eastweek. They also helped raise their eighteen children, including Thomas.

Caesar lived alongside and helped to support the Apthorp family’s luxurious lifestyle, but he was unable to experience that lifestyle for himself. Apthorp luxuries included a custom whizzer toy for Thomas found during an archaeological dig at Faneuil Hall.

A group silhouette showing a young boy, three men, and one woman in 18th century clothing.
Caesar, Will, Scipio, Ben, and Mimbo


Why Silhouettes? There are almost no surviving depictions of people of color in early Boston. These silhouettes aim to humanize these individuals whose appearances we do not know, though we recognize that using images of other people to represent known once-living individuals is problematic. Consider how race, wealth, privilege, and other social structures led to the ways individuals are depicted in this exhibit.

A lead whizzer toy with the name Thomas Apthorp stamped into the front
Lead whizzer toy bearing the name of Thomas Apthorp found during archaeological excavations at Faneuil Hall.

Thomas was a child in the wealthy Apthorp family and lived alongside Caesar, an enslaved black boy.

Enslaved Bostonians worked in four main categories of labor: household service, unskilled work, skilled craft, and seafaring. Within these areas, enslaved people could work directly for their enslaver, be hired out by their enslaver, or set the terms of their own labor.  

Enslaved labor was crucial for Boston’s economy. Enslaved people worked in nearly every major industry in and around Boston, including farming, shipbuilding, distilling, and construction. Without slave labor many of these industries would have collapsed. Working in these industries meant enslaved people were skilled workers.

Charlestown potters Isaac and Grace Parker were enslavers of Jack and Acton in the 18th century. Their pottery was important for the local economy and export during the middle decades of the eighteenth century. Wares from this pottery were found during archaeological digs at Faneuil Hall, and can also be found as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as South Carolina.

Jack and Acton were exceptional potters who created some of the most striking domestic ceramics in 18th-century America. 

Two silhouettes: on the left, a man sitting at an 18th-century pottery wheel throwing a clay pot, and on the right, a standing man holding a clay pot in his hands.

Jack and Acton 


Many Boston artisans enslaved people, using their labor to improve the success of their businesses. We only know of Jack and Acton’s presence at the pottery works of Grace and Isaac Parker in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston because they are listed as chattel property in Isaac’s estate. 

Enslaved men like Jack and Acton provided a wide variety of labor at the pottery works. Archaeologists have excavated the Parker pottery in Charlestown and also found wares that had been made there during excavations at Faneuil Hall. These pottery goods were very popular and vessels likely made by Jack and Acton have been found as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as South Carolina. 

Enslaved men worked on ships, performed work in their enslavers’ businesses, were day laborers, and performed domestic labor. Domestic workers would have been responsible for driving vehicles, horse care, running errands, general labor, and cooking. 

Enslaved Bostonians worked in homes and were trained craftspeople, day laborers, and sailors.

The 18th-century handwritten probate inventory of Isaac Parker

Isaac Parker's 1723 inventory naming Jack and Acton.


These ceramic fragments were found at Faneuil Hall by archaeologists and were likely made at the Parker Pottery by Jack and Acton.

3 fragments of redware pottery vessels decorated with a brown background glaze and swag motifs in yellow slip.


A reconstructed redware porringer decorated with swags and dots in yellow slip.
A redware porringer made at the Parker pottery in the early 18th century when Jack and Acton were enslaved there as potters.

Enslaved sailors were relatively common, and often the items in ships’ holds were directly related to enslaved labor.  Sugar molds found archaeologically at Faneuil Hall were made by enslaved people in the Caribbean. They were then filled with molasses-rich sugar by enslaved sugar plantation workers, sailed to Boston on ships employing slave labor, sold to refineries where the molasses was turned into rum by enslaved distillers, and then served at taverns with enslaved workers.

To control enslaved people, town and colonial officials passed restrictive laws targeting people of color, regardless of whether or not they were enslaved .

In Boston, enslaved and free people of color had a 9pm curfew, could not possess firearms or liquor, were prohibited from gathering in groups, were prohibited from marrying white people, and were not allowed to join civic associations such as militias.

Punishments for breaking these laws ranged from public whipping to exile to hanging.


