In 1783, several court decisions in Massachusetts granted individual enslaved people their freedom. Together, these cases convinced most master-enslavers that slavery was no longer legal in the state.
What was life like for Salem's African American community in the following years?
On this interactive tour, you'll explore the options available to the city's newly free people.
Questions to consider:
Before we begin, a note about language. Throughout this tour, you will notice the terms "enslaver" and "master-enslaver" used to describe those who enslaved others. The use of these terms in wholly intentional. Borrowing from Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small, authors of Representations of Slavery (Smithsonian Institution 2002), we believe the use of the term "enslaver" as opposed to "master" or "slave-owner," "challenges commonly used language and frames of understanding that replicate systems of racism...(and) continues to mask systems of domination..." by obscuring, "the reality of enslaving human beings," (5).
The other term you may note throughout this tour is "enslaved," used to describe people held in bondage, as opposed to the term "slave." As before, this is quite intentional. Again borrowing from Eichstedt and Small, we contend that the term "slave" has a "long tradition of erasing the basic humanity of enslaved people by naming them only in terms of status that was imposed upon them. Using the term 'enslaved people' emphasizes the point that people were enslaved and that who they were exceeded that status," (5).
In addition, throughout this tour we will present primary source documents related to the lives of enslaved and formerly enslaved persons. In some cases, we will read aloud or include transcriptions from these texts. The language used to describe people of color in these 18th and 19th century documents in outdated, racist, and unacceptable in contemporary society. However, we have included these documents because we believe they are fundamental to understanding the lives of Africans and people of African-decent in post-Revolution Salem.
1770s engraving by Balthasar Friedrich Leizelt
Courtesy of Library of Congress