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23 Dedham Avenue
Needham, MA 02492

Northern Reparations
Rev. Catie Scudera
First Parish in Needham
February 3, 2019


Growing up in northern Virginia, the existence of slavery in our country was an inescapable fact. I can’t remember if it was introduced to us as early as our fourth grade Virginian history class — though in retrospect, I wonder what the black students of my elementary school wore on “colonial dress-up” day — but surely the history of slavery was taught in our required American history courses in middle and high school. Just as surely, our teachers did not describe to us in thorough detail the brutality of slavery: the devastation in Africa of so many people and resources stolen; the extent of disease and death in “the Middle Passage”; the cruelty of the so-called “masters” and overseers; how families were routinely torn apart across neighborhoods, towns, state lines, and oceans; and, how lack of freedom impacts the body, mind, and soul of generations.

We are entering the 400thyear since the first Africans were brought to the American colonies, specifically to the Jamestown settlement in my home state of Virginia. These enslaved people were Angolans, and had been taken by Portuguese slavers before their ships were raided by British pirates, who took the Angolans prisoner and sold them in Virginian port cities.

For myself, reflecting on Virginian slavery while living in Massachusetts reminds me of a Henry David Thoreau classic, his 1854 essay Slavery in Massachusetts. The essay was based on a speech our Unitarian spiritual ancestor gave that same year at an anti-slavery rally after the “deportation” and re-enslavement of black Bostonian Anthony Burns due to the Fugitive Slave Act (which itself was signed by one of our own Unitarian presidents, Millard Fillmore).

Thoreau began like this: “I lately attended a meeting of the citizens of Concord, expecting… to speak on the subject of slavery in Massachusetts; but I was surprised and disappointed to find that what had called my towns[folk] together was the destiny of Nebraska, and not of Massachusetts, and that what I had to say would be entirely out of order. I had thought that the house was on fire, and not the prairie; but though several of the citizens of Massachusetts are now in prison for attempting to rescue a slave… not one of the speakers at that meeting expressed regret for it; not one even referred to it! It was only the disposition of some wild lands a thousand miles off which appeared to concern them. The inhabitants of Concord are not prepared to stand by one of their own bridges, but talk only of taking up a position on the highlands beyond the Yellowstone River.”

In this 400thanniversary year of slavery in the North American colonies, I don’t want to make that same mistake. Let’s talk about our own “bridges,” the “house on fire,” here in Massachusetts.

In 2017, the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collaborative challenged Unitarian Universalist congregations to reflect on how white supremacy lives on in our institutions. For the second “UU White Supremacy Teach-In,” the organizers asked us to research the history of black membership in our institutions and black residents in our localities. As we here in Needham prepared for the second Teach-In, I dutifully read the Wikipedia entry on Needham’s census records and demographics, and I typed into Google: “Needham slavery.” Thanks to Google Books, I began to pull on a thread about slavery in Needham which has unraveled my assumption that slavery didn’t happen here in our small, poor New England farming town. 

What I’m about to share with you, you may find disturbing, unbelievable, and shocking. I know I found it so, as did other members of our congregation who helped me with this research: Jeanette Anderson, Marianne McGowan, Becky Siebens, and Tad Staley. 

What I first uncovered in late 2017 was First Parishioner George Kuhn Clarke’s History of Needham, Massachusetts, 1711-1911, a 200thanniversary history of our town. I have a physical copy, which, to my memory, was gifted to me by our own Jamie Turbayne. What I had never noticed before was that on page 565 begins a chapter on slaves in Needham. Interestingly, in my paper copy, that chapter’s pages are “unopened,” which means the binder did not perform the cut to allow the pages to be opened and read. So, I’m not the first to have not read this chapter.

George Kuhn Clarke wrote, “The institution of human slavery never flourished in Needham, but a few blacks were held in bondage here, as the Church records and inventories of estates testify. At the time of the War of the American Revolution, Captain William Faris, a Loyalist, and William Bowdoin, Esq., were the only slave holders in town, and were each taxed for one slave. [Though, the late Horace Mann stated that he found the names of four slaves of Captain Faris:— Jack, who went to England in 1779, Sylvia, who was sold to Sir Henry Frankland, Terence, who died of the smallpox, and Phebe… {who} was supported by the Faris family in her old age.] In 1775, ‘two negro children belonging to Captain William Faris named Prince and Silvia’ were baptized by the minister of the First Church.”

(That’s us!)

