Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Henry Vassall House at 94 Brattle St., West Cambridge. (Photo: Jules Long)

The oldest existing mention of slavery in Massachusetts was recorded in 1638, when African prisoners arrived in the colony on the slave ship Desire, built in Marblehead the previous year. In 1639, the mention of a “Moor” living in the household of Nathaniel Eaton, master of Harvard College, marks the oldest surviving mention of slavery in Cambridge. Massachusetts was the first American colony to formally allow for human bondage under the Body of Liberties law, which was enacted in 1641 and remained in place until 1783. Six percent of taxpayers in 1749 were slaveholders (or 12 out of 208 in Cambridge). These slaveholders were tanners, judges, innkeepers and merchants; several owned plantations in the West Indies. In 1759, each Cambridge slaveholder had one slave (aged 12-50) with the exception of Henry Vassall, who enslaved four adults – for a total of 15 enslaved adults in Cambridge (children were not counted). By the 1770s, several of the wealthiest residents of Brattle Street (otherwise known as Tory Row) held multiple people in bondage; John Vassall had seven enslaved people on his property, while his sister-in-law Penelope Vassall had five and his son-in-law Thomas Oliver had 10.

Records from 1754 list a mere 56 Black inhabitants in all three parishes of Cambridge, but that figure is more than three times the number of Black inhabitants in other towns with a comparable population. Most were enslaved, although the 1777 census lists nine free Black residents who paid a poll tax. By 1765, the number of Blacks had increased to 90 in all three parishes of Cambridge, out of a total population of 1,582 (or 6 percent). In 1790, that number decreased to only 60 Black inhabitants listed in all three parishes of Cambridge (or 2.8 percent of the total population). The decrease can be attributed to the end of slavery in the 1780s, when many Black Cantabrigians moved to Boston. By the time the 1800 census was conducted, only 25 Black residents were recorded in Cambridge out of a total population of 2,453 (or 1 percent).

To learn more about slavery in pre-Revolutionary Cambridge, take our Self-Guided Tour: Stories from the Early African American Community of Old Cambridge. Get detailed histories of each stop by visiting the website.

Stop 1: Front lawn of John Vassall House/Washington’s Headquarters (105 Brattle St.)
Stop 2: Henry Vassall House (94 Brattle St.)
Stop 3: Christ Church and the Old Burying Ground (Zero Garden St.)
Stop 4: Cambridge Common (Prince Hall Memorial, 6 Garden St.)
Stop 5: Lewisville: Garden Street & Concord Street (15 Concord Ave.)

Take our self-guided tour. Learn more about History Cambridge and our ongoing anti-racism work.


About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name, a new look and a whole new mission.

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

Jules Long is a guide at Longfellow House, Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. Eshe Sherley was an intern at History Cambridge.