This Juneteenth, I'm learning the Black history of my home state.
I found out yesterday that Florence, Massachusetts was an enclave for abolitionists and freed slaves – and the home of Sojourner Truth. I was surprised – as it is the antithesis of what my perception of Massachusetts has grown to be. I grew up in a small town in central Massachusetts and attended public schools that were majority white. I left this small town in 2010 to go to school in Washington, DC excited about being surrounded by new people and a different culture. During the twelve years of living in DC (known as Chocolate City), the biases against my hometown strengthened. I considered Massachusetts to be the epitome of whiteness – a place that celebrates its colonial history and where I drive by blue lives matter signs every day.
After learning about Sojourner Truth, I dove into a rabbit hole of web research about Black history in Massachusetts. I now realize how little I knew - and how rooted in privilege that is.
I grew up being told that Massachusetts was the first to end slavery long before the 13th Amendment. What I didn’t know is that the state was the first to legalize slavery in 1641 – originating in the enslaving and selling Native Americans, often in exchange for Africans in the Caribbean. This trade set the groundwork for the slave trade as the pillar of American colonialism and capitalism. Massachusetts also set the groundwork for the abolishment of slavery (abolished in MA in 1783) and was home of the first anti-slavery organizations in the colonies and the oldest standing African American meeting house and church. By 1790 was the first and only state to record zero slaves on the federal census. Springfield, MA has a deep history in the liberation of enslaved people as a stop along the Underground Railroad right off the Connecticut river and being a hub of train transportation. It’s estimated that Springfield had 8-15 stations on the Underground Railroad, many of them the homes of freed Black people.
It is well known that W.E.B. Dubois was from Massachusetts and was the first African American graduate from Harvard. What I didn’t know is that by the time he graduated in 1900, the Black community in Boston had the highest literacy rates in the country, thought to be due to schools in the state being desegregated in 1855. By 1901, Boston was referred to as the “mecca of the negro” because unlike elsewhere, African Americans were never legally denied the right to vote in Massachusetts and Black women were able to vote in local school department elections as early as 1870. The state was known as a haven for African descended people until the 1920s and 1930s as immigration law made migration from Caribbean and South American countries became illegal and the New Deal federal housing policies spurred the growth of white suburbs – and prevented Black and Brown people from purchasing property outside of certain districts. Despite this, by the 21st century, Massachusetts was considered home of one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse Black populations in the country – as a region that welcomed immigrants from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cape Verde.
I’m angry at my schooling – the fact that I went to Old Sturbridge Village every year of elementary school for field trips and Plimouth Plantation to learn about the state’s and country’s history. But I had no idea that I could go to the Pan African Museum of History in Springfield or take a walking tour of abolitionist history in Boston. We need to do more in this country to teach our children a multi-perspective version of history.
I’m also angry at myself. I realize that my love of multiculturalism and Black history in Washington, DC was paired with a dismissal of my home in Massachusetts with an assumption that the history, culture, and population lacks diversity. I never bothered to learn about the deep roots of Black liberation in MA, and in turn ignored the contributions of Black activists, scholars, and politicians that shaped my home.
I also realize that celebrating and learning about the Black community was easy in Washington, DC – I was surrounded by it. It was easy in DC to celebrate Juneteenth with protests and events all over the city. Those celebrations were handed to me. They were led and organized by members of the Black community and attended by white folks like me who felt good because they could consider themselves an "ally." What a demonstration of white participation in the larger racial justice movement in our country.
I have said since I left DC a year ago how I “miss” the diversity that I “left behind” when I moved back to Massachusetts. When in reality, what this perspective shows is that I can exist comfortably in my hometown without knowing the Black history and culture at its foundations. Now I realize how rich the diversity in my back yard really is – I just need to try a little harder to find it. And isn’t that a lesson in whiteness and privilege?