I was horrified, and did not know what to do with this information. I needed time to think, reflect, and recalibrate. It had never occurred to me that slavery happened here.

Speaking with Becky and Marianne from our Racial Justice Task Force, we decided to perform further research and share the beginnings of what we found with all of you through worship and adult education events during this Black History Month. Our research is not complete, but here’s what we can tell you:

Our Archives Committee chair, Jeanette Anderson, has yet to find much information about William Bowdoin, whether he was part of First Parish, or who he held in bondage. Captain Faris, Jeanette learned, was not a member of this congregation — he was an Anglican who attended services in Cambridge and was formally excused from paying taxes to First Parish in Needham. We don’t know why, then, he had Sylvia and Prince baptized here by our second minister, Reverend Samuel West, especially as West would become a founding member of the American Unitarian Association and, by our understanding, was devoutly anti-slavery.

I’ll admit, when I learned Captain Faris was Episcopalian, I felt relieved! I actually thought to myself, “Ah, he’s someone else’s problem!” Isn’t that awful?

But, the same week Jeanette uncovered Faris’s affiliation, Tad, Marianne, Becky, and I met with Dr. Gloria Greis, the Executive Director of the Needham History Center and Museum. Dr. Greis has always been a generous partner to First Parish and the Town of Needham in uncovering, preserving, and sharing our history, and we asked her specifically about Prince and Sylvia.

She found so much more.

At this meeting, Dr. Greis handed us copies of two documents: The first, a transcription of two 1890 handwritten letters from Robert Mansfield, who grew up in Needham and attested that he had met a “full blooded African” named Boston Fude, who, with his wife Jenney and their friend Primas King, had previously been enslaved by Charles Deming’s family of West Needham, now Wellesley. (Interestingly, Clarke’s 1911 history mentions Boston Fude by name as a “free negro” living in Needham in the early 1800’s, without mentioning that he had been enslaved before slavery was outlawed in the Commonwealth.) Mansfield concluded one of his letters, “[Boston] and his wife deserve a written monument… at the hands of the citizens of Needham, and especially of Wellesley.”

Again, I felt comfortably removed from slavery in Needham, knowing that the Deming slaveholders were reallyfrom Wellesley. Not that the separate West Needham church even existed until 1798 nor Wellesley as a separate town until 1881, but still, I felt a comfortable remove.

But, the second document Dr. Greis gave us was from the Vital Records of Needham, a list of births, baptisms, and deaths recorded primarily by our first two ministers, Revs. Jonathan Townsend and Samuel West. In both the births & baptisms and the deaths sections, at the very end of the alphabetized list of white family names, is a separate category for “negroes/servants.” Under births and baptisms, we found Sylvia and Prince, both baptized on August 19, 1775. Also listed were: Rose, a “negro child of Mrs. Sarah Deming’s,” baptized here by Rev. Townsend in May 1750; Jethro, a “negro child — servant to Nathaniel Tolman,” baptized here by Rev. Townsend in 1744, and then two more “negro” children without white families attached to them, Violet and Phoebe, both baptized here by Rev. West in 1768 and 1773, respectively.

As I said before, the Demings lived in West Needham, and it’s possible that Boston and Rose were enslaved by the same Deming family; there were two Deming families in Needham both with a patriarch named Charles, but only one Charles was married to a Sarah. The Tolman family who enslaved the child Jethro lived right here in “East” Needham in the historic Tolman-Gay House at Central Avenue and Gay Street. Nathaniel Tolman’s father, also named Nathaniel, was one of the original members of this congregation, signing the church covenant in 1720 when Rev. Townsend arrived.  

On the death rolls for “negroes/servants,” we found Rose again, who died just a year after her baptism, and three other “negro children” who died in the 1750’s nameless, “belonging to” Andrew Gardner, Samuel Glover, and Jonathan Gay. According to Jeanette’s research, Andrew Gardner is not on our church rolls, but two other Gardners (Lucy and Elizabeth) are. Samuel Glover is not in our church rolls, but Lydia Glover, possibly his mother, is; Samuel himself died young in 1756 in the French and Indian War, leaving a widow and young son, also named Samuel. However, Jonathan Gay’s family was closely tied to First Parish, donating money for the purchase of our beloved Paul Revere Bell for the 1811 100thanniversary of the town.

