Friday, February 21, 2014

Jackson Homestead

This week, I visited the Jackson Homestead in Newton, Massachusetts, with my sister and niece. The house is now a small museum but was once a "station" on the Underground Railroad. While there are many homes that are officially on the National Historic Register for once being stops on the Underground Railroad, most of them are privately owned and not open to the public.

We learned about the slave trade in New England.

Frida demonstrated how little space each captured person had in the hold of a slave ship. When I got in it, my shoulders didn't even fit.

We learned about one man's escape from slavery; he shipped himself to a free state in a box.

Frida crawled in a box of the same shape and size to demonstrate how cramped Henry "Box" Brown must have been during transit. After arriving in Philadelphia, Brown was sent on to New York and then to Francis Jackson in Boston. Francis Jackson was the brother of William Jackson, a former owner of the Jackson home we were visiting.

In the photo below, the red and blue blocks illustrate how many blacks (compared to whites) there were in Boston (blue) and Newton (red) during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The dramatic dip shows the effect that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had on the black population. Before the law was passed, escaped slaves were safely free once they were in a free state. After the law was passed, escaped slaves could be re-captured and returned to slavery--even from a "free" state--so many former slaves fled to Canada in order to ensure their freedom.

The museum does a good job of explaining some of the complexity of slavery and abolition. The map (below) of Newton shows that slaveholders and enslaved people lived next door to antislavery activists and free blacks. Sometimes the same house represents both. The Jackson Homestead was originally owned by Edward Jackson, who was a slaveholder. When his grandson William owned the home, it was used to provide safe haven to those escaping slavery.

Most homes used as stations on the Underground Railroad didn't actually hide escaped slaves in tiny cupboards and crawl spaces. Usually they were simply sheltered and fed and then taken to another shelter. Jackson family folklore has it that this dried-up well in the basement was occasionally used to hide escaped slaves.

After we left the Jackson Homestead, we drove to Beacon Hill to find two other sites related to the Underground Railroad. We found the African Meeting House on Joy Street (formerly used to host meetings of abolitionists), and the former home of Lewis Hayden on Phillips Street. Lewis Hayden escaped slavery and went on to be a prominent abolitionist; he provided shelter to others escaping slavery as well.

In the photo below, Frida has jumped out of the car and is snapping a photo of the plaque hanging on the outside of the former Hayden residence--now privately owned and not open to the public.

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