Cambridge Historical Society’s antiracism work began by looking within its own headquarters
Woman, name unknown.
Mark Lee (or Lewis).
These are the names of the enslaved people who were associated with the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, the headquarters of Cambridge Historical Society.
It’s a topic many shy away from, but there is a long history of slavery in Massachusetts. In 2019, Cambridge Historical Society made the commitment to recognizing that Black Lives Matter. That’s when the organization began to take an honest look at its own history. Council members, staffers and volunteers delved into the society’s privileged roots and faced some disturbing truths along the way – first in researching the history of their own headquarters, the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House at 159 Brattle St., West Cambridge, and the past owners.
“Unfortunately, there is so much we don’t know about the enslaved people associated with this house. As a result of centuries of white supremacy, the historical record for enslaved people is not nearly as well documented as it is for white people,” executive director Marieke Van Damme said. “Despite these challenges, we will continue exploring ways we can honor the enslaved people associated with this place.”
One of the society’s more recent efforts highlighted by Van Damme was posting a series of signs at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House that highlights its complex history. These signs chronicle the names and stories of enslaved people tied to the house’s history as well as the people who enslaved them.
“It’s important for us to be honest about where our privilege comes from,” Van Damme said. “These signs alone might not change anything, but they’re a first step – a way for us to begin the conversation. Examining our privilege is something that’s ongoing for us.”
One of the newest facets of the society’s anti-racism work is made possible by a grant from the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati. Cambridge Historical Society is working on hiring a paid intern who will research history of enslaved people in Cambridge in the years leading up to and immediately following the American Revolution.
At its core, the society knows that bringing the stories of enslaved people to light and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement starts with posing questions: Did the owners of the house own slaves? Did enslaved people live at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House? What were their stories? The answers weren’t always easy to find, but dark bits of history began to emerge. Some of the key takeaways:
- There is a long history of slavery in Massachusetts, including Cambridge.
- Several West Cambridge landowners had Jamaican plantations that were worked by enslaved people.
- The Hooper-Lee-Nichols House was first owned by the Hoopers, then bought by Cornelius Waldo. He had ties, through his family, to the slave trade, and he himself enslaved people.
- At this time, it is unknown if any enslaved people lived in the house, but it is possible.
- Joseph Lee, a later owner of the house, was a socially prominent Tory. He enslaved a man named Cesar and a man named Mark Lewis who was, at some point, freed. Lewis bought and worked property in Cambridge.
- Get the full story of the enslaved and their owners in association with the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House at the Cambridge Historical Society website.
About Cambridge Historical Society
We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We strive to be the most relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge. We do that by recognizing that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.
Our theme for 2021 is “How Does Cambridge Mend?” Make history with us at cambridgehistory.org.
Amy Marquis is communications manager for Cambridge Historical Society.