I must lift up, there were so many children enslaved here — I cannot help but wonder, heartbroken: Where were their parents? Twentieth-century historian William Piersen wrote that in New England, enslaved children were often brought up from the West Indies, where the work was too harsh for many children to survive. Furthermore, Piersen wrote that New England slaveholders were not wealthy enough to enslave whole families, so they typically “regarded black babies as an unproductive expense… [and] were willing to sell or give away their slaves’ children for other masters to raise.” And, we know from Clarke’s 1911 history that there were many “free mulattos” in Needham in the early nineteenth-century, after slavery was outlawed; like in the South, some of these children may have been born of their so-called “masters.” There is no implication from any source of a happy family picture for these enslaved Needham children.

There was one more name on the Vital Records death rolls, a name that disturbed me greatly: Homer, called the “negro servant” of Reverend Jonathan Townsend, the first minister of First Parish in Needham.

I did not want to believe that our first minister was a slaveholder. I wanted Homer to be an indentured servant, or a free black worker, or any servitude status but enslaved.

My alma mater, Harvard Divinity School, maintains the archives of our denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association. I reached out to Gloria Korsman, a Unitarian Universalist at First Parish in Cambridge herself and a research librarian at Harvard Divinity’s library to see if she could find me more information about Rev. Townsend and Homer.

Within the span of a single morning, she found the information I dreaded: in a biographical volume of Harvard College graduates, it states that Rev. Townsend’s father-in-law, Captain Gregory Sugars, “provided the means for building the pleasant parsonage which still stands at the corner of Nehoiden Street and Central Avenue. Perhaps from the same source came the minister’s slave, Homer, who for periods served the parish as sexton.” Indeed, a quick search for the name “Homer” in Clarke’s 1911 history revealed this sentence: “On June 5, 1754, the Rev. Mr. Townsend was granted 1 [pound], 1 [shilling], 4 [pence], for his servant’s taking care of the meeting-house in 1753; this was probably the negro Homer, who died April 9, 1754.”

The Harvard biography went on that one month after Homer’s death at the May town meeting, Rev. Townsend threatened to resign unless he received better pay in reliable currency. Though the biographer, university archivist Clifford Shipton, didn’t make the connection, I wonder if Townsend could only “manage” serving First Parish for as long as he did because he held an enslaved person in his home. I wonder if our first meetinghouse would have stood as long as it did if it hadn’t been for Homer’s unpaid labor. I wonder how much of the foundation of our church rests on Homer’s shoulders, not to mention the labor of all those enslaved black children whose enslavers paid taxes to our congregation.

At the suggestion of our administrator Susanna Whitman, I spoke with local Euro-American Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. David Pettee, who has done extensive personal research on his New England family’s ties to slavery, not unlike the family of the film Traces of the Trade. Rev. Pettee told me that it is common in 20th-century history books for slavery to become more vague, more watered down, more whitewashed. A Massachusetts census in the 1750’s demonstrates that over 100 towns in our Commonwealth held slaves, yet it seems to be a missing fact from our public school history classes. For example, we know that George Kuhn Clarke knew about every slaveholding family in town when Rev. Townsend was minister because in the book, the New England Historical and Genealogical Registry, it was George Kuhn Clarke himself, identified as the “sometimes clerk of the First Church of Needham,” who typed Rev. Townsend’s handwritten records for the collection. In that Registry, Rev. Townsend’s exact words on the death roll were: “April 9, 1754 MyNegro-servant Homer died.” Clarke knew, and left it out. I wonder if Clarke didn’t want to remind the Needham townsfolk that the first minister of his congregation had held a person in slavery.

If it hadn’t been for Black Lives of UU, I may have never found the entry on slavery in Clarke’s history. We owe that organization our thanks for pushing us to find the truth.

But, we know there’s much we still don’t know. We don’t have the full picture yet, by any stretch.

For one: Jeanette found in Clarke’s history a note on another 1770’s West Needhamite, Josiah Upham, being paid “for his negros’ enlisting” in the Revolutionary War. How many more “negroes/servants” were enslaved here in our town whose names we don’t know?

And another: Clarke lists “free negroes” and Native Americans living in our town in the early 1800’s; we already feel confident that at least one, Boston Fude, was a formerly enslaved person. Though these “free negroes” have not been the current focus of our research, I’m sure they have stories to uncover and tell. For example, one 18th-century couple, the formerly enslaved mixed-race Jupiter Coffee and his wife, the white Needhamite Deborah Alden, had their own son Ishmael Coffee’s interracial marriage to Hannah Gay of Medway challenged in court nearly fifty years after their wedding in Rhode Island. There are, it seems, Coffee family descendants still living today. There are more stories to tell, and possible relationships to build.