Silhouette of a young man running

An 1761 newspaper ad detailing Peter's escape and offering 15 dollars for his return to his enslaver, Benjamin Faneuil.
Notice of Peter's escape from enslavement. Enslavers often employed local newspapers to print notifications of their escaped slaves, including their description and stories of their general escape.

Following his death in 1743, Peter Faneuil’s estate included five unnamed enslaved people. His brother Benjamin Faneuil inherited this estate and presumably became the enslaver of the five individuals, possibly including Peter.

While most resistance was non-violent, some enslaved people used arson, assault, poisoning, or murder to fight back. Any violent resistance was met with immediate, dramatic punishment, often death.

Although there was never a large slave rebellion in Boston, in April and May 1723, there were a series of arsons targeting politicians which convinced many white Bostonians that enslaved people sought to burn the town down. One enslaved man, Diego, was ultimately apprehended, interrogated, and executed after confessing to the crime.

Enslaved people resisted their enslavement, but violent resistance was often punished by death.

In large homes near Boston in what are today the neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester, many enslaved people worked on farms and rural estates. At the Shirley-Eustis House in Roxbury, at least five enslaved people, including multiple children, worked on the estate, served the occupants of the house, and caring for Governor William Shirley’s horses and farm.

Image for dsc02786 roxbury shirleyeustishouse1

A painting of a man in a white curly wig and a red frock coat.

​​​William Shirley served two terms as the 8th Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay and was an enslaver prior to the Revolution. The first person he enslaved was possibly an infant named Jane. Later was an 18-month old baby named Nanny, listed in her 1753 baptismal record at Kings Chapel as a servant of Catherine Shirley, Governor Shirley’s daughter. Nanny died just four days after her baptism.

Jane was an infant enslaved by Governor William Shirley. She was baptized at King’s Chapel on April 1, 1746. Historian Aabid Allibhai describes Jane’s experience in his study of the enslaved people at the Shirley-Eustis House in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston:

“Jane was likely torn from her parents, either given away to Shirley for free by an owner who viewed her as an economic burden or given to him as a gift; enslaved children in New England, in the words of Massachusetts Historical Society founder Jeremy Belknap, ‘were given away like puppies.’” 

Jane was one of many enslaved children in colonial Boston. Although some were from local slave marriages, Boston enslavers were frequently indisposed to having extra mouths to feed. 

While infants were often unwanted by enslavers, white Bostonians did purchase many 7- to 15-year-old children from Africa and the Caribbean. These children could be raised in white households and learn a trade.

Enslaved children "were given away like puppies."

A silhouette of a seated baby

A Boston advertisement for an enslaved girl to be given away in the July 22, 1765 edition of the Boston-Gazette and Country Journal. 

An 18th century newspaper advertisement for an enslaved child to be given away.

An 18th century newspaper advertisement for two enslaved boys for sale.

A Boston advertisement for the sale of two enslaved boys, in the August 25, 1766 edition of the Boston-Gazette and Country Journal. 

A view of the 1722 Bonner map of Boston showing the locations of Jane's and Sebastian's homes, one on Winter Street and one on Summer Street.
Detail of the 1723 Bonner map showing the location of the homes of Jane and little Jane (A) and Sebastian (B)

Jane and Sebastian, an enslaved couple, managed to create a life for themselves and their daughter Jane despite being forced to live in separate homes by their enslavers.

Sebastian lived in the home of his enslaver, John Waite, and Jane lived in the home of her enslaver, Deborah Thayer, around 1700 near the intersection of what is today Washington and Winter streets. Despite Sebastian presenting his daughter for baptism and being listed as the head of their family, Jane resided with her mother and was the property of her mother’s enslaver. Although there is a lack of archival documents associated with many Black Bostonians, Sebastian’s, Jane’s, and little Jane’s story suggests that enslaved families in Boston were centered around the mother, not the father as with European and West African families.

Their daughter Jane was baptized in 1701 in the First Church where their family worshiped in the separate gallery space above the main congregation, a seating area for enslaved people and servants. We have no record of Jane and Sebastian marrying.

It was not until 1705 that free and enslaved people of color were allowed to marry other people of color, including free Blacks, mixed race people, Natives, and fellow enslaved people. This law also forbade people of color marrying white people. With the permission of their enslavers, many enslaved Bostonians married.

