"Both Samuel and John owned many slaves. In the attic of this house were for many years the slave pens." (Frank Floyd, Town Clerk, 1945, Manchester by the Sea)
It's been a long time since a Manchester Historical Museum's public lecture has taken place in real life, and when the popular series returns later this month it will tackle a challenging and sobering topic: slavery on Cape Ann and in Manchester by the Sea.
"Secrets from the Attics: Enslavement and Abolition in Manchester" will be the lecture by Lise Breen, an independent local scholar whose work explores the practice of slavery on Cape Ann as well as its citizens participation in the illegal, international slave trade. The free event will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 17 at the Sacred Heart Parish Hall.
Essex County is typically known as an abolitionist stronghold, with post Civil War stories about its role as an accommodating refuge for those freeing slavery via the underground railroad. But Essex County has a more complicated story to tell. Several prominent Manchester families enslaved people, and townspeople continued to profit from the slave labor economy long after the courts refused to uphold the claims of Massachusetts slaveholders.
Lise Breen draws from forgotten Manchester accounts to trace the history of the practice of slavery here and the slowly strengthening support for abolition. She points out what local records reveal about the lives of the enslaved and shows how some people challenged their enslavement. She discusses the earliest evidence we have of slavery in Manchester and recollections of its end. What should we make of the advertisement for a young woman who fled from her Manchester owner, months after slavery was supposedly abolished? How should we interpret records of several persons as “belonging to” white women around the turn of the 19th century? Who took on the risk of sheltering a self-emancipated man in the 1850s? What happened after a Manchester sea captain betrayed a small group trying to flee Virginia slavery? What did Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison say when they came to town and how were they received?
And Lise will also explore other questions, concluding with Frederick Douglass’ prescient warning to Cape Ann: because we have “inculcated forgetfulness as a duty,” slavery’s legacy would far outlast slavery itself.
Breen's 2020 presentation on the overlap of Sargent family of Gloucester and the Black abolitionist, Nancy Gardner Prince, can be viewed on the Cape Ann Museum’s video archives site. Her 2019 essay on Frederick Douglass’ visit to Gloucester, “Inculcated Forgetfulness at a New England Port,” can be viewed on Black Perspectives (The African American Intellectual Society blog).