by Mario de Valdes y Cocom
Ever since I began research for my documentary on the Pilgrim Father, Abraham Pearce, what's intrigued me was the question of just what part his East Coast establishment descendent might have played in the abolitionist movement. Whether or not the debate on his racial background is ever settled is immaterial since it only began in 1981 when a black actor was taken on at Plimouth Plantation to interpret this 17th century character for the public. Beginning as early as 1819 with the list of those able to bear arms made available to the public expressly for genealogical research and with subsequent publications by Shurtleff, after all, Pearce had been identified as the first African American in this geographical area and due, no doubt, to the political position of their class during the 50's, writers like Palfry and Goodwin did not hesitate to point him out.
With this in mind, one of the tactics employed by white abolitionists on the lecture circuit, is especially interesting. To provide an example of just how light complexioned an individual could appear and still be treated as a slave, a young genteel white woman was occasionally asked to ascend the stage or podium where, in an exercise that obviously prefigured the light eye / dark eye exercise carried out in classrooms today, she was auctioned off as a slave. Along with this type of political theatre, I have also become aware of an almost parallel literature. Primarily the work of upper class New England women following in the footsteps of Lydia Maria Childs, the plots of these novellas invariably dealt with women like themselves or, in some instances, of even higher social standing, titled Europeans who, for example, discover that they are of African ancestry two or three generations back. Despite the obvious strategy in trying to obtain sympathy for a people who, for the most part, were far too degraded by the slave system to win empathy from those of influence abolitionists felt had to be reached, I cannot help but wonder whether the Pearce genealogy which many of this class shared was not being alluded to.
Besides the Pearces, a number of other such interracial families here in New England have since come to light. Either because their names are a bit more unique or because there were published genealogies available, I have been able to trace familial African American connections to a number of whites who were rather influential abolitionists.
As an opponent to Garrison's almost extremist position, Timothy Merritt and his son in law, Gershom Cox, are of great interest. The descendant of two state governors, Merritt was also the great, great, grandson of a former slave by the name of Adam Rogers. The child of a religious leader who becomes the first white to be jailed for his attempt to maintain the freedom of the black woman he had manumitted, Adam was married to one of his father's relatives. As a result, the children of this marriage appear to have been socially regarded as members of this rather wealthy and influential Connecticut clan. Coincidentally enough, Cox's brother was the first white missionary to die in Liberia.
When in 1829, Alonzo Lewis published his history of Lynn, Massachusetts, he began his section on the black inhabitants with the first listed in the records, an individual by the name of Domingo White. Because the woman White married was an Allen, one of the most prominent of the early Boston families, it is almost impossible that 19th century genealogists did not know of him and, due to his wife's connections, his fairly illustrious descendants. From the marriage of just one of his daughters, Mary to Solomon Clark, for instance, were descended Dr. Edward H. Clark, one of the city's most eminent physicians, a professor and overseer at Harvard University, George L. Clark, the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island and in what can only be regarded as an interesting historical coincidence, John J. Clark, the first mayor of Roxbury, Massachusetts (now primarily a black community). Another descendant was Hannah Adams, one of the country's first women of letters.
Because of her concurrent leadership in the struggle for women's rights, an even more famous abolitionist with this kind of connection was Phoebe Ann Coffin. Her husband, Dr. Joseph Hannaford's first cousins were the grandchildren of Wentworth Cheswell Esq. of New Hampshire. Even though well known to be the grandson of an African American who had bought up a considerable amount of property in the area, Cheswell became such an important leader of his town that by the time he died he had held a number of public offices. During a debate in congress over the Missouri Compromise, the Senator from New Hampshire publicly extolled this family for its civic virtues and contributions, pointing out at the same time, what their conditions would be reduced to in the slave territories.
Another abolitionist who fits this criteria is William Snelling who, with Garrison, was a co-founder of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. By this particular point in time the Massachusetts Snellings had split into basically two branches. Whether the Boston members of the family were of African extraction I have still not yet been able to determine but their North Shore cousins can all be traced back to the "mulatto," Mark Snelling of Boxford, who was born in about 1720.
Since their father, Rev. John Raymond, was the minister of the Joy St. Baptist Church, the African Meeting Houe that served as the de facto headquarters of the Abolitionist movement here in Boston, perhaps two who straddled the racial line quite openly were William and Patrick Raymond. Both joined the Union navy at the beginning of the Civil War as whites; an interesting fact considering how much the black community had to politic in order to organize the MA 54th Colored Regiment. Patrick Raymond would go on to become a writer for the Herald and ended his career as the editor of the Cambridge Chronicle.
Although not originally New Englanders, the famous Grimke sisters could also have claimed this kind of connection in their own background. And I am not referring to their brother's biracial children, Alexander and Francis, who they played such an important part in rearing right here in Boston. Despite my inability at this time to document just how close the relationship was, we do know from census records that one of their mother's Smith cousins had, only a couple of generations earlier, married Elizabeth Pendarvis. The Smith and Pendarvis families had been two of the original Landgraves of South Carolina and as such were so prominent and moneyed that there did not seem to have been any reservations on the part of the Smiths over a matrimonial alliance with a Pendarvis heiress who's mother just happened to be a woman of colour.
Another case in point is the indefatigable Boston born abolitionist lawyer, Charles Dana. Dana's brother was married to a Californian. Like a number of Americanos from the north east who were attempting to stake claims in this new western territory, it did not matter to him that the surest way had been through intermarriage with the old Mexican elites who were the owners of the most valuable and arable land that comprised this state. As with so much of the population that inhabited the Mexican frontier areas, many of these powerful old Hispanic families were tri-racial; the family of Don Pio Pico's, the last governor of California before the American take over, being the most obvious example.
Although not Protestant like the new England establishment or in any way intermarried with it, one family the abolitionists must, nevertheless, have been very much aware of is that of the Healeys. Educated in Worcester at the Roman Catholic college of the Holy Cross, these refugees from the slave south and the illegitimate children of a wealthy Irish plantation owner soon filled the leadership roles for which the Church had helped to prepare them. Like what to the Protestant ethic, with its reservation against clerical hierarchy, must have appeared a rather interesting interpretation of the European usage, Princes of the Church, one was appointed bishop of Maine, another was responsible for the erection of the cathedral here in Boston and another assumed the presidency of Georgetown College, transforming it into the University and an important Jesuit presence in the nation's capital. It was either their mother's sister or cousin, Ellen Craft, who became a national sensation when she escaped to the North with her husband. She in the guise of a white planter and he as his master's black valet.
Despite the passion of the movement here in New England, it is interesting that one accusation with which a pro slaver could frighten his opponent was that of "amalgamationist". This label proved such a sticky issue that it invariably succeeded in sealing the lips of most abolitionists, at least temporarily, no matter how ardent and voluble they had demonstrated themselves only a few moments before. True, a great deal more research must be undertaken to test just how much of a reason this perceived pejorative might have proven for keeping marital relationships like these away from public scrutiny. Besides the social or political clout of the extended relations of the families referred to above, there are, nevertheless, so many more examples still to be studied, I cannot help but wonder if they might not have contributed to the movement at a personal level never considered before.