In 1705, enslaved Bostonians were legally allowed to marry but only to other people of color.

A silhouette of a man and a woman. The woman is holding their baby in her arms.
Jane and Sebastian with little Jane

Boston Schoolmaster Nathaniel Williams and his wife Anne Bradstreet enslaved Hagar and Richard in their home on School Street  from 1708-1734. Through enslaved labor, the Williams household was able to educate Boston’s future leaders and participate in the elite lifestyle of Boston’s genteel class. 

A silhouette of a man and a woman in 18th-century clothing.
Hagar and Richard

A sketch of a man from the chest up. He is wearing a long curly wig, a frock coat, and a scarf around his throat tied at the front. Text at the bottom reads "Elisha Cooke" with a birthdate of 1678 and a death date of 1737.
Elisha Cooke was a wealthy politician and Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1683. We know that he enslaved at least one person, an unnamed Black woman. The Cookes lived next to the Schoolmaster's house where the Williams family lived, and it is likely that she interacted with Richard and Hagar, enslaved by the Williams family.

Archaeological work at the Boston Latin Schoolmaster’s house revealed hundreds of sewing pins as well as cowrie shells. Archaeologist Kathleen von Jena connected the cowrie shells and pins to Hagar and Richard, a Black man also enslaved by the Williams family. Von Jena suggests Anne may have run a sewing school for upper class girls who were not able to attend the Latin School but were still expected to learn decorative sewing as part of their upbringing. 

Many of these wealthy girls would also have enslaved women at their homes doing the bulk of the sewing work. Hagar’s work in the Williams’ home allowed the white women in the household to pursue a more leisurely lifestyle. 

The Williams family was part of the 25% of Boston families who enslaved people.  Like Hagar, 71% of enslaved women performed domestic labor in homes. Her tasks included making and mending clothes, childcare, food preparation, and tending yard animals, orchards, or gardens.

Close-up of a small collection of the 18th-century straight pins found during excavations of Faneuil Hall.

Sewing Pins and cowrie shells from the Boston Latin Schoolmaster's House, likely associated with Hagar, a woman enslaved by the schoolmaster's family in the early 18th century. 

Close-up of four cowrie shells found during excavations of Faneuil Hall.

Detail of a 1723 John Bonner map showing the location of the Free School (Boston Latin School) and the neighboring schoolmaster's house on School Street, now the Old City Hall property. Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library.  

Detail of a 1723 John Bonner map showing the location of the Free School (Boston Latin School) and the neighboring schoolmaster's house on School Street.

Chloe Spear was a pillar of her community, running a Boston boarding house that also served as a multicultural gathering space. In her 1815 will, Chloe bequeathed hundreds of dollars to her family as well as Black community members.

Chloe was born in Africa around 1749 and was enslaved in the early 1760s by Boston merchant John Bradford and his wife. In the Bradford home, Chloe engaged in several occupations, including nursing sick neighbors and children. Though some enslaved people were encouraged to read, when Chloe began to learn, John Bradford threatened to hang her by her thumbs and whip her if she continued.  

She met and married Cesar Spear, with whom she had seven children. After Massachusetts abolished slavery in the 1780s, the Spears purchased property on White Bread Alley, now Harris Street in the North End.  

Chloe outlived her entire family. Her estate reflects her incredible life as a free woman after decades of enslavement. Her estate inventory, shown below, includes many everyday household items, as well as several luxury goods including an ebony tea table, a mirror, and pictures.

Chloe Spear, born in Africa, enslaved in Boston, and later freed, gave hundreds of dollars to Black Bostonians upon her death.

Silhouette of a woman in 18th-century clothing.
Chloe Spear

Detail from the 1723 Bonner map showing the locations of Faneuil Hall and the boarding house owned by Chloe and Caesar Spear.
Detail of the 1723 Bonner map showing the location of Faneuil Hall (C) and Chloe and Cesar’s home (D)

Handwritten copy of Chloe Spear's probate inventory listing her house and land in White Bread Alley at 700 pounds.
Chloe Spear’s 1815 probate inventory.

