Research Programs: Fellowships for College Teachers and Independent Scholars

Period of Performance

6/1/2007 - 5/31/2008

Funding Totals

$40,000.00 (approved)
$40,000.00 (awarded)

Slavery and Freedom in Concord, Massachusetts, 1740-1822

FAIN: FB-52999-07

Elise Lemire
Purchase College, SUNY (Purchase, NY 10577-1402)

This project contributes to the burgeoning field of New England slavery studies by unearthing the lived experiences of Africans, African descendants, and whites in Concord, from the inception of slavery there through the immediate aftermath of its demise. Concord makes an excellent case study, for while the number of slaves there is entirely typical for Massachusetts, the archives are far more extensive than in most towns, a result of Concord’s pride in the part it played in the birthing of the nation and its literature. Throughout the project, I connect the history of race politics in Concord with the town’s geography, thereby elucidating the link between slavery and Thoreau’s later conception of “nature.”

Media Coverage

Black Walden (Review)
Author(s): Joanne Pope Melish
Publication: The Journal of the Civil War Era
Date: 3/1/2011
Abstract: Lemire's book is one of a growing number of efforts to excavate the history of slavery hiding in plain sight in the towns and cities of New England. While many earlier studies foregrounded blacks, a number of scholars in the 1990s began to bring whites back into the story, reorienting their investigations toward the engagement of blacks and whites in slavery and freedom, and its ideological implications. While her title might suggest otherwise, Lemire's fascinating study focuses on such engagement…. Lemire has unearthed an astonishing amount of detailed information about more than a dozen African and African American slaves and the interconnected white families who built their fortunes and genteel reputations on their backs…. Black Walden is a beautifully written, fascinating, and challenging piece of historical detective work.

Black Walden (Review)
Author(s): Christopher Clark
Publication: Slavery & Abolition
Date: 5/17/2010
Abstract: This is a striking addition to the literature about New England slavery and race, to be read alongside the growing body of studies by Joanne Pope Melish, John Wood Sweet, the scholars exploring the life of Venture Smith, and others. Elise Lemire has written a fine microhistory whose specific stories illuminate broader themes. Her starting points are the town of Concord’s reputation as a birthplace of American freedom, and Henry David Thoreau’s interest in the people who had lived in Walden Woods a generation or two before he took up his solitary residence there in 1845. In the chapter ‘Former Inhabitants’ of his classic, Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854), Thoreau penned brief sketches of the people, including ex-slaves, whose former homes were now long abandoned and in ruins. In Black Walden, Lemire draws on public records, private correspondence, and literary sources to reconstruct the lives of these individuals in slavery and afterwards. Her findings enrich our understanding of sla

Black Walden (Review)
Publication: The National Genealogical Society Quarterly
Date: 6/1/2010
Abstract: Engaging and enjoyable to read, Black Walden is highly recommended for any genealogist, historian, or Walden fan with an interest in New England African American history.

Black Walden (Review)
Author(s): Linck Johnson
Publication: New England Quarterly
Date: 6/1/2010
Abstract: ....Through assiduous research, she [Lemire] has tracked the lives of many of those [Concord] slaves and their almost equally forgotten masters. The arc of her graceful narrative is shaped by the “intertwined lives” of the wealthy landowner John Cuming (Thoreau’s “Squire Cummings”) and Brister Freeman, his slave for twenty-five years (p. 13)… Lemire has genuinely enriched our understanding not only of the history of Concord but also of the country for which that fabled town still so often stands.

Black Walden (Review)
Author(s): Richard Klayman
Publication: American Nineteenth Century History
Date: 4/30/2010
Abstract: This interesting book seeks to explore and explain the web-like impact of slavery in the history of Concord, Massachusetts, and it does so with great skill. The author succeeds in bringing to life a small but, as she explains, significant population of African Americans in a community deeply connected to the origins of the American Revolution and the intellectual life of antebellum America. Navigating between local history and national trends, Lemire provides a depth of understanding about slavery's relationship to economic and social mobility. Her perceptive comments about architecture, furniture, and other arts provides for a most perceptive unearthing of a place and its people, including its African Americans residents who have been greatly unknown. In particular, Lemire seeks to demonstrate that “Concord, Massachusetts, of all places, was a slave town. From its founding in 1635 until after the Revolution, enslaved men and women helped to build what would become New England's most s

