Confronting Our Legacy in Newton

A new exhibition at the Jackson Homestead provides insight about the history of slavery and antislavery in New England.

When I first came to the Jackson Homestead, I was tremendously excited to be working at a home that was part of the Underground Railroad. Quickly, however, I realized that it was almost impossible to learn about the people who had escaped slavery through the Jackson Homestead—neither the Jacksons nor the “fugitive slaves” wanted to leave any trace of their activities lest they fall into the hands of authorities. And in any case many enslaved people never learned how to read or write, making it even less likely that there would be a written account of their stay at the Jackson Homestead.

Once I had accepted that there were many things I would probably never know about the Underground Railroad at the Homestead, I started to focus on the information that was available. And when I learned that the Jacksons’ earliest ancestor in Newton, Edward, had owned slaves on the very same property that later was an Underground Railroad stop, I was stunned. How could we not tell the story of the Jacksons’ pre-abolitionist family history? Did the fact that their ancestors held slaves motivate them to take action against slavery? And were the Jacksons the only people in Newton who had a history of slaveholding and/or abolitionism in their past? These questions led me and my colleagues at the museum on a mission to find out more. Two years of research and writing have culminated in our latest exhibition, Confronting Our Legacy: Slavery and Antislavery in the North.

This new exhibition will open on Thursday, February 16th with a reception from 5:30–7:30 p.m. at the Jackson Homestead. It focuses on Newton and how it fit into the larger regional and national context both in terms of slaveholding and antislavery activity. Extensive research has uncovered the names of several slaveholders, enslaved people, and abolitionists in Newton, and the places they lived have been plotted on a current street map of the city. Interactive elements include a box you can climb in to feel how much space a person would have while travelling across the Middle Passage as “cargo” on a slave ship. The famous well in the Jackson’s basement, long misunderstood as the secret underground passageway, has been illuminated and covered with grating so you can stand on top of it to see for yourself that there were no underground passages to the house. The exhibition will be twice as large as the previous exhibit on abolition that was up at the Homestead for over 25 years.

Confronting Our Legacy presents new information about the history of our community that is, to me, far more fascinating than any unconfirmed stories of secret hiding places, instructional quilts, and other tales that have created a grand misunderstanding in our historical memory that does not do justice to the bravery of people who escaped from slavery. My hope is that this exhibition will equip us to face our past, with all its sobering ugliness, and move toward a smarter, more equal society in the future that will far outlast the legacy of slavery that we live with today.

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