Before the Revolutionary War, many rural households in Essex County owned enslaved workers. If the workers’ mothers were not enslaved, as was often the case, they could petition the court for freedom.
And they usually won.
On Wednesday, June 7 at 6 p.m., Jeanne Pickering will discuss her surprising research on enslaved workers and their successful petitions for freedom in Essex County in the 1760s and 1770s. The lecture, at The House of the Seven Gables at 115 Derby Street in Salem, is part of the annual series, Seven Lectures at Seven Gables.
Pickering’s presentation begins in the Visitor Center at 6 p.m. Admission is free for members and $7 for nonmembers. Those interested in attending this lecture may visit www.7Gables.org or call 978-744-099, ext. 152.
Pickering, who is from Topsfield, is one of the first to look in depth at slavery in this region. She’s working on a graduate history degree at Salem State University. “Forget everything you thought you knew about slavery,” she says. “I discovered I could study slavery in my own backyard. The pre-Revolutionary records are here but they’re buried deep because no one is paying much attention to them. Slavery in Massachusetts ended early and we were known as the free north but it was conveniently, deliberately forgotten that we had slaves.”
Slavery here involved the same atrocities as the South, including rape, physical abuse and separation of families but it wasn’t conducted on the same industrial scale. Pickering’s talk, titled, “Judge Ye Weather or Noe I Hadent ort to be set at Liberty: Essex County Freedom Suits in Revolutionary Massachusetts,” relies on local church and historical archives as well as court documentation. “I go back to the original court files themselves. At the time, courts did not take verbatim testimony but there are records of who was subpoenaed, who was involved, where they lived, where they were baptized, what
they included in their wills,” she says. “A slave was the second-most valuable piece of property — second to land.”
Although Essex County operated under a British system of law at the time, all the judges and lawyers were local. Civil court traveled and met in Salem, Ipswich and Newburyport three or four times a year. The judge came with a clerk and the lawyers followed the court in packs. Sometimes the lawyers represented the enslaved people and sometimes the masters. John Adams was famously one of the attorneys in the 1770s in Suffolk County to represent a slave owner.