From a participant in a prior workshop in Deerfield: “This is perhaps the most impressive seminar I have ever attended. The passion of those in charge together with their expertise, tact, people skills and organization and planning that went towards the whole academic experience was wonderful. Field trips happened at perfect intervals, readings were appropriate and meaningful, presenters were top notch.”
Deerfield may seem at first glance to be an unlikely place to serve as the center of a study of early African American life, but in fact Deerfield exemplifies both the range of experiences of African Americans in New England and the wiping away of their history. In Deerfield, enslaved and free African American labor was widespread and essential in the colonial period, had been virtually forgotten by 1900 and is little known today. The early memories of George Sheldon, self-appointed Deerfield historian, included Cato, who had once been a slave of the Reverend Jonathan Ashley. In his History of Deerfield, 1895, he included a part on Negro Slavery which starts with this quote: “To those in the habit of thinking of negro slavery as an exclusively Southern institution, this title may have in it an element of surprise, if not of offence. I know of no reason, however, why we should not face the facts relating to it, found in church and town records, and old family manuscripts.”
What students learn about early American life is mostly about white families; yet the trade in African captives undergirded New England’s maritime commercial development, and African Americans in slavery and freedom made essential contributions to early New England life as artisans and laborers, poets and writers, soldiers and ministers. Knowing this history is crucial to understanding evolving ideas about race in the United States, and it informs and complicates the narrative of America’s expanding commitment to social justice and equality.