A Woman Named Rose

This is a single story of a Black woman named Rose (Lane) Derby. However, there is no single story of Black women in Essex County. While there are few examples of documents written in their own words, Rose shows us that Black women are not completely absent in the historical record. We must only look.

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By examining historical records, we can begin to piece together the life of Rose, a Black woman who lived in early Essex County.

The earliest known records of Rose are in a collection of papers from a wealthy Salem family. The records include receipts, estate documents, and wills. There are also census records, a Revolutionary War pension record, vital records, newspaper advertisements, and diary entries that refer to Rose. The records that illuminate the life of Rose allow us to re-imagine the landscape of Salem, where she lived and worked. Through Rose, we gain a fuller and more accurate picture of early Essex County history.

Constructing her story required putting the written documents into context. Knowing the history and circumstances that influenced what was written required reading, listening, and conversing with scholars, educators, historians, journalists, and others who have studied and written on the history of slavery, freedom, and race in New England.

Thinking about Rose and the meaning of her life is not complete without reconciling with the present day. Although she may have been free, freedom and equality were not achieved in her lifetime. The myth of historically white, free New England continues. In fact, there have been two historical forces at work: a history of racial progress and at the same time a progression of racism.

Page from Derby Family Bible - NPS Museum Collections, SAMA 3933

Pages from Last will and testament of Elias Hasket Derby of Salem - Derby Family Papers, MSS 37, Box 19, Folder 1, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

Receipts May the 4 1788, Mrs Derby to Hannah Masurey… and August the 3rd 1788, Mrs Derby to Hannah Masurey… - Derby Family Papers, MSS 37, Box 17 Folder 4 Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

Adams, Catherine, and Elizabeth H. Pleck. Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England. New York: Oxford University Press. 2010.

Berry, Daina Ramey. The Price for their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. Boston: Beacon Press. 2017.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site

Last updated: August 2, 2022