Peter Fleet, an enslaved printer, worked at the print shop of Thomas Fleet, carving woodblock prints to illustrate written text among other responsibilities.  Peter literally left his mark on much of the work he created, effectively claiming it as his own. 

Image of an 18th-century woodcut print for The Prodigal Daughter by Peter Fleet showing his initials in the bottom right.corner

Peter Fleet, enslaved at a Boston Print shop, left his own initials on this woodcut print. “The Prodigal Daughter”, Graphic Arts Collection, Special Collections, Firestone Library, Princeton University.

A print of a portrait of Phillis Wheatley sitting at her desk with a quill in hand.


Phillis Wheatley, the famed enslaved Black poet, was born in Senegambia in 1743, kidnapped as a child, and taken to Boston where she was enslaved by John and Susanna Wheatley. Phillis learned to read and write, becoming the first Black woman to publish in British North America. Phillis used the words of her poetry to critique the newly freed country that still practiced slavery:

“With thine own hand conduct them and defend

And bring the dreadful contest to an end —

Forever grateful let them live to thee

And keep them ever Virtuous, brave, and free —

But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find

Divine acceptance with the Almighty mind —

While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace

And hold in bondage Africa’s blameless race;

Let virtue reign — And those accord our prayers

Be victory ours, and generous freedom theirs.”

While some enslaved people were able to publicly express their identity and resistance, still others did so in private. This included private gatherings and keeping objects like cowrie shells and blue beads with African traditional meanings.

Enslaved people never lost their identity, their personhood, or their cultural connections to their ancestors.

Charles Bowles was one of many enslaved people who found means of escaping enslavement. 

At the age of fourteen he enlisted in the Massachusetts militia during the 1775 Siege of Boston. Two years later, Bowles decided “to risk his life in defense of the holy cause of liberty,” joining the Continental Army where he would serve until the end of the War of Independence in 1783. Now free, Bowles went on to become a farmer and minister in New Hampshire.

Throughout the 1760s Black people in Boston called out the hypocrisy of white colonists demanding their freedom from British “slavery” in the lead up to the American Revolution.

Enslaved and free Black Bostonians began agitating for an end to slavery. They used many methods such as purchasing their freedom, advocating for manumission (the act of an enslaver freeing an enslaved person), joining the military, running away, or suing for their freedom in what was called a freedom suit.

Silhouette of a man in 18th century clothing with a musket leaned against his left shoulder.

Charles Bowles

Prince Hall, a Black man who received his freedom in 1770, founded the first Black Masonic lodge in 1775. African Lodge Number One became a center of the Black community and Prince Hall was a tireless advocate for the rights of Black people.

Hall was one of many free and enslaved Black Bostonians forced to form their own community support structure, including churches and civic organizations. These organizations became important community centers and places to advocate for abolition and civil rights. 

Enslaved people engaged in a constant battle to resist slavery and find freedom. By the early-1760s, many enslaved people had achieved freedom, creating a free Black community in Boston. Although this population remained relatively small—just a few hundred people in the 1760s and 1770s—free Black Bostonians were important champions of abolition and civil rights during the Revolutionary Era.

Silhouette of a woman in 18th-century clothing.
Zipporah Potter Atkins

Zipporah Potter Atkins was one of Boston’s free Black residents. She was born in 1645 to an enslaved couple, Richard and Grace. Richard and Grace were enslaved by Captain Robert Keyne and lived at his home at what is now the corner of Washington and State Street.

Using an inheritance from her enslaved father, Zipporah became the first Black person to own property in Boston, purchasing land in what is today the Boston Greenway near the North End

A slab of granite inscribed wih the name Zippora Atkins and the text: Zipporah Potter Atkins (1645-1705), the only 17th century woman of African descent to buy land in Boston, purchased a house on this site in 1670. Born free despite enslavement of Africans in Massachusetts, she was a North End resident from 1679-1699 when she became the first African woman to sign her initials on a Deed in Suffolk County.

This stone marks the former site of Zipporah Potter Atkins’s home on what is now the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. It reads, “Zipporah Potter Atkins (1645-1705), the only 17th century woman of African descent to buy land in Boston, purchased a house on this site in 1670. Born free despite enslavement of Africans in Massachusetts, she was a North End resident from 1679-1699 when she became the first African woman to sign her initials on a Deed in Suffolk County.”

