Slavery in Revere?

Shackles, masters and African slave labor don’t tend to be the things most often associated with Colonial New England, but that “peculiar institution” so common in the Deep South during Colonial times was just as popular in Revere.

Revere historian Jeff Pearlman is used to getting strange looks when he talks about how slavery was such an early force that shaped Revere when it was a major farming community.

After all, slavery is the kind of atrocity reserved for historical disdain in places like Mississippi and Virginia, not Revere. Right?


Armed with incredibly detailed historic documents, Pearlman and the Rumney Marsh Burial Ground Restoration Committee are looking to honor 13 slaves buried in unmarked graves on the historic grounds – combining the event on April 13th with the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

“The looks I get when I discuss slavery in Revere range from apathy – unfortunately – to utter surprise,” said Pearlman. “In the case of School Committeeman Fred Sannella, he was thrilled to hear we were doing something to recognize it publicly. It’s mostly surprising to people and most have an interest to learn more. That makes me happy as a teacher to educate them. I spent 36 years teaching in the Revere Public Schools.”

Pearlman said he had found the detailed descriptions of the 13 slaves buried along the north wall of the Rumney several years ago during his research – a fact that others in the local historical circles have also made note of over the years.

“We had good information on them, the names, dates of death, and who owned them,” said Pearlman. “I put it in the back of my head and kept thinking about it for several years. Now, with the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation – and even the movie ‘Lincoln’ coming out recently – I thought it was a good time to remember these people whose graves are not even marked.”

Pearlman said it’s important to remember that slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts in 1804, and while most of the slaves in the Rumney were born into slavery, some of them were freed in some fashion during their lives. Likewise, he noted that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the South, and it really didn’t have any enforcement. It was, after all, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that actually freed most of the country’s remaining slaves.

Naturally, slavery in today’s world is viewed with horror, and the fact that Revere lands were worked with African slave labor is shocking. However, Pearlman said it was a common thing, and should probably be viewed through the historical lens of the 1700s.

“It was a fairly common thing to have slaves, even in Colonial New England,” he said. “It was just common. I tell my students that all the time when we talk about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Some and most of them had relations with their slaves. It’s terrible, but we can’t judge that in 2013 by our modern standards. People are shocked, but that was 18th Century thinking. There is always shock when people learn about what happened in Revere. There were slaves here and they had owners, and many of those owners were heroes of the Revolutionary War.”

Pearlman said they plan to erect two tablets along the north fence of the grounds, where an ancient map has plotted out the unmarked graves of the slaves. One tablet will feature a picture of the 54th Regiment – an all-black group of soldiers from the Civil War. The second tablet will contain the names and information of those buried there, along with a picture of a slave in shackles, looking upward and proclaiming, “Am I not a man and your brother?”

The ceremony will take place on Saturday, April 13th, at noon on the burial grounds at Butler Street. Pearlman said he is expecting elected officials, members of organizations and, possibly, Civil War re-enactors from the 54th Regiment.

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