As slaves, as free men, as soldiers, and as activists, African Americans have been an integral part of Salem’s culture and economy since the founding of the city in 1626.
As a young city and an active port, the economic prosperity of Salem was tied to the slave culture of the British Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries. As early as 1638, the first enslaved Africans were brought into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the Salem-owned vessel Desire. Slaves worked as servants and skilled labor in the homes and businesses of Salem until the late 1700s.
Like most wealthy households in 17th and 18th century Salem, The House of the Seven Gables was home to three slaves. Owned by Captain John Turner II, Titus, Rebekah, and Lewis lived in the basement of the mansion. Records from the First Church reveal that Titus was a member of the church in good standing, and that both slaves and indentured servants worshiped with their masters but sat in back pews. While many have thought that The Gables’ secret staircase was a stop on the Underground Railroad, research has disproven the theory.
In 1783 slave holding was outlawed in the Massachusetts. Change came slowly, however, as Reverend William Bentley lamented in his diary that some of his Salem congregation still owned slave ships as late as the early 1800s.
In the early 19th century an immigrant from Curacao, John Remond was becoming prosperous Salem businessman. As a caterer, Remond handled some of the most important functions in Salem, including a lavish dinner at Hamilton Hall for the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824, the city’s 200th anniversary in 1826, and a dinner for President Andrew Jackson in 1833.
Two of John Remond’s children, Charles Lenox Remond and Sarah Parker Remond, were both active abolitionists who spoke in New England and Europe. Teacher and abolitionist Charlotte Forten came to Salem as a child to live with the Remond family and attend the town’s integrated schools. In 1856, Forten was the first African American student to graduate from the Salem Normal School (today, Salem State University).
Opening in 1831, the Salem Lyceum hosted scores of nationally known artists, politicians, philosophers, and scientists, including Daniel Webster, Alexander Graham Bell, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Lyceum also featured many activists in the abolitionist movement, including William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Charles Lenox Remond.
The Lyceum was also home to the bi-racial Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, which was founded in 1843. During the society’s 30-year history, members distributed clothing to freed “Negroes” in the area, participated in anti-slavery bazaars in Salem and at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, organized a sewing school for African American girls, and aided fugitive slaves in Canada.
Throughout Salem’s history, many African Americans were drawn to seafaring occupations because of the opportunity to earn equal pay with white crew members. Surviving crew lists from Salem’s international trading fleet reveal a socially and ethnically diverse sailing community.
Election Day was a holiday for slaves in 18th century New England. In Salem, slaves spent this day eating, dancing, singing and meeting relatives from surrounding communities in one of the fields around town. This tradition carried on into the 1920s when black churches from the greater Boston area began holding an annual picnic at Salem Willows Park. Today, African Americans still come from all over the United States to Salem Willows Park for the annual “Black Picnic.”
African American Heritage Sites in Salem, A Guide to Salem’s History, National Park Service, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, 1998, revised 2008.
Salem Women’s Heritage Trail, Bonnie Hurd Smith, 2000