Many other Black and Native people were either born free, freed by their enslavers, or arrived in Boston as free people during the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite their freedom, racism made it difficult for free Black Bostonians to find stable jobs and support themselves and their families. 

Free Black Bostonians were tireless champions of civil rights and abolition during the colonial and revolutionary eras. Between 1773 and 1777, Black Bostonians, free and enslaved, petitioned the colonial and revolutionary governments for their freedom seven times

Not all Black Bostonians were enslaved.

Image of the original freedom petition document written by enslaved people to the  Commonwealth.

1777 Petition by enslaved people to Commonwealth of Massachusetts for freedom along with its transcription.

Transcription of the original freedom petition.

Silhouette of a five year old boy facing forward.

After twenty years of activism by enslaved and free Black people and their allies, slavery officially ended in Massachusetts in 1783. 

Dick was the son of Binah, a woman enslaved by John Morey of Roxbury. At 5 years old he was sold into indentured labor to David Stoddard Greenough at the Loring-Greenough House in Jamaica Plain. He should have been freed in 1783, but Greenough bought the boy in 1785 and enslaved him until his 21st birthday. Many towns, such as Boston and Roxbury where Dick lived, also required Black parents to bind their children out as indentured servants, threatening to destroy Black families and communities in the aftermath of slavery. 

Despite the success that Black Bostonians had during the Revolutionary Era, enslavement, often by other names and means, lingered on. Judicial authorities had little ability to enforce the 1783 Commonwealth v. Jennison decision that had declared slavery incompatible with the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution.  

Many white Bostonians were unconcerned about the fate of Black people following the “end” of slavery. This indifference created opportunities for unscrupulous people to kidnap and sell free Black people out of the state to places where slavery was still legal.

Black children, especially, were often victims of kidnapping and continued bondage. Unfreedom continued beyond the legal end of slavery.

A 1785 handwritten indenture agreement for Dick.

Three years after slavery was made illegal in Massachusetts, in 1785, David Stoddard Greenough purchased Dick, a five year old Black boy, for 16 years of servitude in Roxbury. Dick's mother, Binah, was enslaved by John Morey of Roxbury. In 1786 Dick was reclassified as a "farming apprentice,” an attempt by Greenough to continue the practice of unpaid and unfree Black labor, despite slavery being illegal at the time.

Timeline of Black & Indigenous Radical Protest in Boston

Contact: Archaeology

 1773 - Prince Estabrook, an enslaved man, enlists in the Lexington militia

1775 - Prince Hall founds the First Black Masonic Lodge (Boston) in the US

1789 - Black Bostonians are permitted to use Faneuil Hall for “public worship” on weekdays

1806 - African Meeting House is built, housing the African Baptist Church of Boston 

1818 - First African Methodist Episcopal Society was formed in Beacon Hill, and later renamed the Charles Street AME Church 

1829 - Black Abolitionist David Walker published “The Appeal To The Colored Citizens of the World

1832 - Maria Stewart addresses the New England Anti-Slavery Society

1835 - Abiel Smith School becomes the first school In the nation for public education for Black Children 

Exterior view of the Abiel Smith School, an 1835 brick building with large windows.
The Abiel Smith School

1840 - The founding of Twelfth Baptist Church, which became known as the “Church of the Fugitive Slave” for helping enslaved people escape to freedom

1849-1850 - Roberts v. The City of Boston results in the desegregation of Boston schools

1851 - Black Boston abolitionist Lewis Hayden helps free Shadrach Minkins from courthouse during the Fugitive Slave Act

1855 - Massachusetts law ending racial segregation on public schools

1863 - James Trotter leads boycott for equal pay for Black soldiers in the 55th Regiment

1863 - The formation of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment

1866- Boston's Little Brown and Company publishes the United States Statutes at Large containing the 1865 Freedmen's Bureau Act for the relief of Freedmen and refugees following the Civil War and the charter of the Freedmen's Savings and Trust Company

1873 - African Americans and West Indians form the St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge

1887 - Boston Massacre (Crispus Attucks) marker installed near the location where Attucks fell

1895 - Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin founded the National Federation of Afro-American Women in the Charles Street Church 

