This article is part of a three-part series following the Cambridge Historical Society’s antiracist history project. Read this Cambridge Day article and visit the Cambridge Historical Society’s website for information on how this project started.

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Eshe Sherley is an Intern at the Cambridge Historical Society.

While I’m technically a Bostonian, I spent much of my childhood in Cambridge – playing basketball at the YMCA, going to see plays at the American Repertory Theater and wandering around Harvard Square with my friends. Names such as Brattle, Longfellow and Agassiz make me think of home. But as the Cambridge community confronts the city’s history, historians and everyday Cantabrigians have begun to uncover how the history of slavery also shapes these names and places.

This year, the Cambridge Historical Society, with support from the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati, has hired me to support their work to contribute to Cambridge’s antiracist efforts. Together, we’ll build on the work we’ve already done on our own headquarters on Brattle Street and create additional resources that tell the stories of enslaved people in Cambridge. While many Cantabrigians have learned about African American life in Cambridge since the 19th century, we plan to focus our research on the period immediately preceding and following the American Revolution. How did enslaved people create community in 18th century Cambridge? How did unfreedom persist despite the legal end of chattel slavery in Massachusetts?

As the Society’s intern, I’m excited to explore these questions and more. My own research focuses on the organizing of Black women in the Black Freedom Movement after 1968. While many assume that the civil rights movement began with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1954 and ended with the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, scholars have shown that instead we ought to understand the civil rights movement as one part of a long arc of Black activism, from slavery to present. Our research at the Cambridge Historical Society has the opportunity to contribute to this historical perspective by showing how the history of Black resistance and organizing begins as far back as the American Revolution. By understanding the community building and resistance of past Black Cantabrigians, we can better engage the racial justice organizing that continues today.

But the 18th century is much different than the 20th. One of the challenges I expected this to pose was a lack of sources about enslaved people in the archives. I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far not only with the availability of archival sources, but also with the excellent work Cambridge and Metro Boston institutions have done around slavery in the 18th century. At the Longfellow House, archivists have begun to unearth the story of two of the Vassall family’s enslaved people, Tony and Cuba, who freed themselves after the Revolutionary War and petitioned successfully to get a pension from the Vassall family. The Cambridge Historical Commission and the First Church of Cambridge have also used their records to chart the history of slavery in Cambridge in the 17th and 18th centuries.

With this tremendous research as a foundation, I look forward to creating resources that will take historical research and bring them home to Cantabrigians. Be on the lookout for public talks, an online resource guide and a walking tour to bring this history to life and connect the Cambridge of the 18th century to the Cambridge of the present. If you have any tips, leads or ideas about 18th century Black Cantabrigian history, send me an email at [email protected].

To learn more about Cambridge History, visit the Cambridge Historical Society website.

About the 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.


Eshe Sherley is an intern at the Cambridge Historical Society.

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