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Slave Tales of Newburyport
slave_auctionBLACK HISTORY

As a seaport town, Newburyport, MA has a wealth of untold African American. Shocking by today’s standards, this attempt at "black history" published by a white reporter in 1902 shows how racist stereotypes continued to be publicly acceptable into the 20th century. Reports like this perpetuated bigoted attitudes drawn from local legends and demonstrate that racist views were equally common in the North and South. (Read more below)

Published in 1902
Newburyport Morning Herald  

Black Yankees of Seacoast Massachusetts

The colored people whom we now see in our community are mostly from the South, some of them having been born in slavery in that section and most of them descendants of southern slaves. Fifty years ago and more the blacks were of Northern birth and of Northern descent for several generations, from ancestors who had been slaves in Massachusetts, slaves of our ancestors, and a few survived who had been slaves themselves. Just about fifty years ago a colored woman died in that part of the town called "Guinea" (near where the Boston & Maine track crosses Low street) who was 88 years old, and who was born a slave and was married to a man who was born in slavery when they had been enfranchised but a few years by the operation of the constitution of Massachusetts of 1780.

One of the negroes whose story is connected to Newbury and Newburyport was named Will, and when he was small he lived with his parents and several brothers and sisters in a house standing near where Richard G. Adams now lives on Bromfield street. Samuel Little, who lived where Joseph Little now lives, opposite the Four Rock road in Oldtown, and whose father owned all the Little land in the neighborhood, used to do teaming for the merchants of Newburyport with oxen, as was still done within remembrance. One day Mr. Little was passing this negro house where Will and his brothers and sisters were playing in the street and the father was leaning over a gate the bottom of which was a foot from the ground. Mr. Little remarked to the father, "I want one of those young ones," when they all scurried under that gate into the house like woodchucks into their holes. Soon after that his father died and Mr. Little took Will and kept him until he died, and after that his father, Squire Silas Little, kept him for some years.

This Will was a character. He was ugly, strong and active so that when he was a grown man he could jump over a stick placed at such a height that he could walk under it erect without touching it and was a harum-scarum reckless fellow. An anecdote will illustrate how ugly looking he was. Mr. Little with some rubbish he had brought home from town and dumped in his cow yard, had brought an old-fashioned full-bottomed wig. He also had working for him a pauper whom he had bid off when the town’s poor were sold according to the custom of those days. Will had discovered the wig and put it on his head and sat down behind the pauper who was shoveling dung into a cart in the cow yard. Presently the poor old man looked around and beheld the object behind him. He dropped the shovel, ran in terror to the house and when he had recovered enough to speak declared that the devil was in the cow yard. The family was incredulous, and amused when they discovered the object of the old man’s terror.

Will was sent to pasture with the cows where the bars are near Four Rocks close to the boy’s bathing place. He was also instructed to drive away any boys who should be robbing the orchard on the other side of the road a little further on to the Neck. This duty he performed so vigorously as to incur the enmity of a number of boys who planned revenge. Will was more than a match for any one of the boys, but together they were too strong for him. Accordingly, after he had turned his cows into the pasture, they ranged themselves in line across the road on his way home. Will told them that if they wanted a fight they must fight with clubs. "All right," said they, and as they got over the wall on the southerly side of the road to pick out clubs, Will, who could run like a deer, dashed by and ran home, nor could they overtake him.

After he had grown, Will sailed on Mr. Marquand’s vessels, and was considered a mascot, as all the voyages where he was present were successful. Mr. Marquand lived in the house near the foot of Federal street, owned now by the heirs of Sewall B. Noyes. This was the part of the town where the yellow fever prevailed during the notable epidemic. So at that time Mr. Marquand and family moved to the country and left Will as keeper of the house. Then the darky had a glorious time. The wine cellar was abundantly stocked with the best wines and liquors, which Will sampled so frequently he kept happy during the whole period of the absence of the family. A large part of the time he spent sitting at the open window of the parlor on Federal street and to the inquiry of the neighbors passing as to how he was getting on, he replied, "Poorly, poorly I’se got the yellow fever." He was found by Mr. Marquand when the latter returned, in the wine cellar sampling a bottle of the choicest wine, and was let off with a laugh at his impudence. The last known of Will in this place was that he left his ship at one of the southern ports and never returned, and it was supposed he had been arrested and sold on the auction block.

The negroes here, while in slavery, had but one name. After they were freed by the constitution of 1780, those who left their masters took their family names. Thus in the records we read that, "Cambridge, servant of Col. Moses Little" married some woman, but his second marriage, after the peace, is recorded " Cambridge Little married Dinah Tibbitt" This Cambridge and Dinah lived in a house, the cellar of which I had filled in when I owned the land a few years ago near the Woodbridge school at the Upper Green, Newbury. Cambridge and Dinah were cute characters for a tale during the first years of their marriage, although legally free, they lived in Col. Little’s family. When the first child was a baby a dance of colored folks was held in town to which they went, leaving their offspring in Mrs. Little’s care. Dinah danced all night and when the mistress mildly rebuked her for the trouble she had caused, Dinah excused herself by saying that she had forgotten all about the young one.

Some of the family owned an island with a small house in a pond some miles back in the country and it was decided to let these negroes have the place and get such living as they could upon it. So they furnished a horse and cart, with which they started off and took possession. A tree was growing on the side of a hill and was leaning downhill and Cambridge wanted to cut it so it would fall up hill. His plan was to hitch the horse to the top of the tree. This he did, and the tree fell down the hill taking the horse with it and killing the animal. This ended the experiment of Cambridge in farming on his own hook. He returned to Newbury and lived in the house which has been mentioned. 

Cambridge was not a great talker, but Dinah had a tongue which seemed to be hung in the middle and run at both ends. Cambridge was a musician and could play the violin with considerable skill. A nephew of his stole the violin, and the pair made complaint to Squire Silas Little, justice of the place, who performed the functions now filled by our police court. Dinah appeared for the prosecution with such a torrent of words that the squire stopped her and demanded to hear what the husband had to say. Cambridge said: "I came into the house tired and thought I would play the fiddle to rest me. But I looked up at the peg where it was, and it wasn’t boo-hoo-hoo" he ended with tears streaming down his cheeks. This was not exactly evidence, but Squire Little was a shrewd man, and he wrote a letter to the nephew that brought the fiddle to its owner.

During the war of 1812 some earthworks were thrown up at the swell above the marshes known as the Plum Bushes. Some of the farmers at work on the salt marsh near by, when Cambridge was with them. told him that the works were named for him and were called "Fort Cambridge." He was highly pleased and told to Dinah the honor which has befallen him, and that they ought to pay him something for having given the name to the fort. But Dinah took a different view, "You Guinea n___" she said "you’ll have to pay them something for the honor."  

The town records have the following entry "Cambridge Little, died, 25 Feb. 1825." Dinah lived to be 98 years old. Her daughter married a man named Francis, and with her the old woman lived and died in 1852 in the house next to the railroad at the crossing at Low street, and her descendents still remain.

Newburyport Morning Herald – Sept. 20, 1902 – page 2
(Likely written by N.N. Withington)

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