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Chronicling Black Lives in Colonial New England

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The majority spent at least part of their lives enslaved, often bought as children by owners in coastal cities. They accounted for as much as 30 percent of the population of South Kingston, R.I., and were a significant presence in Boston (10 percent), New London (9 percent), and New York (7.2 percent). In fact, just before the Revolutionary War broke out, New York was the second-largest urban center of slavery, after Charleston, N.C.

Owned mostly by ministers, doctors, and the merchant elite, enslaved men and women in the North often performed household duties in addition to skilled jobs.

They also elected their own governors and kings in a day-long ceremony known as 'Lection Day, a ritual that first appeared around 1750 and continued in some areas for a full century. While their owners were busy casting ballots in Colonial elections, blacks gathered for a mixture of fun and politicking, culminating in voting and a flashy inaugural parade.

Once dismissed as a childish parody of white elections, 'Lection Day has come to be seen as an important political and social phenomenon that blended African and American traditions. Elected officials wielded authority in the community and mediated disputes among blacks, who had no legal standing in the greater community. Historian Piersen also speculates that the fanfare of 'Lection Day livened up Colonial white celebrations and helped shape the phenomenon of the American parade.

There is nothing speculative, on the other hand, about blacks' contribution to American independence. In preparing an exhibition scheduled for July 1998 at the Commonwealth Museum in Boston, Crosby has fleshed out the stories of four black families who formed Parting Ways, a settlement on the town line between Kingston and Plymouth, Mass.

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