The Wayside and the Underground Railroad

Two Wayside families clearly show the important changes in the views of slavery in New England over the seventy years following the American Revolution.

Slavery in New England Pre-Revolution

In 1641 the Massachusetts colony sanctioned the enslavement of African workers.In the North, most Africans labored on small farms. Those who lived in cities worked as personal servants or were hired out as domestics and skilled workers. Although northern colonists had little use for slave labor, they accumulated substantial profits from the lucrative slave trading industry for several centuries.

Slave Owners and Patriots

Colonial patriots voiced their commitment to the fight for freedom.Colonists made the first organized stand against British tyranny in April 1775.As British soldiers marched on their way to and from Concord, they passed by the house, owned at the time by Samuel Whitney, merchant, delegate to the Provincial Congress, muster master of the Concord Minute Men –and owner of two slaves.Samuel Whitney's family was one of twelve slave-owning families in Concord when the American Revolution began.

This contradiction was not lost on everyone.In 1783 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared slavery was incompatible with the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution.By the 1830s, organized groups in Concord and the northern states began to promote slavery's abolition.Because the enforcement of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law was relatively lax, many fugitives were able to live in freedom for years in the North.Their lives, however, were never totally free from the fear of being captured.A community of free African Americans and African Americans who had escaped from the South was formed in Boston by the early 1800s. They were soon threatened by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

 
Louisa May Alcott portrait
Louisa May Alcott

Runaway Slaves at Hillside

By April of 1845, The Wayside, then dubbed "Hillside," was owned by Bronson and Abigail Alcott whose children were Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May.In late 1846 and early 1847, the Alcotts aided at least one runaway enslaved man on his flight to freedom along the Underground Railroad.Mrs. Alcott wrote to her brother in January, 1847:

We have had an interesting fugitive here for 2 weeks--right from Maryland.He was anxious to get to Canada and we have forwarded him the best way we could.His sufferings have been great, his intrepidity unparalleled.He agrees with us about [boycotting] slave produce.He says it is the only way the abolition of the slave can ever be effected.He says it will never be done by insurrection...

Bronson Alcott described the arrival of a fugitive slave in his journal noting:

He is scarce thirty years old, athletic, dexterous, sagacious, and self-relying.He has many of the elements of a hero.His stay with us has given image and a name to the dire entity of slavery, and was an impressive lesson to my children, bringing before them the wrongs of the black man and his tales of woe.

The Alcott's involvement in the antislavery movement brought young Louisa and her sisters into contact with some of its most ardent champions of abolition: William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Wendell Phillips, and Theodore Parker to name a few.

 
UGRR symbol - small
The Wayside is part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program, administered by the National Park Service. This program commemorates and preserves the historical significance of the Underground Railroad which sought to address the injustices of slavery and make freedom a reality in the United States and is a crucial element in the evolution of our national civil rights movement.

Last updated: May 24, 2016

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