In July 1775, six-year-old Darby Vassall asserted his freedom. Recently reunited with his parents following the death of his enslaver, Vassall refused General George Washington’s order to work in the home that was Washington’s Cambridge headquarters. In an account of the story that Vassall told later in life, he described Washington as “no gentleman, he wanted [a] boy to work without wages.” Several months prior, his parents Tony and Cuba Vassall had seized their own freedom. This article traces the family’s journey to that moment, and in the decades that followed.
Cuba, Dinah, Malcolm, William, and three children (Cuba was likely their mother): James and two unnamed “small boys." These are seven people known to have been enslaved at 105 Brattle Street as of 1774. Research into their lives, families, and experiences of slavery and freedom is ongoing.
Fifteen years earlier, their enslaver John Vassall Jr. built this grand Georgian-style mansion along the Road to Watertown (now Brattle Street) as a statement of his incredible wealth. His family had amassed this wealth from the Jamaican sugar industry, where they enslaved hundreds of people. As the sugar industry was dependent on the labor of enslaved Africans, so too was Vassall’s lifestyle. In addition to the enslaved workers on their plantations abroad, John and Elizabeth Vassall also enslaved people at their estate in Cambridge, Massachusetts (now 105 Brattle Street, the Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House). The practice of slavery was deeply embedded in the society and economy of the New England colonies.
In 1774, when the Loyalist Vassalls evacuated their home in the face of revolutionary unrest, the seven people they enslaved remained. These individuals were likely forced to work as domestic servants in the house and as laborers in the orchards, garden, small farm, and stables on the estate. Such a large number of enslaved servants was unusual in colonial Massachusetts. Although slavery had long existed in the colony, and would persist into the new nation, it was more common for one or two people to be enslaved on an estate or in a household. Seven enslaved servants on a single property reflected the enormous wealth of the white Vassalls, and their commitment to the cruel institution of slavery.
Available records reveal a more detailed history of one family the Vassalls enslaved. Cuba (later known as Cuba Vassall) was born on Antigua. She and her family - her mother, Abba, and siblings Robin, Walker, Nuba, Trace, and Tobey - were enslaved by Isaac Royall Sr. When Royall moved from Antigua to his estate in Medford (now the Royall House and Slave Quarters Museum) in 1737, he brought Cuba, Abba, and twenty-eight other enslaved people with him.
In 1739, Royall’s daughter Penelope married Henry Vassall, John Vassall’s uncle. Upon her marriage, Penelope took Abba, Cuba, and four of Cuba’s siblings with her as property to her new home in Cambridge (now 94 Brattle Street). There, Cuba met and married Anthony (often referred to as Tony), a coachman enslaved by Henry Vassall. Oral accounts indicate that Tony was born in the Spanish Empire around 1713 and kidnapped as a young adult to Jamaica. There, Henry Vassall purchased him. When Henry moved to Massachusetts, he brought Tony and several other enslaved people.
According to historian J.L. Bell, enslaved people along the Watertown road likely formed community as they “worked alongside each other in the fields and gardens, shared recipes in the kitchens, and visited from house to house.”1 In 1752, Tony and brother-in-law Robin collaborated with other free and enslaved laborers in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to gain their freedom by taking money from William Brattle and purchasing passage to Canada, then France.2
Tony and Cuba had at least six children: James, Dorrenda, Flora, Darby, Cyrus, and Catherine. Their enslavers, however, did not hesitate to separate the family on multiple occasions. In 1769 the newly widowed Penelope Vassall sold Cuba and several of her children to Penelope’s nephew, John. In May 1769, Cuba gave birth to her son Darby. John eventually sold or gave young Darby to George Reed of Woburn. For the next five years, Tony, Cuba, and their children were divided between several different estates, in some cases separated only by the width of a street. Despite their close physical proximity, it is unclear how much interaction Tony and Cuba were allowed to have with each other or their children.
In December 1772, Tony Vassall traveled to the town of Billerica where his young daughter Flora was enslaved, separated from her family. There he delivered a sum of twenty pounds to her enslaver (according to the deed, provided by his enslaver Penelope Vassall) to "manumit release and make free" his child. In this successful act of finding a way to purchase his daughter's legal freedom, Tony began reuniting his family.
In 1774 increasing unrest and threats of violence, culminating in the Powder Alarm of September, prompted the neighborhood’s elite residents to flee their homes for Boston where they could feel safe with the presence of the British Regulars encamped there. John and Elizabeth Vassall and Penelope (Royall) Vassal were among those who fled, leaving behind some of the people they enslaved - including Cuba and Tony. The departure of their enslavers cast their legal status into question. Nonetheless, with their enslavers gone Tony and Cuba continued to reunite their family in freedom on a portion of the former John Vassall estate. By July 1775, their six-year-old son Darby had returned following Reed’s death.
During the 1775-1776 Siege of Boston, George Washington used the John Vassall mansion as his headquarters. Cuba, Tony, and their children remained in another dwelling on the estate, tending three-quarters of an acre for their own livelihood. Records from this period also document payments to Tony Vassall for work on the confiscated Royall estate in Medford.
In 1780, the Massachusetts General Court (the legislature), which had authorized the seizure of properties abandoned by Loyalists, prepared to sell the John Vassall Estate to private owners. Tony and Cuba, who had begun to use the surname Vassall, faced eviction. They petitioned the General Court to be allowed to remain on their small portion of the estate and to continue cultivating an acre of land. The petition (using strategic language aimed at persuading the legislators) reads, in part,
The earlier part & vigour of their lives is spent in the service of their several masters, and the misfortunes of war have deprived them of that care & protection which they might otherwise have expected from them—the land Your Petitioners now improve is not sufficient to supply them with such vegetables as are necessary for their family use, and their title is so precarious that they can’t depend on a continued possession of the same— they might however promise themselves a tolerable subsistence by their industry & attention, if this Honble Court would grant them a freehold in the Premises and add one quarter of an acre of adjoining land to that which they now improve.
