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Grave-tober 26 – Flova, Nero, & Thomas

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October 26, 2018 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

In north-central Worcester County, between Mount Wachusett and Worcester, is the picturesque hill town of Princeton.  North of the modern town center is Meetinghouse Cemetery, a mossy, tranquil place, dappled with sunlight, the very picture of a rural New England burying ground.

Princeton_MtgHouseHill

Among the many fine gravestones there, I noticed several gravestones erected for “negro servants”.  I had not come across (what I correctly intuited to be) graves for slaves before – I had spotted a small number of  free African-American graves before, in Boston and in Barre – and I was somewhat surprised.  I was aware slavery had remained legal in Massachusetts until, unofficially 1789 (this is a complex point, but this date is commonly sited if not wholly correct) but hadn’t expected to see evidence of it in a cemetery.

Flova

In Memory of

Flova a Negro wo

man Servan to the

Honbl Mofes Gill esqr

who died June 13th

1778 aged 41 years.

Flova_Detail

 

Nero

Here lye…

body of N…

Negro man Ser-

vant to the Honbl

Moses Gill Esqr

who died March 1st

1776 Aged 39 years.

Thomas

Memento Mori

In memory of

Thomas a negro

man fervant to the

Honbl Mofes Gill

Esqr who died

Septr 14th 1783

Aged 89 years.

Thomas_Detail(Nero’s gravestone can be identified from town records, which records his death.  Sorry for the poor quality image;  I couldn’t find a better one online.)

I think what I realized in discovering these stones is one of “blind spots” we encounter when we use historic cemeteries as a tool to study the past.  The people memorialized are only those who either could afford to buy a gravestone or had some connection to someone to a person similarly able.  There were free African-American communities in many new England towns – and a smaller number of enslaved peoples scattered around New England – and yet vanishingly few of them have gravestones.   Sometimes the markers that did exist were lost, either due the normal processes that erode all grave markers, or by intent, such as was the case of the African American Cemetery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Even those slaves who were memorialized, it is highly unlikely they had control over the text of their epitaphs in any case.

Over the years I’ve seen a few other gravestone for slaves – all African-Americans though there were Native American slaves as well – including one in Oxford, Mass. I’m having trouble relocating.  I was delighted to find this article a few years later in Markers (the journal of the Association of Gravestone Studies) – “Slavery in Colonial Massachusetts as Seen Through Selected Gravestones” (Markers XI,1994; p. 112-141.) by Tom and Brenda Malloy that provided a great deal more information about Flova, Nero, and Thomas (as well as how they came to Princeton with Judge Moses Gill) and is well worth a read.  This  Atlas Obscura piece on slave gravestones in Rhode Island is also a worth a look.

If you’re feeling generous, you could always buy me this book – African American Historic Burial Grounds and Gravesites in New England, (2015) by Glen Knoblock.

 

 

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