And, there’s much we may never know about the enslaved people of Needham whose names have come down through history: Where did they come from? Who were their families? Where are they buried? Do they have descendants?

Obviously, this isn’t the only history of racism in Needham or our white residents ties to the slave trade. Slavery in 18th-century Needham doesn’t include Needham’s entanglement with slavery and Jim Crow sharecropping through our major knitting industry in Needham Heights; nor our part in the unfair federal mortgage policies best known as redlining; nor the revelations through the recent Needham Equity Audit that students of color face regular incidents of racism, from overt, direct hatred to finding racist graffiti, again, in their schools’ bathrooms. Nor does slavery in 18th-century Needham include 17th-century slavery, when we were still Dedham, nor does it include the other founding sin of Euro-American civilization: the genocide of indigenous peoples.

But, slavery in Needham, specifically, seems to have been buried, forgotten. I hope that we can recalibrate our assumptions about our town and Commonwealth; reconcile with this history; and work within ourselves and with our town to make some sort of reparation to the enslaved residents of Needham.

Modern black American author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a long piece for The Atlanticabout reparations for black Americans after slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and more: “What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt. What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling ‘patriotism’ while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of history… An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane.”  

In that same article, Coates documents how one of the earliest successful reparations for enslavement was won by Massachusetts free black woman Belinda Royall, who sued her former enslaver Isaac Royall through the newly-formed Massachusetts legislature in 1783. Her petition pleaded, “The face of your Petitioner, is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the Laws of the Land, is denied the employment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumilated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude. WHEREFORE, casting herself at your feet if your honours, as to a body of men, formed for the extirpation of vassalage, for the reward of Virtue, and the just return of honest industry — she prays, that such allowance may be made her out of the Estate of Colonel Royall.”

Belinda was granted just over 15 pounds from our legislature. And, the Isaac Royall House of Medford still stands, its large slave quarters intact, as a museum and testament to this time.

Coates admits that he doesn’t have the answer to how reparations should be made today; he humbly explains he is just one person documenting a need, but needs others, at all levels of society and government, to seriously consider the reparations question. We, First Parish in Needham, have the power now to decide what to do next, now that we know of the enslavement of men like Homer and of children like Sylvia and Prince.

We can deliberate amongst ourselves in the coming weeks and months about where we go from here, and reach out to other local Unitarian Universalist congregations doing the hard work of raising up uncomfortable and upsetting racist history, such as in Cambridge, Cape Ann, and Nashua. We can choose to ask ourselves, How do we honor these enslaved Needham residents within our own congregation? How do we broach the subject with the children and youth of the church? Do we perform further research, and what do we do with what we find? Should we put up a stone in our memorial garden, or name one of our rooms after those whose names we know? Should we reach out to the UU World, in the hope that our story will encourage other New England UU congregations to seek their own stories? How do we coordinate with the town for a lasting physical memorial to these enslaved people? How do we collaborate with the schools to ensure all our children learn that there was slavery even here in Needham?

There’s so much we coulddo, and nothing at the outset is required or “right.” So, I hope we all will join in the conversation, uncomfortable and upsetting as it may feel. Even today, Marianne McGowan, Becky Siebens, and Tad Staley will be available for conversation during social hour, and the Racial Justice Task Force plans to sponsor two discussion sessions this month to help all of us process what we’ve learned and bring us into action. Slavery in Needham and Restorative Justice will also be the topic of next month’s Interfaith, Interracial Dialogue Potluck Dinner on March 24that Temple Beth Shalom.

Before we sing our closing hymn, I’d like for us to hold a moment of silence for the enslaved people of 18th-century Needham. Would you take a deep breath with me before I read again their names? …











And all those whose names are yet unknown…

We remember you, and we are sorry.

May we not forget them again, and honor the complexity of our past, striving for reconciliation, reparation, and a better future. Blessed be, and amen.


You may wish to follow up Rev. Scudera’s sermon by reading the relevant portions of the following documents: 

History of Needham, Massachusetts, 1711-1911: Including West Needham, Now Wellesley, George Kuhn Clarke.

Biographical Sketches of Those who Attended Harvard College in the Classes 1713-1721, Clifford K. Shipton

Vital Records of Needham, Massachusetts 1711-1845, Robert B. Hanson, Ed.

The New-England Historical and Genealogical Register, 1902 Vol. LVI.