Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in West Cambridge. (Photo: James P. Jones)

In late 1774, Tony and Cuba Vassall seized their freedom and reunited their family. The married couple and their six children were enslaved at 94 and 105 Brattle St., West Cambridge – today the Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site – until the abrupt departure of their Loyalist enslavers on the eve of the American Revolution. In the years that followed, Tony and Cuba Vassall would petition the commonwealth for reparations, buy a family home and build community alongside fellow survivors of slavery. Several of their children, including Darby, Catherine, Cyrus and James, became activists, fighting for abolition, education and civil rights within the Black community of greater Cambridge. In 1825, Darby Vassall gave this toast at a celebration of Haitian independence:

“Freedom – may the freedom of Hayti be a glorious harbinger of a time when the color of a man shall no longer be a pretext for depriving him of his liberty.”

Learn more about this family’s story in the recent article, “Though Dwelling in a Land of Freedom.”

Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site held a Juneteenth gathering and outdoor film screening Sunday in partnership with the Museum of African American History, Cambridge Black History Project, Denise Washington and the poet and musician Akili Jamal Haynes (of the Becoming Chibuzo project), and descendants of Tony and Cuba Vassall. This event, which included poetry, music and film, sought to honor those who endured slavery on Brattle Street, seized freedom and advocated for their rights – and to recognize the importance of these historical events in shaping our community today.

Tony Vassall signed his 1781 pension petition with his mark, a “T,” in the bottom right corner.

The event began with a drum call by Becoming Chibuzo, followed by a processional and powerful pop-up poetry reading with Denise Washington. A recent piece by Washington, “Enslaved African,” reflects on this history and is available to watch online. The performance was followed by words of welcome from the National Park Service, Cambridge Black History Project and Museum of African American History. The evening concluded with a screening of the Museum of African American History’s new documentary film, “Jubilee Juneteenth and the Thirteenth,” produced by the Museum of African American History Boston and Nantucket with funding from Liberty Mutual, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard University Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging.

Becoming Chibuzo and Denise Washington performed Sunday at a Juneteenth event. (Photo: History Cambridge)

To learn more about the history of slavery and emancipation in greater Cambridge, visit Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, the Cambridge Black History Project, the Museum of African American History and History Cambridge. This summer, History Cambridge has installed temporary public art on the front lawn of its headquarters at 159 Brattle St., West Cambridge. Designed by the artists of Black Coral, “Forgotten Souls of Tory Row: Remembering the Enslaved People of Brattle Street” honors the enslaved adults and children who lived and worked on this land, as well as those whose labor on Caribbean plantations helped to finance the grand homes of white Tory Row elites. 

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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 2022 is “How Does Cambridge Work?” Make history with us at cambridgehistory.org.