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“The Black Community in Colonial Dorchester and Boston” Lecture Turns into a Spirited Discussion Among Historians, Subject Experts, and the Curious.

by kmiller

Yesterday’s Boston Public Library Local and Family History Series lecture on The Black Community in Colonial Dorchester and Boston felt more like a lively discussion among a group of historians than a one-person presentation. Historian Alex Goldfeld opened the night with an acknowledgement of the expertise of the people in the room and invited many voices to chime in about the lives of African Americans in colonial New England.

Goldfeld used letters and documents to examine the dark circumstances that originally brought African Americans to New England. Goldfeld displayed and used a correspondence to John Winthrop to explain that early white colonialist traded captured Native Americans, cotton, and fish for African American slaves.  White colonists’ belief that African Americans would be more obedient than Native Americans due to their lack of familiarity with the land contributed to the rise of the African American population in Boston during mid to late 1600s. The letter also expressed the belief that without slave labor, New England could never grow and flourish to its full potential.

The subject of land ownership was a topic Goldfeld embarked on through documentation of a free African American Sebastian Kane’s purchase of a slave’s freedom. In the transaction paper, dated 1656, Kane put his property in Dorchester up as collateral for the payment, proving he was one of the first, if not the first, African American landowner in Boston. An audience member added that Zipporah Potter Atkins, an African American woman, is believed to have owned property in the North End around 1670. The rarity, if not the impossibility, of an African American woman owning and keeping property at that time was noted and discussed.

Another subject of debate was the discovery of the smallpox vaccine by Cotton Mather. Goldfeld discussed the smallpox epidemic of 1721, infecting roughly half of Boston’s population. At this time in history, China, India, and Africa had been practicing types of inoculation, but this type of preventative care was unknown to the people of New England. Goldfeld explained to the group that Mather got the idea from one of his slaves, and fought for the procedure to become widespread. An audience member piped in to provide the slave’s name, Onesimus, and to suggest he had a much bigger role in the development and implementation of the vaccine than Goldfeld originally suggested.

When Goldfeld concluded his lecture by mentioning that he was over the allotted time, the audience murmured in disbelief that the hour had flown by so quickly. Goldfeld thanked the group and the many voices who contributed to the discussion. Leaving the Commonwealth Salon, it was clear to the audience that The Black Community in the Colonial Dorchester and Boston is a topic that will continue to be studied, debated, and shared for a long time to come.


One Response to ““The Black Community in Colonial Dorchester and Boston” Lecture Turns into a Spirited Discussion Among Historians, Subject Experts, and the Curious.”

  1. Vannepha Luangaphay says:

    Hi, I want to ask about four corners, and the cornerstone there is there and contact information for me to reach Historian Alex Goldfeld. I am working on a project there with my school. here is the blog Please help! thank you