Francis Prince Clary is the 1800s Black chemist written out of Harvard and Cambridge history
As the United States tore itself apart over slavery, the Harvard Class of 1862 prepared to graduate. To put together their personal class albums, students could choose from a menu of photographs, each of which they would slip into an album page.
Most of the photos were individual portraits of faculty members and classmates, but a “College Views” selection offered Harvard buildings and Cambridge landmarks. People, too: group portraits of the class and two student societies, the “goodies” (local women who cleaned students’ dorms) and “Molineaux” – Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett, director of the gymnasium and the university’s first Black instructor.
Just below the College Views section was a separate section, untitled, offering photos of “Clary” and “Lexie.” Lexie was the class dog. Clary was Francis Prince Clary.
In later Harvard lore, Clary, like Charles Lenox, was a “character” – a person who was at Harvard but not considered by lore-keepers to be of Harvard. Yet Clary, like Lenox and Hewlett, in fact played an unusual and historic role at the university, and off campus he was a well-recognized figure in the Black abolitionist community. Clary was Harvard chemistry professor Josiah Parsons Cooke’s right-hand man as Cooke helped to establish a systematic approach to understanding matter. And, although he left no writing we know of, Clary was clearly an intellectual, involved not just in science but in classical and popular music as well as the mechanics of Massachusetts politics. Written out of Harvard and Cambridge history like Lenox and so many other Black people, his story is now coming to light.
The history of Black Cambridge and Boston is often told as isolated stories about unusual individuals. Research is showing that this history is actually a story of family networks enmeshed in a community that refused to accept its assigned, subservient role in Massachusetts.
Francis Prince Clary was the product of such a family network. He was born in Chelsea sometime around 1820. His father, Prince Clary, was appointed with Cato Gardner, Scipio Dalton and Joseph Ball in 1806 to collect subscriptions to build the African Baptist Church. Prince Clary was born about 1770. His immediate origins aren’t known, but he had probably been enslaved. Francis’ mother, Diana (often “Anna”) Bassett Clary, was born about 1783 in Chelsea, the daughter of Sampson and Bilhah (sometimes “Beulah”) Emerson Bassett. John Bassett of Lynn had enslaved Sampson but manumitted him in 1776. When Bilhah married Sampson that year, she lived in Malden, and her surname suggests she was enslaved by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grandfather’s family there. Through her Bassett family, it seems Diana was related to the pioneering Caesar Paul family by either blood, marriage or adoption. Caesar’s son Thomas was the first pastor of the African Baptist Church.
Given this background, Francis would have heard stories of enslavement, kidnapping and discrimination in churches and elsewhere but also of individual and collective Black agency and accomplishments. These stories must have fueled his advocacy in adulthood.
The earliest known record of Francis Prince Clary’s existence is found in the vital records of Medford, where he and his siblings – Elizabeth Chadwick, George Charles, James Bassett and Margaret Jones Clary – were baptized in 1831. (Another sister, Ann Maria, doesn’t appear in this record.) As a young man, Clary lived in Boston. By 1842, he was running a clothing store at 44 Brattle St. (now Boston City Hall Plaza) and living on Southac (now Phillips) Street.
In 1843, he married Maria Jane (sometimes Jane Maria) Lewis, the daughter of Samuel Alexander and Susannah Maldree Lewis. His marriage embedded Clary in yet another prominent Black activist family, the Cambridge Lewises. The Lewises were the nieces and nephews of Quock Walker, whose 1780s lawsuits were among those that led to slavery being declared unconstitutional in Massachusetts. Nearly all the Lewises were involved in civil rights activism. And while some had moved to Boston or elsewhere, many of them worked at Harvard – providing Clary a way into the Yard.
Their common activism and the close confines of Boston’s Black neighborhoods mean it would have been impossible for Clary not to have regular contact with various Lewis family members in his youth. Plus, William F. Bassett, related to Clary’s mother, had married Dinah/Diana Lewis, Samuel Lewis’ sister, back in 1827; W.F. and his brother, Benjamin Paul Bassett, show up repeatedly in event announcements connected to Clary.
For example, in 1843, Clary was one of the ticket agents for a “social soiree” managed by B.P. Bassett, Henry Weeden and George Washington (well-known members of the Black Beacon Hill community) celebrating the first of August – the day in 1834 on which the Slavery Abolition Act went into effect in the British Empire. Like W.F. Bassett, who taught music at the African Meeting House, Clary was a musician. His and Maria’s marriage represented the further joining of two important families.
In 1844, the Clarys were still living in Boston when Francis Prince Jr. was born. By 1849, Junior and perhaps other babies had died, son Herbert Augustus had been born and the family had moved to the Lewis family compound at Concord and Garden streets in Cambridge.
All this while, Clary, and probably Maria behind the scenes, fought the color-based caste system Massachusetts maintained long after it outlawed slavery in the 1780s. Marriage between “white” and “colored” people was illegal; schools were segregated where there were more than a few Black children in towns or cities; Black parishioners had to sit in “Negro pews” in the balcony in many churches; Black passengers were consigned to separate (sometimes cargo) cars on trains and the outdoors seats on stagecoaches, no matter the weather. Frequently, those who protested were assaulted. As The Liberator reported, the community blamed the death of Maria’s uncle, Peter Pitts Lewis Jr. in 1845 on his having been forced to ride on the outside of a coach from Lowell to Cambridge on a wet winter day.
Massachusetts likes to praise itself for its anti-slavery history, but Clary’s activities form a chronicle of Black struggle against the prejudice, discrimination and legal restrictions his people were forced to endure here through the 1800s and beyond.
About the Cambridge Black History Project
The Cambridge Black History Project is an all-volunteer organization of individuals having deep roots in Cambridge. We are committed to researching, accurately documenting, preserving and illuminating the journeys, accomplishments and challenges of Black Cantabrigians, and to raising awareness of their stories through educational outreach to the Cambridge community and beyond.
Special thanks for research help to Charles Sullivan and the staff at the Cambridge Historical Commission and Alyssa Pacy at the Cambridge Public Library Cambridge Room.