Opinion: Quock Walker and the early struggle against slavery in New England

The novel “James” by Percival Everett, recreates the story of Huckleberry Finn from the point of view of Jim, the slave.

The novel “James” by Percival Everett, recreates the story of Huckleberry Finn from the point of view of Jim, the slave. Business Wire


Published: 06-24-2024 9:33 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

Probably there is no more famous novel in American literature than Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” So it is an event that there is an audacious new novel, “James” by Percival Everett, that recreates Huck’s story from the point of view of Jim, the slave.

“James” forces a reckoning with perspective. Who is telling the story can be a game-changer and “James” does not disappoint. The novel seems especially pertinent now as America faces its illiberal tradition in the form of the MAGA movement.

In reading “James,” I was struck by how we have buried the story of early American history. Sure, we know about George Washington, the Founders, the Revolutionary War and the Constitution but what about those who were out of the limelight? How did the slaves in New England fare? What was it like to live in New England as an enslaved person before there was an abolitionist movement?

Research quickly led me to the name. Quock Walker, a name that was entirely unfamiliar to me. Walker was born in Massachusetts in 1753. His parents were believed to be Ghanaian.

African slaves had first arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s and slavery was legally sanctioned in 1641. Massachusetts was the first colony in New England to formally authorize the enslavement of kidnapped Africans and slavery remained legal for over 140 years. Boston’s wealthy white elite was thoroughly integrated into the lucrative enslavement-based economy.

Enslavers trafficked Indigenous people abducted from the Massachusetts area, sold them into slavery in the Caribbean and returned with kidnapped Africans. Boston was a major site of trafficking. The city’s engagement with the slave trade peaked between 1760 and 1775.

Even early in American history, some colonists recognized the inconsistency of arguing for “freedom” and “rights” while owning slaves. The contradiction was not lost on enslaved African Americans. The slaves themselves helped initiate the first mobilization in the Atlantic world against slavery.

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Quock Walker was one of eight enslaved men of African descent who petitioned the Massachusetts General Court in early 1777. They wrote in the name of “A Great Number of Blacks detained in a State of Slavery in the Bowels of a free and Christian Country.”

They went on to say they had been “unjustly Dragged by the hand of a cruel Power from their Dearest friends and some of them even torn from the Embraces of their tender Parents and brought here either to be sold like Beast of Burden and were then condemned to Slavery for Life.”

Their petition explained that they had sent “petition after petition to the Legislative Body of the State” but their petition had never been considered. They were ignored. In her book, “The Slave’s Cause,” by Manisha Sinha, the Quock Walker story is told.

In 1781, represented by two prominent attorneys, Quock Walker sued in Worcester County Court for his freedom. Walker and both his parents had been purchased by James Caldwell. At the time of purchase, Walker was an infant. Later in his life, Caldwell promised Quock Walker his freedom at age 25. After Caldwell’s death, his widow remarried and neither the widow nor her new husband, Nathaniel Jennison, wanted to free Walker. They decided to keep him enslaved.

Walker deserted his owners and began working for John and Seth Caldwell, either children or siblings of James Caldwell. Jennison recaptured Walker, severely beat and imprisoned him. Walker then sued Jennison both for his freedom and damages. Walker argued that slavery was contrary to Massachusetts’ newly ratified state constitution.

Article one states: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and inalienable rights [including] the right of enjoying their lives and liberties.”

The jury found Walker was “a freeman and not the proper Negro slave” of Jennison and awarded Walker 50 pounds in damages. Jennison appealed and sued the Caldwells. The case went to the Supreme Judicial Court and Jennison lost again.

There was a further case against Jennison for assault and battery. Judge William Cushing who would later serve as one of the first justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, charged the jury that “the doctrine of slavery and the right of Christians to hold Africans in perpetual servitude and sell and treat them as we do horses and cattle was simply a usage bequeathed by European nations in pursuit of trade and wealth.”

In America, “a different idea has taken place…more favorable to the natural rights of mankind.” Slavery, he declared, was inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution.

Quock Walker’s case is generally credited with abolishing slavery in Massachusetts. It was one of the first times in American history that a written constitution was directly applied as law.

Vermont abolished slavery in 1777, the first state to do so. Rhode Island and Connecticut adopted a plan of gradual emancipation in 1784 although Rhode Island did not ban slavery until 1843. Connecticut followed, banning slavery in 1848. New Hampshire passed an abolition bill in 1857.

Although Congress abolished the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, Boston slave traders surreptitiously trafficked Africans for decades after that. In one well-known episode in 1858, traffickers aboard the ship Crimea departed from Boston to Africa, where they kidnapped 600 people from the mouth of the Congo River and sold them in Guanimar, Cuba. Wealth created by the slave trade and its related industries — rum, timber, shipbuilding, fisheries and agriculture — was foundational to Boston’s economy.

Still, Quock Walker’s case made an important difference. By 1790, the U.S. census recorded no enslaved people living in Massachusetts. Slavery was driven underground. Massachusetts was the first state to achieve that. White Bostonians continued to enforce strict racial segregation and racially discriminatory laws but not in the context of slavery.

In 2022, Massachusetts passed a law declaring July 8 Quock Walker Day. It is also called Massachusetts Emancipation Day. In 2023, it became a statewide holiday.