Sean OsborneSean Osborne, historian, former president and co-founder of the Association of Black Citizens of Lexington, delivers a speech about Quock Walker to a crowd at the First Parish Church in Lexington Center. / Alex Svenson photos

State first in nation to abolish slavery

UPDATED July 12: State officials and dozens of others commemorated Massachusetts Emancipation Day recently at an event hosted by the Association of Black Citizens of Lexington (ABCL).

The state Senate designated July 8 as Emancipation Day in 2022; it is also known as Quock Walker Day, after a pivotal figure in state history. This designation came following a bill filed by Arlington resident Sen. Cindy F. Friedman (D-Arlington), directing the governor to issue a proclamation commemorating Walker and his legacy each year.

Nearly 100 people attended the event in Lexington on Saturday, July 6. Walker, a formerly enslaved person, won his freedom after filing civil lawsuits.

The July 6 event was held at the First Parish Church next to the Lexington Battle Green and featured speakers including Friedman and State House colleagues Sen. Michael J. Barrett (D-Lexington) and Rep. Michelle Ciccolo (D-Lexington). It was organized by civil engineer Sean Osborne of Lexington, historian, co-founder and former president of ABCL (he stepped down from the presidency in 2022 to become historian), spoke on why Walker is important to Massachusetts history.

“Quock Walker Day is an opportunity for residents across Massachusetts and New England to understand how pervasive slavery was in colonial Massachusetts,” Osborne said. “It’s also an opportunity to learn how the lives of free, indentured and enslaved Black folks were intimately woven into the lives of indentured and free white folks.”

As part of the proceedings, Friedman gave a reading of the Massachusetts Emancipation Declaration.

“The people of this commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves to each other, to declare that all men are born free and equal; and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws as well as his life and property,” Friedman said, reciting the words of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice William Cushing, who heard the third Quock Walker case in 1783. 

A related 1783 criminal case ended slavery in Massachusetts, Osborne said, when it was deemed that slavery went against the Massachusetts state constitution.

As a young man, Walker had been promised that he would be freed by the time he turned 25 by his enslaver, James Caldwell. However, after Caldwell died in 1763, his widow married Nathaniel Jennison, who gained control over Walker after the former Mrs. Caldwell died a few years later.

Jennison refused to fulfill Caldwell’s promise to free Walker, who later ran away and found work on a nearby farm belonging to Caldwell’s relatives. Jennison later found Walker and brutally beat him, leading Walker to sue him for battery, arguing he was attacked while free.

The result of Walker’s court case became the groundwork for ending all slavery in Massachusetts based on constitutional grounds. Therefore, it was decided by the Massachusetts Legislature that Walker would be the namesake for Emancipation Day. 

“Quock Walker taught us that everyone and anyone should have the chance to have stability, security and peace,”.Friedman said. “When we’re worried and we’re scared of what may happen to us if we stand up for those values, just remember what Quock Walker did, and he had everything to lose.”

The event also featured artwork commemorating notable Black Americans of Massachusetts history, as well as a traditional West African dance performance and entertainment by Crocodile River Music. Food from Jamaica Mi Hungry and Clarke’s Cakes and Cookies was available to guests.

Other historic families recognized

“This year the ABCL and its celebration partners highlighted the lives of three Black families of colonial Lexington,” Osborne said. “[They are] Yeoman Philip Burdoo, Prince Chester, and Quawk and Kate Barbadoes. The 120,000-plus local, national, cultural and international visitors to Lexington should know about these families.”

He continued, “Yeoman Philip Burdoo was an early landowning resident of Lexington back when it was known as Cambridge Farms, who actively participated and voted in town meetings,” Osborne said. “His son Moses fought in the French and Indian War alongside several other Lexington residents, and his grandchildren Eli and Silas fought in the Revolutionary War.FriedmanState Sen. Cindy Friedman of Arlington delivers the Massachusetts Emancipation Day/Quock Walker proclamation on Saturday, July 6.

“Prince Chester lived in Lexington with his wife Cate as emancipated slaves,” Osborne said. “They earned their living processing flax into linen. Linen and wool fabric were favored by colonists who wanted to be independent of British rule.

“Quawk and Kate Barbadoes were also enslaved in Lexington and continued fighting for freedom after being emancipated,” Osborne continued. “The oldest son Isaac died serving in the Revolutionary War, while their other son Abel helped build the African Meeting House in Boston. Their grandson James was a Prince Hall Mason who was a founding officer of the Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA), which was organized in Boston in 1826 to combat slavery and racism.”

Osbourne co-founded the organization in 2017. He said ABCL was established as a way for Black residents of Lexington, longtimers and newcomers, to get acquainted with each other. Additionally ABCL was created to help its members to become more involved in local government and to engage with local and state elected officials.

“[After] talking with the [ABCL] elders, I realized that the history of Black residents in Lexington was much longer and richer than most know,” Osborne said. “Thus, ABCL is a repository of history and a creator of programs to share the history of Black Lexingtonians from Cambridge Farms to the Battle of Lexington to the present.”

Osborne has dedicated much of his free time researching the history of Black Americans in Massachusetts so as to help spread awareness of this often-forgotten past.

“One of the most pervasive myths of Black history in Massachusetts is that there was no slavery in Massachusetts,” Osborne said. “During his 1856 speech denouncing slavery and enslavers, Sen. Charles Sumner refers to Massachusetts as a free state in 1781.

“The Quock Walker story allows the students and adults of our state to face its history of slavery, embrace its position as the first state to abolish slavery -- and understand that ending slavery did not mean that equal rights were realized.

“The nieces and nephews of Quock Walker understood that the fight for equality was not realized on July 8, 1783, and that much work is still left to be done. Likewise, each of us should use Quock Walker Day as a time to assess how far we’ve come and to be inspired to do more between now and Quock Walker Day 2025.”

For more information and photographs from the event, go here>>

June 24, 2024: Juneteenth observed locally, including importance of learning history of slavery

This story and photographs by YourArlington freelancer Alex Svenson was published Monday, July 9, 2024. It was updated Tuesday, July 9, and again Friday, July 12 to clarify the titles, past and present, held by Sean Osborne of the Association of Black Citizens of Lexington and also to correct some details of the 1780s court cases.