Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Old North Church, A New/Old Point of View

I'm reading Clint Smith's How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, in which the poet and Atlantic staff writer visits a variety of sites connected to the history of enslavement. So far he has been to Monticello and Blandford Cemetery in Virginia and the Whitney Plantation and Angola Prison in Louisiana. Ahead are Galveston Island, Texas, New York City, and Gorée Island, Senegal. I think I will be writing more about the book when I finish it.

One place Smith did not visit to interrogate was the Old North Church in Boston. The church has recently recognized and is exploring its own history and connection with enslavement. For instance, its steeple, where the lanterns were hung to signal Paul Revere's ride, was built with the proceeds of wood harvests done by enslaved people. 

The part that startled me the most was what its current caretakers discovered about one of the early church members who was part of the early 18th-century chocolate trade:

Newark Jackson... was also a sea captain and smuggler who trafficked in slaves.... Further research found that Jackson was killed during a mutiny aboard a ship in 1743 that at the time was transporting 15 slaves, 13 of whom were children.

The research on Jackson was based on ship manifests. Another Old North parishioner was also killed in the mutiny. Even calling it a mutiny is, of course, looking at it from the point of view of slave-owners. Think of how those two adult Africans, stolen from their homes, fought for their freedom and the freedom of the 13 children on that ship. Though I'm not sure they managed to become free, since that link says "Dutch authorities" found them. It doesn't say what happened to the 15 people.

Looking into this further, I found that the foundation that runs the church as a historic site was promoting its historic chocolate tie-in when it discovered Jackson's history. They even had a retail outlet on site called Captain Jackson's Historic Chocolate where visitors could see how chocolate was made in the decades before the Revolution. 

Jackson was only one of several smugglers and slave-traders who were the church's benefactors.

The Episcopal News Service story linked above gives some additional background on Boston at the time:

Even in a region not typically associated with slavery (Massachusetts abolished it in 1783), almost 10 percent of Boston’s population in the 1740s was enslaved.

“There was probably enslaved labor working on the construction of church; we haven’t really done the deep dive into our archives to see if we can find any information about that, but that’s for future research. We know the first two rectors of the church were slave owners,” Ayres [vicar of Old North Church] said.

I know a little bit about New York City's history with enslavement, though I will soon know more from Clint Smith's book. But I knew nothing about Boston's. 


Oh, and if you feel even a moment of wanting to defend the actions of someone like Newark Jackson as being "a white man of his time," remember that there were white men of that same time who knew slavery was wrong and were abolitionists, like Benjamin Lay.


Jean said...

Yeah no, that's not a good look. Whose idea was it to promote a chocolate theme when the connection is "kidnapped people killed their captor who was taking them off to be slaves on cocoa farms"?

Daughter Number Three said...

Well, at least they didn't know about that when they named the shop for him. But yes, it definitely has led to a renaming.