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Boston unearths remnants of possible slave quarters in Roxbury

The city of Boston's archaeological dig at 42-44 Shirley St. in Roxbury. (Courtesy city of Boston's Archaeology Department)
The city of Boston's archaeological dig at 42-44 Shirley St. in Roxbury. (Courtesy city of Boston's Archaeology Department)

The City of Boston Archaeology Program has uncovered remains of what the city archaeologist believes are some of the only known quarters of enslaved people remaining in New England. The quarters were the basement of the Shirley-Eustis House in Roxbury, which was moved in the 1800s, leaving the foundation behind.

Joe Bagley, city archaeologist for the City of Boston, joined Radio Boston to discuss the findings. He was joined by Rev. Willie Bodrick II, senior pastor at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury.

Below are highlights from the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On finding the site

Bagley: “We were expecting to see a foundation or the basement of this building really clearly, and as we dug down, all we were finding were platforms and surfaces, and pavement of stone. It took us about halfway through the dig to realize that the thing we had been finding was in fact the basement level.”

On the people enslaved at the unearthed site

Bagley: “We know of at least five people who were enslaved by Gov. William Shirley, who was responsible for having the house get built, as well as his son-in-law Eliakim Hutchinson. Four of them were children. The first was an infant named Jane, who may have not survived the time when the house was built. We know there was an infant named Nanny, who was baptized at Kings Chapel in 1753, and died very shortly thereafter — days later. She was actually a servant of Gov. Shirley’s daughter, Catherine, at the age of 18 months.

And then later, Gov. Shirley’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband Eliakim had two children enslaved  at the home, Affy and Cesar, and a man named Thomas Scipio.”

On what the discovery means

Bodrick: “To me, this is really a conversation that we’re having in Boston writ large around Black erasure, narrative erasure. And how we tell a new story, how we sing a new song. As I was talking with Joe earlier, these are people, these are stories that are being both excavated but are also being lifted.

If we’re going to think critically about who we are as a city in this particular era, in this particular moment, where we’re seeing the erasure and retelling of slave narratives all across this country, it’s important for us to be a beacon of light to talk about the dark side of Boston, and to actually own that slavery wasn’t just a southern issue. It was a northern issue. It was a City of Boston issue.”

On connecting the past and the present

Bodrick: “The first part of respect is actually telling the story. And what we’re doing now, creating space to actually have the conversation, is of great importance. But it’s also to tie those narratives to what’s happening today.

We can tell a story of gentrification, we can tell a story of oppression here in the city of Boston. We can tell a story of folks being pushed out, of folks losing their access and opportunity to community and to spaces, or even to live in the city of Boston. These stories are not far in between from the history that we know exists.”

On next steps for the dig site

Bagley: “This site, we did not dig into it. We dug down to it. Our main goal was to figure out, is the basement here, where the enslaved spaces and the kitchens were? Now that we’ve been able to say they’re there, the next step is not to dig it up; the next step is to have a conversation with the community to ask the question, ‘Should this be exposed more? Should we dig through the floors?’

There are places in Maryland, for example, where enslaved spaces in basements have had ritual caches, secretly hidden things in the floors around hearths and thresholds. There could be sacred, significant things underground, and I don’t think I have an inherent right as an archaeologist to dig those up. But there could be things in those spaces that could tell a story. So it’s not up to me; it’s up to the community to decide, is this a space that we leave completely intact and don’t go through, or is this a place where we go further into it? But for now, the site is protected. Nothing will happen to it.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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