Concord, Massachusetts, has long been heralded as the birthplace
of American liberty and American letters. It was here that the
first military engagement of the Revolutionary War was fought and
here that Thoreau came to "live deliberately" on the shores of
Walden Pond. Between the Revolution and the settlement of the
little cabin with the bean rows, however, Walden Woods was home to
several generations of freed slaves and their children. Living on
the fringes of society, they attempted to pursue lives of freedom,
promised by the rhetoric of the Revolution, and yet withheld by the
practice of racism. Thoreau was all but alone in his attempt "to
conjure up the former occupants of these woods." Other than the
chapter he devoted to them in Walden, the history of
slavery in Concord has been all but forgotten.
In Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord,
Massachusetts, Elise Lemire brings to life the former slaves
of Walden Woods and the men and women who held them in bondage
during the eighteenth century. After charting the rise of Concord
slaveholder John Cuming, Black Walden follows the
struggles of Cuming's slave, Brister, as he attempts to build a
life for himself after thirty-five years of enslavement. Brister
Freeman, as he came to call himself, and other of the town's slaves
were able to leverage the political tensions that fueled the
American Revolution and force their owners into relinquishing them.
Once emancipated, however, the former slaves were permitted to
squat on only the most remote and infertile places. Walden Woods
was one of them. Here, Freeman and his neighbors farmed, spun
linen, made baskets, told fortunes, and otherwise tried to survive
in spite of poverty and harassment.
Today Walden Woods is preserved as a place for visitors to commune
with nature. Lemire, who grew up two miles from Walden Pond,
reminds us that this was a black space before it was an
internationally known green space. Black Walden preserves
the legacy of the people who strove against all odds to overcome
slavery and segregation.
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