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Black history is Boston history

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Archaeology

The Boston Archaeology Program seeks Boston's diverse and inclusive past.

Black history is Bostonian history. The City of Boston Archaeology Program is working with scholars and community members to illuminate the stories of Black Bostonians spanning nearly 400 years. Where Black voices have been silenced in the past, modern archaeology strives to amplify them. 

Black people appear in the Boston historical record from the 17th century onward, though these records are almost exclusively legal documents like wills, probates, and court records listing them as property.

The 1737 Probate of Nathaniel Williams, former headmaster of the Boston Latin School, listing  Richard and Hagar as his property.

Aided by historians with local ties, we have begun to collect the names and stories of as many enslaved Bostonians as we can find in early historical records. Very few of these men, women, and children were listed by name, and most are referred to by physical descriptors such as “Negro woman” or “Mulatto boy.” Many enslaved people were Native or both Native and Black. Enslaved Native people were sometimes described as "Indian," but others were incorrectly included in the term "Negro." This practice erased and devalued diverse peoples of color who were enslaved in Boston.

Though difficult to find in written records, the population of Boston’s enslaved people was significant in the 18th century. The 1752 census of enslaved and free Africans in Boston documented 1,541 Black Bostonians, or about 10% of the overall population of the city at the time.

The City of Boston Archaeology Program is committed to prioritizing Boston’s underrepresented people in our archaeological surveys, including enslaved and free Black people. Our recent digs on the Boston Latin School site at Old City Hall encountered the deposits of Nathaniel Williams, his wife and family, and the two people the family enslaved named Richard and Hagar in the above will. We found the cowrie shell, below, which may have belonged to one of the enslaved people on the site. Cowries are an important West African artifact that has been associated with enslaved people on American historic sites. We have also recently excavated at the Parker-Emery House on Unity Street in the North End where a blacksmith named Caleb Parker enslaved an unnamed man in the 18th century.  We will be sharing the results of the Parker-Emery House dig as we continue to conduct our analysis. 

A Cowrie shell that likely belonged to Richard or Hagar, two enslaved Bostonians, excavated during a recent archaeological survey at the Boston Latin School site at Old City Hall.

We invite everyone to join us in our quest for knowledge and learning, and recommend the following resources to gather more information about Boston’s free and enslaved Black residents, and the people who are working towards celebrating their stories. Below is a list of organizations and resources to utilize.

We would love to hear your recommendations for additional resources, videos, publications, and datasets that we have not included here. Please email us suggestions at archaeology@boston.gov.

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