top of page
Screenshot 2024-02-26 at 3.39.09 PM.png

SCOURGE OF SLAVERY

Slavery and First Church in Roxbury

A true examination of our history, and that of First Church Roxbury, must include looking at the enslavement of Black and Brown people.

This section includes excerpts from Aabid Allibhai's report, "Race & Slavery at the First Church in Roxbury (The Colonial Period 1631-1775)", and other sources, to examine the history of slavery in this area during this timeframe, as well as how slavery and racism are part of the history of First Church Roxbury.

We encourage you to read Aabid's report, and to watch the virtual presentation that features him and historian Byron Rushing, as they discuss its contents and answer questions from audience members.

why people mad at me sometimes

they ask me to remember

but they want me to remember

their memories

and i keep on remembering

mine.

.

- Lucille Clifton

(Response when asked to write a poem "celebrating our colonial heritage" for Maryland's 350th anniversary.)

Slave Trade & Its Mark on New England

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was a global slave trading system that transported over 12 million enslaved African individuals across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th century, starting in 1562.​ Many regions of the world were involved in the slave trade, including New England.

Contrary to popular belief, New England was a constant consumer of slave-produced goods like molasses for rum, which was then traded for more slaves in return. Massachusetts was a prominent colony within New England that participated in not just the transatlantic slave trade, but also the enslavement of many indigenous peoples. ​

Roxbury's History With Slavery

In New England, slave-produced goods - like molasses for rum - were also traded for more slaves in return. Boston was not exempt from this participation, as we see in the photo below: Roxbury is mentioned in the picture, proving that there was a mark of slaves in Boston, not just goods being imported.

Slavery at First Church Roxbury

Aabid's report found information about 58 people of color, Indigenous and Black, enslaved by members of First Church in Roxbury

Screen Shot 2024-02-27 at 3.33.47 PM.png

As Aabid wrote:

"At least fifty-eight human beings—Black and Indigenous men, women, and children—were enslaved by First Church’s white parishioners. That number, of course, is a significant undercount: the records do not tell us about everyone."

Many members of First Church were enslavers. This included pastors and members alike: Joseph Dudley, member of First Church in Roxbury, and governor of Massachusetts Bay, an enslaver of two African slaves as well as two indigenous slaves. First Church allowed interracial services, along with many other churches in New England. However, there was a separation between White churchgoers and people of color in the seating arrangements. Members that were people of color were given seats “above & back of the singers' seats, to occupy part of the Tower.”

The segregation between people of color and White members did not end there. Although a common practice with White Christians during that time, a slave being baptized did not guarantee their right to be free. Many Black people desired to be baptized according to their Christian faith. This was the case for Keturah, an enslaved African American woman by a First Church member. She faced opposition to her baptism because her enslaver, Thomas Seaver, hindered the marriage of her and her husband. Her living conditions with her forbidden husband caused complications with the church’s values and contested her ability to be baptized. Eventually baptized by First Church leaders, it is clear to see how easily slaves were hindered from practicing their faith. In addition, Black people who committed crimes faced harsher punishments than their white counterparts. 

First Church Missionary John Eliot espoused a belief in assimilating Natives into English culture, advocating for the abandonment of their traditions. Employing methods such as education and religion, he aimed to civilize indigenous communities. Simultaneously, within the confines of the First Church, the harsh reality for slaves was one of familial separation, with individuals often torn from their loved ones and traded as property upon their owners' deaths, further perpetuating the dehumanizing notion of slaves as mere commodities.

Screen Shot 2024-02-27 at 4.29.02 PM.png

While John Eliot is credited with translating the Bible into Algonquian, this monumental task was not solely his accomplishment; it was achieved through collaborative efforts with numerous Native Americans contributing to its translation.

Slave Resistance

In New England, people of color employed their Christian faith as a means of resistance against enslavement, racial discrimination, and the imposition of church doctrines they found objectionable. This resistance was evident in various instances, such as the powerful exhortation delivered by an enslaved man during a dinner party in Boston in 1740. Tasked with impersonating the Reverend George Whitfield, he instead used the opportunity to confront his master and the guests, asserting his allegiance to Jesus Christ and condemning his master's immoral behavior.

Similarly, the case of Ann, an enslaved woman referred to as "Sister Ann" by church leaders, illustrates resistance through refusal to attend church services due to disagreement with the teachings on grace and assurance. Despite attempts by church members to persuade her otherwise, Ann remained steadfast in her beliefs, highlighting her agency and autonomy in matters of faith. 

Another example was Maria, a Black woman, who set fire to the homes of two members of the First Church in Roxbury, resulting in injuries and death. She was found guilty and sentenced to death by burning, becoming the first woman to suffer such a fate in the thirteen mainland colonies. Two other enslaved individuals, Chefelia and Coffee, were implicated but not indicted. Maria's case sheds light on the disproportionate punishment faced by Black women convicted of crimes compared to their white counterparts throughout history. Despite the lack of comprehensive information about Maria's life and motives, her story underscores the historical marginalization and erasure of Black women's experiences. Historian Kali Nicole Gross emphasizes the importance of acknowledging and understanding this history to work toward justice and equality. The photos below show a map, specifically where Maria was murdered.

 

New England also resisted racial oppression by establishing their own churches, despite facing constant conflict and interference from English settlers. These indigenous-led churches served as autonomous spaces where Native communities could preserve their spiritual traditions, exercise autonomy, and strengthen intertribal connections, despite attempts to assimilate them into English culture.

Enslaved individuals at the First Church in Roxbury sometimes resorted to more secular forms of resistance, such as running away. The case of Sharper, a Black man who absconded from his enslaver in 1749, exemplifies the risks involved in such acts of defiance, as white settlers were legally obligated to recapture runaway slaves. In a particularly extreme act of resistance, a Black woman named Maria set fire to the homes of two church members and her enslaver, resulting in injuries and death. Maria's subsequent sentencing to death by burning underscores the severe consequences faced by those who dared to resist, particularly people of color in a society where racial chattel slavery was widely accepted and enforced. These examples highlight the multifaceted nature of resistance among people of color in colonial New England, encompassing spiritual, social, and physical forms of defiance against the oppressive structures of enslavement and racial discrimination.

bottom of page