Emancipation in Massachusetts

"In Massachusetts, a combination of slaves suing for their individual emancipation, an organized slave petition drive, black soldiers fighting against the British, a state constitution that declared the freedom of all men, judicial decree, white’s unease with their ideological hypocrisy, and a mixed economy that condoned but did not require slavery all pushed the decline of human bondage."

~Chernoh Sesay, Jr., “The American Revolution, Race, and the Failed Beginning of a Nation,” Black Perspectives, (2016).

How did slavery end in Massachusetts? In 1783, a series of cases before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts effectively ended slavery as a legal practice in the state. The Court established that slavery was in direct conflict with the Massachusetts State Constitution of 1780. Yet even after 1783, the struggle to end the enslavement of people in Massachusetts was not over. Historians have found evidence that slavery continued to linger on in the state into the 1800s. How might understanding this history help to create a more just future?

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The end of slavery in Massachusetts was gradual and the process of "judicial emancipation" was slow, vague, and unjust.


Hill, Samuel, Engraver. View of the court house in Salem Massachusetts / W. Gray, del.; engraved by S. Hill. Salem Massachusetts, 1790. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2004670231/.

Massachusetts Constitution of 1780

Hardesty, Jared Ross. Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of New England Slavery. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press. 2019.

Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780–1860. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1998.

Massachusetts Constitution and the Abolition of Slavery, https://www.mass.gov/guides/massachusetts-constitution-and-the-abolition-of-slavery.

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Last updated: February 24, 2023

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