"God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform..." William Cowper

Monday, April 2, 2012

Stone Walls and Church Balconies

 I thought I knew my history. At least the very basics.

But as I dove into my latest research of 18th century New England I found I was wrong.

I stumbled on a most startling fact. Maybe it won’t surprise you. Maybe you know your history better than I do. Or maybe, like me, you grew up with history books saturated with stories of the North fighting for the freedom of African slaves, as if the North never had anything to do with the entire nasty business. (I wonder if this is the view of those of you from the South?)

Here are some facts I unburied:

        * Many families of New England held slaves in the eighteenth century, but the amount was significantly fewer than the prominent plantations of the south. An upper class family of New England would often have one African slave for household duties. They may have one or two others for outside work at a family business or farm. If work was in short supply, the slaves were rented out.

      *  By the mid-eighteen century, Rhode Island had become the very center of the American slave trade.

       * One of the largest slave trading families in U.S. history, the DeWolfes, lived only fifteen minutes away from my home.

       *  Much of New England is filled with stone walls. You can’t get away from them! I have one in front of my house (above) that runs down the street. They often go for miles. Many of these walls were built by African slaves. The slaves were required to till the fields of undesirable stones and then build the walls that served as boundaries.

         * Before churches were segregated, slaves would attend church with the family that owned them. The congregations were seated according to prominence. The wealthiest families sat closest to the pulpit, the poorer in the rear. Church balconies were reserved for the colored slaves. I attend one of those old New England white-steeple churches (which I adore!). I spent two years up on its balcony, shushing and pacifying my babies through service. My church was established in 1772. The actual church was built in 1796. It’s quite possible that I quieted my babies in the same spot as an African slave woman quieted hers.

These facts tugged at my heart. Maybe the stone wall in front of my home wasn’t built by African slaves. Maybe a slave woman never sat in my pew at church, but the history is there, and I can’t help but wondering why it was left out of my history books. Or did I, subconsciously, not face the truth somewhere along the way? Perhaps shame hid it.

Let’s talk. What do you remember learning about this period in history? If you have older children, what are they learning? Were African slaves once an active part of where you live?

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