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History of Slavery

The seeds for the enslavement of Black Africans were planted in the earliest founding of the American colonies. Forced labor and the loss of individual rights exists across a continuum. These practices both pre-date colonialization of the Americas and continue into the present day.

Massachusetts was the first colony to authorize slavery but went on to lead the national effort of abolition. Chelsea was notably part of this story too. In 1842, George Latimer had fled enslavement in Virginia but was caught and imprisoned in Boston. Despite legal efforts and public outcry, he is released only upon the purchase of his freedom. His case sparked the state’s 1843 Liberty Act, dubbed the "Latimer Law," preventing Massachusetts officials from assisting in the detention of suspected fugitive enslaved people and banned the use of state facilities to detain such suspects. George Latimer made his home in Chelsea and his son Lewis Latimer went on to become an inventor.

Guardianship - Guardianship, both as a philosophy and legal relationship, is exercised for those not deemed capable of managing their own affairs and in need of moral guidance. Children, women, the “feeble-minded”, all those non-white and deemed to be “uncivilized” were classes given this oversight.

Indentured Servitude - In the earliest years of the Massachusetts colony indentured servants were a norm as a cheap source of labor. Impoverished people, often from England, Scotland and Ireland, would exchange their labor over a period of years for food, shelter and clothing as well as passage to the colony. At the end of their term, now a free citizen, the expectation, at least for men, was to receive land and a monetary gift to establish their own household. These relationships were unbreakable but temporary, with rights and responsibilities for both servant and master. The contract-bound labor of these servants was an asset that might be sold, traded or bequeathed to another. Servants maintained a sense of agency; they generally needed to approve of the new contract holder and could themselves instigate a change in master.

  • Terms were typically between three and seven years but evidence in Chelsea shows contracts of more than ten.

  • Between one-half and two-thirds of European immigrants to the Thirteen Colonies between the 1630s and the American Revolution came under indentures.

  • Abuse was common and mortality high. Only 40% survived to the end of their contracted terms.

  • Indenture was practiced widely and used to resolve debts and punish crimes.

  • Racism and the lack of legal protections for Indian and African slaves resulted in a hierarchy with indentured servants assigned relatively lighter and safer work.

  • Indentured servitude was still practiced into the early 1900s

Slavery - Slavery pre-dated the American colonies and existed worldwide, including among Native Americans and Africans.

Chattel Slavery – Chattel slavery is the most common form of slavery known to Americans. This was a system, supported by law, designating some people, based on race and skin color, as property to be bought, sold and owned forever. This style was developed by Europeans and expanded through European colonization. Enslavement became a permanent condition in the US for those of African descent. Here servitude was inheritable, practiced an industrial scale, and enforced across generations.

  • As demand for cheap labor grew and Native Americans fewer in number, Africans became the primary group enslaved in the Americas. Between 1492 and 1880 there were an estimated 12.5 million African slaves across the colonies and US.

Present Day forms of Slavery – Slavery exists today, including in forms considered lawful. Unlawfully sex trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage and domestic servitude are still experienced by adults and children in the US. The federal constitution’s 13th amendment explicitly allows penal enslavement and 19 state constitutions uphold either slavery, involuntary servitude, or both as punishment for a crime. In November 2022, four states, Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont, voted to remove those exemptions. A report published by the American Civil Liberties Union in June 2022 found two out of three of the 1.2 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons are forced to work, generating a conservative estimate of $11 billion annually in goods and services with average wages ranging from 13 cents to 52 cents per hour.


1641: Massachusetts is the first colony to authorize slavery through legislation.

1670: Massachusetts authorized the legal enslavement of children.

1680: Massachusetts laws restrict the movement of Africans/Blacks.

1703: Massachusetts law requires slave owners to post a bond to protect towns called to care for indigent slaves neglected by their masters.

1754: Massachusetts census lists nearly 4500 slaves. Historians estimate the Massachusetts slave population was approximately 2.2 percent of the total population, generally concentrated in the industrial and coastal towns.

1773: The American Revolution’s call for liberty extends to the institution of slavery. A group of slaves petitioned the General Court (legislature) to end slavery, and directly tied their search for liberty to the colonists' struggles with Great Britain.

1780: The successful state Constitution of 1780 declares "all men are born free and equal, and have . . . the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties." This is a rejection of a draft rejected by the voters in 1778 that would have recognized slavery as a legal institution.

1781: Three Massachusetts court cases together known as “the Quock Walker case” applied the principle of judicial review to effectively abolish slavery by declaring it incompatible with the newly adopted state Constitution in 1783. While no law or amendment to the state constitution was passed slavery gradually ended "voluntarily" in the state over the next decade.

1790: Federal census records no slaves in Massachusetts.

1831: New England Anti-Slavery Society formed by William Lloyd Garrison. The Liberator newspaper, lectures, and conventions build energy for abolition.

1842: George Latimer, the father of Chelsea inventor Lewis Latimer, fleeing enslavement in Virginia is imprisoned in Boston. Despite legal efforts and public outcry, he is released only upon the purchase of his freedom. His case sparks the state’s 1843 Liberty Act, dubbed the "Latimer Law," preventing Massachusetts officials from assisting in the detention of suspected fugitive enslaved people and banned the use of state facilities to detain such suspects.

1850: In response to the Fugitive Slave Law, the Boston Vigilance Committee and the secret Anti-Man-Hunting League resist enforcement of the federal law.

1863: President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all persons held as slave shall be free.

1868: The Fourteenth Amendment is ratified granting citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, including formerly enslaved people, with equal protection under the law.


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