1897 - Shaw 54th Memorial Installed 

1900 - Black Bostonian Pauline E. Hopkins publishes the Colored American, a monthly magazine

1901 - William Monroe Trotter Founds the Guardian newspaper

A c.1920 photographic portrait of William Monroe Trotter in a 3-piece suit and tie.
William Monroe Trotter ca. 1920

1912 - Boston Branch of the NAACP founded by Mary Evans Wilson and Butler Roland Wilson

1915 - William Monroe Trotter leads protests of D.W. Griffith’s racist film “Birth of a Nation”

1919 - Maria Baldwin co-founds Boston’s League of Women for Community Service in 1919.

An 1885 photographic portrait of Maria Baldwin. She's wearing a dress with dark and light vertical and diagonal stripes.
Maria Baldwin ca. 1885

1949 - Otto P. and Muriel S. Snowden founds Freedom House in Roxbury, a center of civil rights and advocacy for Boston’s African American community

1960 - Ruth Batson and the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) establish education subcommittee

1961 - Concerned Higginson Parents Association formed (CHPA)

1962 - Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) founded, Melnea Cass is the only woman charter member appointed

Black and white photograph of Melnea Cass doing a reading in a graveyard while a group of well-dressed members of the Black community look on.
Melnea Cass and other participants at the 1976 Commemoration of the Boston Massacre.

1963 - STOP Day-Black work stoppage and march

1963 - Mothers for Adequate Welfare formed

Black and white photo showing a mother sitting atop a table with her two children beside her. A reporter with a notebook is listening to her speak.
Roberta O'Neil, Chairperson of the Mission Hill chapter of the Mothers for Adequate Welfare, with her children speaking to a reporter at the MAW sit-in at the Roxbury Crossing Welfare Office in 1968.

1963 - First school “Stay out for Freedom” and Freedom Schools

1963 - NAACP present 14 demands to Boston School Committee and stage “March on Roxbury”

1964 - Second school “Stay Out” and Freedom Schools

1964 - Roxbury Multi-Service Center (RMSC) founded 

1964 - NAACP & CORE help Roxbury tenant lead first rent strikes

1965 - Mothers’ Sit-In & Roxbury residents dump garbage at City Hall

1965 - Rev. Vernon E. "Little Arrow" Carter leads a 114-day Freedom Vigil outside the Boston School Committee headquarters to protest racial inequalities in Boston's schools

1965 - Roxbury Community School founded: first of four alternative Black independent schools

1965 - MLK marches with 22,000 Bostonians to the Boston Common

1966 - Mothers for Adequate Welfare march to Boston Common and State House

1966 - Creation of the Lower Roxbury Community Corporation (now Madison Park Development Corp.) one of the first CDCs (Community Development Corporations) in the country

1967 - Mother’s for Adequate Welfare sit-ins at Grove Hall and violent response by Boston Police

1968 - Mel King leads tent city occupation to protest Boston’s urban renewal policy. Tent City housing complex was created as a result of the protests

Black and white photographic portrait of Mel King from 1975.
Mel King ca. 1975

1968 - Riots at King Middle School (Dorchester)

Black and white photograph of students standing out of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Dorchester.
A group of students standing outside Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Dorchester in 1968.

1969 - Boston Indian Council established in Dorchester

1970 - First National Day of Mourning demonstration organized in Plymouth by Wamsutta Frank James, Tall Oak Weeden, Gary Parker, Shirley Mills, Rayleen Bey, and others to dispel myths about Thanksgiving and raise awareness of social issues affecting Indigenous peoples

A black and white photograph of activist Russell Means giving a speech in front of the Massasoit statue in Plymouth, MA.
Activist Russell Means speaking to crowds in front of the Massasoit statue in Plymouth at the first National Day of Mourning demonstration in 1970. Photo courtesy of The Patriot Ledger.

1974 - Combahee River Collective formed in support of Black lesbians

1980 - Black and White Men Together formed (significant role in addressing the AIDS crisis)

1985 - Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative Formed

1991-  Boston Indian Council becomes the North American Indian Center of Boston 

2005- Boston repeals 329-year ban on Native people entering Boston

2019 - Dudley Square renamed Nubian Square

Wintertime view of the Nubian Square sign attached to a fence with a colorful mural in the background showing a little girl and an old woman on either side of a traditional African mask.
Nubian Square (formerly Dudley Square). Photo by Isabel Leon, Mayor's Office, City of Boston.

