Though dwelling in a land of freedom
In July 1775, 6-year-old Darby Vassall asserted his freedom. Recently reunited with his parents after the death of his enslaver, Vassall refused Gen. George Washington’s order to work in the home that was Washington’s Cambridge headquarters. In an account of the story that Vassall told later in life, he described Washington as “no gentleman, he wanted [a] boy to work without wages.” Several months prior, his parents, Tony and Cuba Vassall, had seized their own freedom. This article traces the family’s journey to that moment and in the decades that followed.
In 1759, slaveholder John Vassall Jr. built a mansion along the road to Watertown, now Brattle Street. His family had amassed enormous wealth from the Jamaican sugar industry, in which it enslaved hundreds of people. The practice of slavery was deeply embedded in the society and economy of the New England colonies. John and Elizabeth Vassall enslaved at least seven people on their estate in Cambridge (now 105 Brattle St., the Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House): Cuba, Dinah, Malcolm, William and three children – James and two unnamed “small boys.” Many of the Vassalls’ wealthy neighbors also enslaved people.
Available records reveal a more detailed history of one family the Vassalls enslaved. Cuba (later known as Cuba Vassall) was born on Antigua and enslaved with her mother, Abba, and siblings by Isaac Royall Sr. When Royall moved from Antigua to his estate in Medford (now the Royall House and Slave Quarters Museum) in 1737, he brought Cuba, Abba and 28 other enslaved people with him.
In 1739, Royall’s daughter Penelope married Henry Vassall, John Vassall’s uncle. She took Abba, Cuba and four of Cuba’s siblings as property to her new home in Cambridge (now 94 Brattle St.). There, Cuba met and married Anthony (often referred to as Tony), a coachman enslaved by Henry Vassall. Oral accounts indicate that Tony was born in the Spanish Empire around 1713 and kidnapped as a young adult to Jamaica. There, Henry Vassall bought him.
According to historian J.L. Bell, enslaved people along the Watertown road likely formed community as they “worked alongside each other in the fields and gardens, shared recipes in the kitchens and visited from house to house.” In 1752, Tony and brother-in-law Robin collaborated with other free and enslaved laborers in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to gain their freedom by taking money from William Brattle and buying passage to Canada, then France.
Tony and Cuba had at least six children: James, Dorrenda, Flora, Darby, Cyrus and Catherine. Their enslavers, however, did not hesitate to separate the family. In 1769, the newly widowed Penelope Vassall sold Cuba and likely several of her children to Penelope’s nephew, John. In May 1769, Cuba gave birth to her son Darby. John eventually sold or gave young Darby to George Reed of Woburn. For the next five years, Tony, Cuba and their children were divided.
In late 1774, revolutionary unrest prompted the neighborhood’s elite Loyalist residents, including John, Elizabeth and Penelope Vassall, to flee their Cambridge homes. The people they enslaved remained behind. Their enslavers gone, Tony and Cuba reunited their family in freedom on the former John Vassall estate. By July 1775, their son Darby had returned after Reed’s death.
During the 1775-1776 Siege of Boston, Washington used the John Vassall mansion as his headquarters. Cuba, Tony and their family remained in another dwelling on the estate, tending three-quarters of an acre for their own livelihood. Records from this period also document payments to Tony for work on the confiscated Royall estate in Medford.
In 1780, the Massachusetts General Court prepared to sell the Vassall estate. Tony and Cuba, now using the surname Vassall, faced eviction. They petitioned the court to continue living on and cultivating an acre of land. That petition was denied.
In 1781, they filed a second, successful petition for a pension:
Though dwelling in a land of freedom, both himself and his wife have spent almost sixty years of their lives in slavery … [One hopes] that they shall not be denied the sweets of freedom … by being reduced to the painful necessity of begging for bread.
Tony Vassall was granted 12 pounds annually. Six years later, the couple bought a home nearby. Tony worked as a paid laborer, yeoman farmer and farrier, and later bought five additional acres. He passed away in 1811; Cuba Vassall passed away the following year.
Their sons, Darby and Cyrus Vassall, moved to Boston and become deeply involved in the Black community of Beacon Hill. They were founding members of the African Society, a mutual aid association. In 1812, Darby Vassall – now married with children – joined other activists to petition for a school for Black students. In 1861, with his daughter and son-in-law, he signed a petition aimed at protecting the Black community against the Fugitive Slave Act. He was the guest of honor at events commemorating Haitian Independence and the Boston Massacre.
Darby Vassall, age 92, passed away in 1861 and was buried in Henry Vassall’s tomb under Christ Church. Abolitionist William Cooper Nell wrote and published an obituary in The Liberator.
Tony and Cuba Vassall’s daughter Catherine and her husband Adam Lewis bought land near Cambridge Common, helping establish the burgeoning Black community of “Lewisville.” The Lewis family was active in abolition and civil rights; in 1858, Enoch Lewis formed the Cambridge Liberian Emigrant Association. That November, Catherine and Adam Lewis were part of a group that sailed for Liberia.
Today, the legacy of these families who endured slavery and fought for freedom in Cambridge persists. Learn more about the history of slavery at 105 Brattle St., including an in-depth version of this article, here. Visit the Cambridge Black History Project and History Cambridge for more local history and community.
Selected sources and further reading
- “George Washington’s Headquarters and Home, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site Historic Resource Study” by J.L. Bell, published by the National Park Service in 2012.
- “Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England” by Jared Ross Hardesty published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2019.
- The Longfellow House Bulletin of June 2003.
- “Building Old Cambridge: Architecture and Development,” by Susan E. Maycock and Charles Sullivan, published by the MIT Press in 2016.
- “The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution: With Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons” by William Cooper Nell, published by Robert R. Wallcut in 1855.
Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site preserves the home of famed 19th century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, also Gen. George Washington’s headquarters during the Siege of Boston. Today the site embraces but digs beyond their stories to explore the history of slavery, acts of emancipation, American historical mythology, LGBTQ history, architecture and family life.
This is its 50th year as a National Historic Site, and the there are plans to celebrate the many achievements that have shaped the site into a dynamic community resource, tourist destination and center for scholarship. Staff will continue to peel back the layers of history for an even deeper understanding of 105 Brattle St.’s place in Cambridge history, in U.S. history and in world history and work to make the Longfellow House more welcoming and accessible to all. Visitors are invited to join in a fresh exploration of U.S. history through the arts, scholarship, stewardship and community. To mark half a century,
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