Black Walden (Review)
Author(s): Jason Martin
Publication: Library Journal
Date: 5/1/2009
Abstract: Walden Pond in Concord, MA, is most famous as the place where Henry David Thoreau went to "live deliberately" and subsist on the land. Thoreau chose Walden in part because its shores, Walden Woods, were at one time home to freed Concord slaves and several generations of their children. Lemire (literature, SUNY at Purchase; Miscegenation: Making Race in America), a native of Concord, sets about to resurrect the memory of not only the freedmen and -women who dwelled there but also the history of slavery in Concord. The first half of the book focuses on the Concord slave holders, in particular prominent slave owner John Cuming. The second half focuses on their 32 slaves, particularly Brister Freeman, who was Cuming's slave and was then freed. Lemire's literature background helps her to bring alive these long-dead historical characters, and she deftly weaves excerpts from Thoreau's Walden throughout the narrative. Ultimately, Lemire conveys the idea that before Walden Pond was a "green spa

Black Walden (Media Coverage)
Publication: Humanities Magazine
Date: 9/1/2010
Abstract: Elise Lemire discovers a local history of slavery in the free thinking capital of the United States.

Mrs. Durham's Discipline: Race, Nation, and American Literary History's Spots (Review)
Author(s): Evan Carton
Publication: American Literary History
Date: 10/16/2011
Abstract: [B]reathtaking…. Lemire’s meticulous and inspired archival research shows that “Concord, Massachusetts, of all places, was a slave town.”… Lemire, who grew up in the “privileged, leafy” neighboring town of Lincoln, generously describes her project as an attempt “to finish what Thoreau had started: the history of slavery in the place we both called home.” Imaginative and moral generosity, to both the black and the white eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century Concordians whose intimately entangled fortunes she chronicles, is a hallmark of her study. At the same time, Lemire is clear-eyed and clear-voiced about the facts and meanings of inter-racial Concord’s “long and brutal history.”… [E]legant writing and thinking… challenging and ethical historical criticism.

Black Walden (Review)
Author(s): J. J. Fox Jr.
Publication: Choice
Date: 3/1/2010
Abstract: Slavery has haunted America since its settlement. For most, it is an evil practice that existed in the South until the Civil War struck it dead. This is not a historically accurate understanding. Slavery existed throughout America from the beginning. This small but important study shines light on Africans in Massachusetts as both slaves and freedmen. Using Concord as a case study, Lemire (Purchase College) first focuses on the slave owners, paying particular attention to John Cuming. The author makes clear that the owners were not benevolent slave masters. Like all slave owners, they saw their slaves as a productive piece of property and an always-present threat to the well-being of their families. Lemire next turns her attention to the life of the slaves after they had gained their independence. As with the slave owners, she focuses on a particular individual, Brister Freeman, a slave who became free. The life of Concord's Africans in and out of slavery was one of prejudice, submissio

Black Walden (Review)
Author(s): Douglas R. Egerton
Publication: The History Teacher
Date: 2/1/2010
Abstract: Rendered forever famous by its most celebrated author, the woods around Walden Pond had shielded other sorts of refugees long before Henry David Thoreau built his cabin there in 1845. In discussing the open green spaces then admired by Concord's residents, Thoreau devoted a chapter of his book to the former slaves who had been driven to the village's margins and cultivated small patches by the pond. Elise Lemire aptly notes that these "green spaces began as black spaces" (p. 12). The small community of enslaved men and women—together with the equally small number of wealthy whites who owned them on the eve of the American Revolution—is the subject of this slim but passionate and elegantly written study…

Videotaped Interview (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Mara Dolan
Publication: Right Here, Right Now
Date: 12/1/2010
Abstract: Interview on Massachusetts Cable Network

New England's Hidden History (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Francie Latour
Publication: Boston Globe
Date: 9/26/2010
Abstract: More than we like to think, the North was built on slavery....

Mass Book Award 2010 Finalists (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Jeremy Dibble et al
Publication: Mass Book Awards
Date: 1/1/2010
Abstract: [Black Walden is] A carefully-researched book, mustering available sources to create a historically-grounded account of the (very small) slave community in Concord before, during, and following the Revolutionary War; a captivating narrative of real people and their times.

