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Lexington Confronts History of Slavery in Liberty’s Birthplace

Some of the same Lexington townspeople who took up arms to fight for freedom on April 19, 1775, were slave owners. And one of them was enslaved.

Every spring, just in time for Patriots Day, Lexington’s Colonial-era house museums throw open their doors and welcome visitors to tours run by the Lexington Historical Society. One such property is the Hancock-Clarke House, where guides describe the pivotal role the house holds in US history: Once the town’s parsonage, it was here that overnight guests John Hancock and Samuel Adams were awakened by Paul Revere in the early hours of April 19, 1775, just before the first battle of the American Revolution.

Less likely to come up in the conversation is the fact that some of the same Lexington townspeople who took up arms to fight for American freedom were slave owners.

“It’s a dichotomy,” acknowledged Erica McAvoy, executive director of the Lexington Historical Society. “Lexington, the birthplace of freedom and liberty, is also someplace where enslaved people were living.”

For years, McAvoy said, the approach of local tour guides has generally been to recognize the unfortunate reality of slavery in the town and move on. But that’s finally changing. A surge of interest in exploring these untold stories has resulted in the Historical Society receiving a grant of $10,000 from the Foundation for MetroWest to uncover more of the truth about slavery’s presence in Lexington’s past.

“We’re still at the very beginning of the effort,” McEvoy said. She and her staff began by forming a working group and actively seeking Black representation for it, recruiting both Sean Osborne, founder and president of the Association of Black Citizens of Lexington; and Robert Bellinger, who is an associate professor of history at Suffolk University as well as director of Suffolk’s Black Studies Program and its Clark Collection of African American Literature.

“I’ve long thought about the way history is taught in Lexington,” said Osborne, a self-proclaimed history buff who’s a civil engineer by profession. “Unfortunately, there’s still this idea that there were no slaves in New England, or in the north. Even at this particular time when we are having so many important conversations on race and reckoning, these falsehoods still exist among folks I would hope would know better. It’s time for Lexington and Concord to take the lead in providing a counternarrative to this popular myth.”