2020 - Protests lead to the removal of the Emancipation Group Bronze Statue

2022 - Protesters chain themselves to Faneuil Hall in in protest of Faneuil Hall name

2023 - Embrace Statue unveiled on Boston Common

Legacies of Enslavement

Contact: Archaeology

The Racial Wealth Gap

Due to the history of slavery and systemic racism, Black families have accumulated far less wealth than white families today. In 2015, the Boston Federal Reserve conducted a study, which found that Black families in the greater Boston metropolitan area have a net worth of $8 compared to white families who have an average net worth of $247,500. The large wealth gap in Boston is directly tied to a lack of widespread homeownership within Black communities as a result of redlining, segregation, urban renewal, and gentrification.


A 1930s map of Boston showing its neighborhoods color-coded by perceived level of safety.
1938 Cram's Street Map of Boston showing the color-coded designation of neighborhoods by "residential security."

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a comprehensive study of environmental racism that explored the history of redlining.  After the Great Depression, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was formed to provide home loans from the federal government to American citizens. In the process of helping Americans buy homes, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created color coded maps of US Cities to determine who the federal government would provide loans to based on the presumed safety of a neighborhood. Neighborhoods were given a Grade of A-D, which corresponded with a specific color. 

Grade A and B neighborhoods were coded as green and blue on maps. Since predominantly white people with higher incomes lived in these neighborhoods, they were considered to be the “best,” “safest,” or most “desirable” areas of Boston. Unsurprisingly, people who lived within these areas received  the bulk of the federally backed homeowner loans.

Grade C and D neighborhoods were coded as yellow and red on maps. These neighborhoods were designated as “declining,” “unsafe,” or “hazardous” neighborhoods because Black people, other people of color, immigrants, and working class families lived in these areas. Individuals in these neighborhoods were systematically denied federally backed loans to purchase homes because of these racist and classist policies. 

In the 1930’s the majority of Boston’s Black population lived in neighborhoods designated as “hazardous.” For example, areas such as Roxbury, where Black homeowners were denied loans, have high concentrations of poverty rates today. In other areas such as Jamaica Plain and the South End, urban renewal and gentrification have pushed Black and Brown residents out of these neighborhoods and become some of the most expensive areas  to live in today. 

The history of redlining helps us understand the current effects of segregation in Boston. Black and Brown communities in Boston have historically had and continue to have less access to good school systems, affordable housing, public transportation, and grocery stores. Despite these obstacles, Black residents have always been at the forefront of social, economic, and political movements in Boston to challenge structural racism and inequity in their built environment from the 18th century until today.


Contact: Archaeology

The Archaeology of Faneuil Hall

In the 17th century, the area of Faneuil Hall was a small cove. Bostonians constructed wharves here forming the 1630 Town Dock. As boats loaded and unloaded goods, the area became a bustling market and trade site.

In 1728, the town filled in part of the dock to create a market space. With funds from Peter Faneuil, who profited from the sale of enslaved people, the town built Faneuil Hall In 1742 as a covered market place and town meeting space. The building was expanded to its current form in 1806.

There have been two archaeological surveys at Faneuil Hall. Because the land was filled before the building was built in 1742, nearly everything found during these digs dates to before then and represents a time when Bostonians were actively engaged in slavery.

In 1990, archaeologists excavated through the basement floor to determine if the fill under Faneuil Hall contained intact deposits before a restoration project and new elevators. Archaeologists excavated 7 test units covering a total area of 208 square feet. They recovered over 32,000 artifacts.

In 2010, archaeologists excavated an area of 8 square meters along the north wall of the 1805 Faneuil Hall addition. They recovered 6,858 artifacts.

Both of these excavations found artifacts brought to the city from abroad as well as Boston-made items brought to the dock for export. Additionally, they found wood cribbing from the early wharves of Boston still intact around the current building. 

