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Chronicling Black Lives in Colonial New England

Historians and archaeologists piece together a revealing look at free and slave life in the North.

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Young, talented, and bursting with entrepreneurial spirit, Samuel Gipson started his own business. By his early 30s, he was doing well enough to take in a young clerk to whom he bequeathed his estate.

This American success story would be unremarkable but for three salient facts: The year was 1795, Gipson spent much of his life enslaved in New England, and his heir was the son of the man who had owned him.

Stories like Gipson's, recounted in William Piersen's book, "Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Sub-culture in Eighteenth-century New England" (University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), are coming to light as historians, archaeologists, and dedicated individuals piece together an increasingly complete picture of life in the Colonial Northeastern states. They chronicle the contributions of enslaved and free Africans to the development of such cities as New York and to the culture of Colonial New England.

In the process, they are shattering the myth that New England was always and solely a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment and activism. "People are still surprised to learn that there was slavery in New England," says archaeologist Constance Crosby, a preservation planner with the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

The ongoing excavation of African burial grounds, and the scouring of official records, personal letters, and diaries for details of black life in the Northeast also reflect the growing interest among African-Americans not only in tracing their ancestry, but also in finding inspiration and guidance in the achievements of their forebears. And they illustrate the recognition on the part of many others that the history they have learned is incomplete.

Africans in New England

Much of the Northeast's money came from the slave trade, and the number of Africans in New England grew from fewer than 1,000 in 1700 to some 16,000 by the end of the 18th century.

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