MEDFORD, Mass. — During Black History Month, Massachusetts likes to point out its reputation as the enlightened 19th-century hub of the abolition movement. The state was one of the first to end slavery, long before the 13th Amendment formally banned it nationwide in 1865.
Less well known is that Massachusetts was the first to legalize slavery, in 1641. Even before then, merchants in the Massachusetts Bay Colony had enslaved Native Americans, and by 1638 were bartering them for Africans in the West Indies. The slave trade grew from there and soon became a pillar of the colonial economy.
Two professors at Tufts University, Kendra Field and Kerri Greenidge, are among the many scholars who have been tracing the history of Massachusetts’s African-American residents, from slavery to Black Lives Matter.
Their research, a collaboration with students and nonprofit organizations, has evolved into what they call the African American Trail Project, a website that maps out more than 200 historic sites across the state.
They include the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, the intact home of the largest slaveholders in Massachusetts and the only remaining slave quarters in the northern United States; the “Hear Us” Women’s Memorial inside the Massachusetts State House in Boston; and the home of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Lynn.
“We wanted to make the history more visible and the facts accessible,” Dr. Field said.
The professors sought to link these disparate people and places together so that a visitor — a tourist, student or local resident — might see them not in isolation but in historical context.
Dr. Greenidge said that people often think of Boston as either “where fugitive slaves came and were ‘rescued’ by the abolitionists, or as the place where people were throwing bricks at black children” during busing protests in the 1970s. (The site of protests against the Boston School Committee, at 15 Beacon Street, is one of the sites.)
Their goal, the professors said, is to “complicate the narrative,” to fill in gaps, show African-American people in all their dimensions and place present-day struggles for racial justice in a continuum.
Local “trails” of African-American significance have long existed. These trails, which can be walked in a few hours, include the Black Heritage Trail on Beacon Hill in Boston; a self-guided tour of antislavery sites in Concord, Mass.; and the African American Heritage Trail at Mount Auburn Cemetery. By contrast, the Tufts Trail Project is not a self-contained walking tour but more of a planning tool for the do-it-yourselfer, especially beyond Beacon Hill, where so much of the popular narrative has been focused. The website features a map with a bird’s-eye view of most of the known sites in Massachusetts as well as further information. It allows readers to suggest new locations.
Some of the locations, like the 1806 African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, the oldest extant black church in the country, are open year-round and offer tours; others consist of a statue, plaque or historic home; some are not open to the public, and some are not marked at all.