That petition was denied. In 1781, they filed a second, successful petition for a pension:
though dwelling in a land of freedom, both himself and his wife have spent almost sixty years of their lives in slavery and that though deprived of what makes them now happy beyond expression yet they have ever lived a life of honesty and have been faithful in their master's service…. [One hopes] that they shall not be denied the sweets of freedom the remainder of their days by being reduced to the painful necessity of begging for bread.
Tony Vassall was granted twelve pounds annually. That same year, the family was evicted, and their whereabouts for the next several years are unclear. Six years later, the couple purchased a home at what is now the corner of Shepard Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. Tony worked as a paid laborer, yeoman farmer, and farrier, and later purchased five additional acres. He passed away on September 2, 1811, at the age of 98; Cuba Vassall passed away the following year on September 16, 1812.
Their sons, Darby and Cyrus Vassall, moved to Boston and become deeply involved in the Black community of Beacon Hill. In 1796, they became founding members of the African Society, a mutual aid association for the community. Darby married Lucy Holland in 1801 and they had eight children together. Cyrus died in 1812. The same year, Darby joined activist Primus Hall in a petition for a school for the neighborhood’s Black students, two decades before the construction of the Abiel Smith School.
In 1825, Darby Vassall was the second vice president of an event celebrating the anniversary of Haitian independence. He was active in supporting the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and was the guest of honor at the 1858 commemoration of the Boston Massacre, attending as a “living relic of the coloured population of revolutionary days.” In 1861, with his daughter Frances and son-in-law Jonas Clark, he signed a petition aimed at protecting the Black community against the Fugitive Slave Act.
In 1843, Darby was presented a “pass” by Catherine Graves Russell, the granddaughter of Henry Vassall, the man who had enslaved Darby’s parents. The pass allowed Darby and his family to be buried in the single tomb under Christ Church in Cambridge—the tomb of Henry Vassall. Darby passed away on October 12, 1861, at the age of 92, and was buried there three days later, on the 100th anniversary of the church’s opening. Obituaries and death notices were published throughout the city and region. A particularly notable obituary was written by the renowned activist William Cooper Nell and published in the Liberator. Nell wrote of Darby:
Mr. Vassall was favored with a wonderful memory, and it was deemed a privilege with many persons, from different walks in life, to avail themselves of his conversational reminiscences of Boston and vicinity, in the olden time.
Darby Vassall was not the only member of the family to leave a mark on the community. In 1816, Tony and Cuba Vassall’s daughter Catherine and her husband Adam Lewis purchased a triangular lot in Cambridge on the corner of Garden Street and Concord Street near the Cambridge Common. This family formed the nucleus of a burgeoning Black community in Cambridge known as “Lewisville” after the many Lewis family members who lived there or had ties there. They lived in an area loosely bounded by Shepard Street and Follen Street (north to south) and Garden Street to Massachusetts Avenue (west to east).
Many of the Lewis family members were active in the abolition and civil rights movements. In 1826, Adam Lewis’s brother, Quaku Walker Lewis, was one of the founders of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, which later merged with the New England Anti-Slavery Society. After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, people of color were at risk of being claimed as escaped slaves with little legal recourse. Many African Americans fled the country to safer territory in Canada or joined the “Back to Africa” movement to create new communities in places such as Liberia. In 1858, another Lewis brother, Enoch, formed the Cambridge Liberian Emigrant Association. Contributions to this effort were solicited; in October 1858, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow recorded donating $10.00 for “Negroes to Liberia.”
In November of that year, Catherine and Adam Lewis, as well as twenty-one other Black Cambridge residents, joined a larger group that sailed for Liberia. Their intention was to establish “civil and religious liberty” and create “a nation among nations, like the Pilgrim Fathers.” At this time, we don’t know much about what happened to the group after they reached Liberia. The departure of the Cambridge Liberian Emigrant Association spelled the beginning of the end of the Lewisville community. The Black population in the neighborhood decreased, from the six families in 1850 who remained after the departure to just three families twenty years later. As the Lewisville community dispersed, so too did much of its public memory - although descendants of the original Lewis family remained in the area up through the 1970s.
Today, the legacy of these families who endured slavery and fought for freedom in Cambridge persists. Learn more about the history of slavery at 105 Brattle Street here. Visit the Cambridge Black History Project and History Cambridge for more local history and community.
1 Bell, J.L. “George Washington’s Headquarters and Home, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site Historic Resource Study.” National Park Service, 2012, p. 35.
2 Hardesty, Jared Ross. Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019, pp. 114-115.
Batchelder, Samuel Francis. Notes on Colonel Henry Vassall (1721–1769), His Wife Penelope Royall, His House at Cambridge, and His Slaves Tony & Darby. Cambridge, Mass.: 1917.
Bell, J.L. “George Washington’s Headquarters and Home, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site Historic Resource Study.” National Park Service, February 29, 2012.
Hardesty, Jared Ross. Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019.
Maycock, Susan E. and Charles Sullivan. Building Old Cambridge: Architecture and Development. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016.
Nell, William Cooper. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution: With Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons Boston: Robert R. Wallcut, 1855.
Nell, William Cooper. “Darby Vassall (Obituary),” The Liberator 31, no. 47 (November 22, 1861).
1780 Petition of Anthony Vassall and Coby Vassall, Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions; Massachusetts Archives Collection. v.186-Revolution Petitions, Harvard University - Collection Development Department, Widener Library, HCL. 1779-1780. SC1/series 45X. Massachusetts Archives. Boston, Mass.