The artifacts on exhibit on the basement level of Faneuil Hall are pictured above but include:

  • Richard and Hagar's Early 18th century cowries shells 
  • 18th century Sugar artifacts connected to enslaved people in Boston and the Caribbean 
  • The Thomas Apthorp's ca. 1750 whizzer
  • Early 18th century Pins from the Boston Latin Schoolmaster's house
  • And more

There are still millions of artifacts from 1630-1742 remaining under and around Faneuil Hall beneath the cobbles and pavement of Quincy Market.

A blueprint of the basement level of Faneuil Hall showing the locations of the archaeological excavation units that were dug in 1991 and 2010.
This map of the Faneuil Hall basement shows the areas where archaeologists dug through the floor in 1991 (red) and outside the Hall for the new exit in 2010 (blue)

A photograph showing ceramic fragments dating from the 17th and early to mid 18th century.
A sample of the thousands of pre-1742 ceramics found during excavations at Faneuil Hall. These were imported to Boston from England, the Netherlands, and Germany.


A photograph of cribbing timbers uncovered during the 2010 excavations outside Faneuil Hall.
Exposed late 17th-century cribbing timbers, likely part of the base of the Town Dock wharf, found next to Faneuil Hall during the 2010 excavations.

Enslaved Bostonians

This link goes to the list of enslaved people compiled during the research for this project. We intend to keep this list going, actively adding names in order to make the most complete record of enslaved people in Boston.

If you have done research and found evidence of an enslaved Bostonian who is not yet on this list, please email us with your data so that we can add them, with credit.

List of Enslaved Bostonians

Researching Ancestors

Contact: Archaeology

There are many challenges facing those who are seeking to learn more about their Black and Native ancestors in Boston. Because many people were not recorded in official records, and many who were did not have last names, it can be very hard to find direct lineages between descendant communities and enslaved and free people of color in the 17th and 18th centuries. Below are some resources to help you get started with your own research.

Suffolk County Probate Records, 1636-1899

Contains records of some enslaved Suffolk County residents who were listed as property in legal documents of their enslavers. With the assistance of Dr. Jared Hardesty, the City of Boston Archaeology Program has compiled a list of the names of enslaved Bostonians recorded within probate inventories of the 16th and 17th century. This live document will be updated as we locate evidence of more individuals. 

Suffolk County Land Records, 1620-1986 | Family Search

Contains land and property records for Suffolk County including land grants, patents, deeds, and mortgages. Since they were considered chattel property, enslaved people were sometimes included in these records either in property transfer records or even as collateral on mortgages.

Researching Your African American Ancestors | Boston Public Library

This website from the Boston Public Library compiles several resources that can help with genealogical research on Black ancestors, both at the BPL and online.

Slave Voyages

A collaborative initiative that makes records of transatlantic and intra-American voyages of ships carrying human cargo accessible. This database includes ports of departure and landing, number of individuals aboard, identities of enslavers, and even records of resistance onboard, among other data. 

United States Freedmen's Bureau, Records of Freedmen, 1865-1872 

The Freedmen’s Bureau was an agency created in the aftermath of the Civil War to assist those in transition from enslavement to freedom with things like employment, education, access to food and health care, legalizing marriages, and securing back pay. This collection of records includes documents related to these issues as well as court records, applications for relief, registers of patients, labor contracts, and more.

United States, Freedman's Bank Records, 1865-1874

The Freedman’s Bank was opened after the Civil War to provide financial services to freedmen and Civil War veterans. Multiple branches were opened in places with large Black populations across the South as well as branches in cities such as New York and Philadelphia. This collection includes the names, birthdates, residences, occupations, names of family members and more from 29 branches of the Bank.


Contact: Archaeology
Project Writers and Researchers
Archaeological Collections Management
Project Advisors
  • Dr. Jane Becker, Director of Public History, University of Massachusetts Boston
  • Dr. David Landon, Associate Director of the Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research, Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts Boston
Community Advisory Committee
AECOM Project Support
  • Chester Cunanan 
  • Brett Harte
  • Madelaine Penney
  • Meagan Ratini
  • Jesse Walker
Project Coordinators

With deep appreciation for the many Bostonians who contributed their thoughts, comments, concerns, stories, and requests for this exhibit.

This exhibit was made possible by the financial support of:

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With additional support from:

AECOM logo



CPA plaque logo

COB black seal

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