Vermont Folklife Center

African American History in New England

Gregory L. Sharrow, Director of Education/Folklorist

Daisy Turner's parents came to Grafton, Vermont, after the Civil War, drawn by the possibility of work in the north. They were not alone in making this journey: many African Americans came to Vermont and other parts of New England looking for the opportunity to begin a new life. Former slave William Anderson, for example, was befriended by soldiers of the Eleventh Vermont Infantry and came back to Shoreham, Vermont, with Colonel Charles Hunsdon when he returned to his hometown. There Anderson became a farmer, a teamster with a horse and wagon and sleigh for hire, and also a blacksmith and wheelwright. His son William J. Anderson later was elected to the Vermont legislature.

In Vermont the story of a former slave coming north with a returning Union soldier to settle in his hometown is told over and over again in towns throughout the state. Few achieved the prominence of the Anderson family and many, in fact, lived in poverty on the margins of white society. But individual African Americans or African American families were often an integral part of life in 19th century rural Vermont communities. Did former slaves come home with soldiers in other parts of New England or was this experience for some reason peculiar to Vermont? Local research is the only way to answer a question like this, and local, original research may be the only way to recover much of the unrecorded history of African Americans throughout the region.

And there is much African American history for New England students to find out about. Although scholars disagree about exact dates, there were Africans living in New England at least as early as 1638 when the Salem ship Desire brought several Africans to Boston from the West Indies. Slavery never played a large role in the economy of New England--in 1680 there are estimated to have been less than 1,000 slaves throughout the region--but New England merchants were themselves deeply implicated in the slave trade. Many of the ships that carried Africans into slavery were owned by New Englanders and shipped out of New England ports; during the 18th century, Newport, Rhode Island controlled between 60 and 90 per cent of the American trade in African slaves.

Even before the Revolution there were free blacks as well as slaves living throughout New England. African Americans from New England were among the 5,000 blacks who fought as free men in the American Revolution. And in the Republican fervor of the war each soon-to-be New England state outlawed slavery: Vermont with the adoption of its constitution in 1777, Massachusetts in 1780, and Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire in 1784. Freed from slavery, African Americans nevertheless were denied opportunities to advance economically in the north:

Unlike other immigrant groups who were remunerated economically and socially for their initiative and perseverance in assimilation, blacks were, more often than not, punished for such behavior by a white community that feared black advancement might threaten the stability of caste relationships. 18

In the period following the Revolution the majority of African Americans in New England found employment as laborers and servants. The aristocrats of this system were self-employed blacks who worked as barbers, carpenters, and blacksmiths; even with the development of factories there were no black mill girls. With one exception: in the early 19th century seafaring offered African American men a greater degree of tolerance and better wages than any other occupation. On board ship black men could not only rank higher but also earn more than their white co-workers. Racial boundaries that were never transgressed on shore became secondary to those established by the institution of the ship. This situation drew a great many African American men to the sea and professional seaman became a bulwark of a developing back middle class.

During this same period increasing numbers of African Americans were able to establish their own households independent of their white employers, and in urban areas African Americans worked toward the development of their own community institutions. Thus black churches, schools, and fraternal organizations grew up in Hartford, New Haven, Providence, Newport, and Boston, promoting both a movement for reform and an attack on slavery. African Americans in New England were speaking up and speaking out, and with notable results: in 1843 the Eastern Railroad, under considerable pressure from Boston's black community, ended its policy of separate cars for blacks, and in 1855 Boston city schools were integrated. Boston was regarded as one of the nation's great liberal communities. It was by reputation "foremost in advocating the Negro's cause and vouchsafing him the immunities of citizenship." (310) Much of the anti-slavery agitation was centered there and it was one of the stations in the Underground Railroad. But Boston was "liberal" by the standards of the era "which in the field of race relations meant that Negroes were tolerated but not promoted, nor were they completely integrated into the warp and woof of the community." (394)

In 1860 on the eve of the Civil War there 4.5 million African Americans in the American south, 4 million of whom were slaves and 500,000 free. This in contrast with a total of 24,711 free African Americans living in New England. The New England number is small, only about five per cent of the total free black population, but it is nevertheless significant. African Americans did not first come to urban New England as a part of the "Great Migration" from the rural south to the urban north that occurred during the 20th century. African Americans were among the founding families of New England, and their history here, although largely unknown, is deserving of attention.

1. William Piersen, Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth Century New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 47.

2. James Oliver Horton, "Blacks in Antebellum Boston: The Migrant and the Community, an Analysis of Adaptation." In Making a Living: The Work Experience of African Americans in New England, edited by Robert Hall and Michael Harvey (Boston: New England Foundation for the Humanities, 1995), 310.

3. Charles Sumner Brown, "The Genesis of the Negro Lawyer in New England, Part I." Ibid., 394.