Associated Products

Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts (Book)
Title: Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts
Author: Elise Lemire
Abstract: Long heralded as the birthplace of American liberty and literature, Concord, Massachusetts, was also a slave town. Black Walden chronicles the stories of the men, women, and children who were enslaved in America's most storied town. Many of the town's famous sites look radically different from the perspective of Concord's slavery history, most notably Walden Woods, which was the home of a community of former slaves long before it became widely known as a green space.
Year: 2009
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Author's website.
Secondary URL:
Secondary URL Description: Penn Press webpage for Black Walden.
Access Model: Open access
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: 0812241800

Walden Woods was a Black Space before it was a Green Space (Blog Post)
Title: Walden Woods was a Black Space before it was a Green Space
Author: Elise Lemire
Abstract: Article-length post on the history of Walden Woods.
Date: 09/13/2009
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: History News Network

A Small Bench by the Side of the Road (Blog Post)
Title: A Small Bench by the Side of the Road
Author: Elise Lemire
Abstract: Article-length post describes placement of a Toni Morrison bench in Concord, MA, as a result of Black Walden and other efforts.
Date: 06/01/2011
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Penn Press Log (Web Resource)
Author: Elise Lemire
Abstract: Website includes a map of African and African-American sites in Concord, the introduction to Black Walden (the book), a list of the over 25 readings and book signings completed to date, reviews of Black Walden, video of and podcasts with the author, and information about how to contact the author.
Year: 2009
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Companion website for the book, Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts

Academic Minute Segment on Black Walden (Radio/Audio Broadcast or Recording)
Title: Academic Minute Segment on Black Walden
Writer: Elise Lemire
Producer: Alan Chartock
Abstract: In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Elise Lemire of Purchase College examines how freed slaves shaped a town at the center of both the American Revolution and American Literature.
Date: 01/13/2011
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: WAMC Northeast Public Radio's website
Format: Radio

Keynote Address (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Keynote Address
Author: Elise Lemire
Abstract: Elise Lemire presents "Rack Focus: Bringing Northern Slavery into View" at the 2011 annual Mass Humanities Mass History conference.
Date: 06/06/2011
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Keynote posted on Mass Humanities website
Conference Name: Mass Humanities Annual Mass History Conference

Annual Frank and Bette Spriggs Lecture (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Annual Frank and Bette Spriggs Lecture
Author: Elise Lemire
Abstract: The history of slavery in Concord, MA
Date: 08/25/2011
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Museum of African American History online announcement
Secondary URL:
Secondary URL Description: Museum of African American History website
Conference Name: Annual Frank and Bette Spriggs Lecture

Slavery and Freedom in Concord, MA (Conference/Institute/Seminar)
Title: Slavery and Freedom in Concord, MA
Author: Elise Lemire
Abstract: Making Freedom: Evolution and Revolution in the Realization of an American Ideal is a three-year, $979,475 Teaching American History (TAH) grant through the United States Department of Education. This award will enable five partnering public school districts—Burlington, Bedford, Lexington, Woburn, and Somerville–to appreciably strengthen their programs to teach traditional American history as a separate academic subject in grades three to five and eight to eleven. "Doing Massachusetts History: 1620-1812" was one of the seminars offered in the summer of 2011. "Slavery and Freedom in Concord, MA" was taught as part of that seminar.
Date Range: 08/19/2011
Location: Minute Man National Historical Park, Concord, MA
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Course Descriptions for the "Making Freedom" program.

Teaching Massachusetts Slavery (Conference/Institute/Seminar)
Title: Teaching Massachusetts Slavery
Author: Elise Lemire
Abstract: Part of a Teachers Summer Institute at the Museum of African American History in Boston, MA
Date Range: 06/30/2011
Location: Museum of African American History
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Educational Programs page at the Museum of African American History's website

Over 20 Additional Public Presentations and Conference Papers on Black Walden (Public Lecture or Presentation)
Title: Over 20 Additional Public Presentations and Conference Papers on Black Walden
Abstract: See a complete listing at
Author: Elise Lemire
Date: 05/16/2009
Location: Various
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: List of presentations, conference papers, and readings on the author's website for Black Walden.