Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Tour of Concord's Abolitionist History

Every summer I take a trip with my wife and kids to visit her family near Boston. I tend to set aside at least a day dedicated to history. After all, her hometown is right down the road from where the shot heard round the world was fired in 1775, and colonial and Revolutionary War attractions abound. At the same time, there is no shortage of Civil War-related sites in the Bay State, and given my interests, I've made sure to include them on my to-do list each year. Last summer I toured Ft. Warren, the site of a Union prison on Georges Island near Boston, and in 2012 I checked out the antebellum and Civil War past of Lexington and Concord. This year I decided to take a closer look at the sites in Concord that are associated with the town's rich history of abolitionism.

As I wrote a few years ago, Concord was a hub of antebellum intellectual and literary life. Famous writers and philosophers, including Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, called the town home. Most of the artistic and intellectual class also shared a passion for abolitionism. Concord served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and townspeople became ardent supporters of John Brown as the situation rapidly deteriorated in Bleeding Kansas.

During my 2012 visit, I hit some of the abolitionist highlights, but I promised to come back and do a more thorough tour. A local non-profit, known as the Drinking Gourd Project, has compiled an excellent walking tour and map, available online and at the Concord Visitor Center.  The group is dedicated to spreading the word about the town's African-American and antislavery history. I decided to concentrate on many of the sites included in the organization's brochure. (Note that in this post I am focused for the most part on places that I had not visited a couple of years ago; readers wanting a more comprehensive view of antebellum and Civil War sites in Concord are advised to read my earlier post as well.)

The Concord Museum on the Cambridge Turnpike.
My first stop was the impressive Concord Museum. As I expected, most of the exhibits centered on the town's colonial and Revolutionary War past, as well as nineteenth century literary life. The museum's Civil War artifacts were featured as part of a special exhibition at the start of the Sesquicentennial, but I was disappointed to see that very few of them are displayed on a permanent basis. Luckily the museum had a room dedicated to prewar social activism, and I was able to view some interesting antislavery-related items.

A view of Emerson's study. The museum has reconstituted the room using original furnishings. A reluctant abolitionist at first, Emerson became increasingly outspoken against slavery. He delivered several antislavery addresses during the twenty years prior to the Civil War.
Display focusing on abolitionism in Concord. Pictured at right are Mary Merrick Brooks, first president of the Concord Ladies' Antislavery Society, and John Brown, who visited Concord in 1857 and 1859. 
"Uncle Tom and Eva," made in England between 1855-60. People displayed such ceramic pieces in their homes to demonstrate antislavery views. These particular figurines were a gift to Thoreau from a slave that he helped escape to Canada. 

One of the few Civil War pieces in the museum. This poster advertises the 1861-62 Concord Lyceum on "National Honor." Emerson was one of the scheduled lecturers. 
Original furniture from Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond, where he resided from 1845-47. He penned some of his most famous works at the desk, including Walden and "Civil Disobedience."
Following my stop at the museum, I began my walking tour of some key abolitionist and Underground Railroad sites in Concord. Most of the homes remain private property, so I could only take a look from the street!

The Reuben Brown House (77 Lexington Rd.). Emerson lodged John Brown here when the noted abolitionist visited Concord in March 1857. Aside from Emerson, Brown also met Thoreau during his stay.
The First Parish Church (20 Lexington Rd.), a scene of antislavery gatherings. Both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman spoke here in the years prior to the Civil War. The current structure was built in 1900-01 to resemble the colonial-era church that burned to the ground. 
Franklin Sanborn House & Schoolroom (49 Sudbury Rd.). Sanborn opened the Concord School here in 1855. Among his students were the children of such literary giants as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sanborn was active in the antislavery movement and served as secretary of the Massachusetts Free Soil Association. He traveled to Kansas in 1856 and met John Brown the following year. Sanborn became a member of the "Secret Six," a group which helped to finance and plan Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. He hosted Brown at his home for three days in May 1859. After Brown was hanged in December 1859, his daughters came to Concord to attend Sanborn's school.
This engraving from Harper's Weekly depicts the attempted arrest of Sanborn in Concord on the night of April 3, 1860 (courtesy of Wikipedia). When Sanborn ignored a summons from a Senate committee investigating the raid on Harpers Ferry, federal marshals appeared at his residence and tried to arrest him. A group of townspeople quickly assembled and interfered with the arrest. Local judge Ebenezer Hoar issued a writ of habeas corpus, which prevented the marshals from carrying Sanborn away. 
Col. William Whiting House (169 Main St.). Whiting, a carriage maker, was one of Concord's most active abolitionists. He served as president of the Middlesex County Anti-Slavery Society and as a vice president of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Whiting's house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Aside from John Brown, abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips were also guests here.
Thoreau-Alcott House (255 Main St.). The entire Thoreau family, including Henry David, moved to this house in 1849-50. The Thoreaus, all ardent abolitionists, sheltered former slave Henry Williams here in 1851 before sending him by train to Canada. Henry David Thoreau died at the Main Street house in 1862. The Alcott family moved here in 1877.

Concord Town House (22 Monument Square). In March 1857, John Brown spoke here to an audience of around 100 that included Emerson and Thoreau. Both men contributed to the cause. In May 1859, Brown again gave a speech at the Town House, this time raising $2,000. Bronson Alcott, Emerson, and Thoreau were all in attendance. Following Brown's trial and execution, Concord held a memorial service at the Town House. Both Emerson and Thoreau played a role in painting Brown as a martyr for the antislavery cause.
Mary Rice House (44 Bedford St.). Rice was a Concord school teacher and a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. In 1864 she collected signatures from 195 pupils on a petition asking President Abraham Lincoln to emancipate all slave children. Lincoln replied: "Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy, and that, while I have not the power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has, and that, as it seems, He wills to do it." Today the petition and Lincoln's reply hang in Concord's elementary schools. (See here for the full story.)
Historical marker on Concord's Monument Square indicating the spot where Thoreau was imprisoned in 1846 for failing to pay a poll tax in protest against the Mexican War and the spread of slavery. As the marker notes, Thoreau wrote of this incident in the essay, "Civil Disobedience."
As I waited for my lift home in Monument Square, I reflected on my trip through Concord's past. Here, where the American Revolution began, many townspeople participated in a new struggle for liberty and freedom. Some of Concord's abolitionists have gone down in history as famous writers and philosophers, but they were also political activists of the antebellum North. Their connections to the movement were numerous, and at times radical. Regional tensions took root here as much as on the plantations and in the state capitols of the South. But in the end, the streets of Concord would lead inexorably towards a promise fulfilled.


Aside from the links provided above, the following resources were useful in compiling this post:

Concord Free Public Library, Antislavery in Concord: An Online Exhibition Drawn from the William Monroe Special Collections of the Concord Free Public Library (website); First Parish Church in Concord, "History of First Parish"; Rick Frese, Concord and the Civil War: From Walden Pond to the Gettysburg Front (2014).


KBrightwell said...

Great post. Love learning more about the area where I grew up.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks! Glad you liked the post. Great area to live!