What I imagine to be the oldest surviving headstone for a Black individual within the Americas memorializes an enslaved teenager named Cicely.
Cicely’s physique is interred throughout from Harvard’s Johnston Gate in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She died in 1714 throughout a measles epidemic dropped at the school by a pupil after the summer season recess of 1713. One other tombstone in the identical burial floor remembers Jane, an enslaved lady who died in 1741 throughout an outbreak of diphtheria, or “throat distemper.”
When illnesses struck within the Colonial period, many metropolis residents fled to the security of the nation. Poor and enslaved folks, like Jane and Cicely – the important frontline staff of the time – stayed behind.
Why have been Cicely and Jane memorialized when so many different enslaved folks weren’t? The archival file doesn’t present a transparent reply, however the query of who needs to be remembered with monuments and commemorations is well timed.
All through the US, as COVID-19 impacts frontline staff and communities of coloration excess of different demographic teams, and protesters agitate for racial justice, American society is wrestling with its racial reminiscence and judging which monuments and memorials deserve a spot.
In opposition to this backdrop, I imagine it’s necessary to look again at how a number of marginalized and oppressed individuals who served on the entrance traces of prior epidemics have been handled and remembered. In any case, these whom society chooses to memorialize mirror what accomplishments – honorable or horrific – society values.
The lives, labor and sacrifices of ladies and women of coloration have been missed for hundreds of years. Of the three.5 million books in Widener Library – the centerpiece of Harvard’s huge library system – I discovered that not one was dedicated to Cicely or Jane, and few give attention to girls like them.
For early-American historians of Northern slavery like me, such fragmentary and untold tales are each intriguing and difficult. However this explicit story was additionally private, as a result of after I first discovered Cicely’s tombstone, I used to be additionally a Black teen.
I used to be a sophomore learning historical past at Harvard after I came across the gravestone whereas wandering within the Colonial-era graveyard adjoining to campus. It had a carving of a demise’s head on high and winding vines down the perimeters. It was each peculiar and extraordinary – it regarded like different tombstones within the graveyard, however this one memorialized a younger Black lady.
I questioned about Cicely. She most probably did home work in and round Harvard, as her enslaver was a Cambridge minister and a tutor on the faculty. However what else did she do throughout her brief life, and why did her enslavers memorialize her with a tombstone? These questions and the thriller of her life impressed me to turn into a historian. Through the years, I’ve been keen about piecing collectively fragments of her and Jane’s lives.
Jane’s enslaver stored a diary that supplied some particulars about her life, however I discovered little written about Cicely past her grownup baptismal file, dated simply two months earlier than her demise.
Racial unrest and illness
Cicely lived and died throughout a time of racial unrest and illness. A slave revolt in 1712 in New York Metropolis led to a number of brutal executions and deportations. Information of the revolt unfold all through the Colonies, stoking issues of a wider rebellion. Colonists armed themselves in worry.
Slavery existed in each Colony, together with the North. On the time of the revolt, the Northern Colonies – from Nova Scotia all the way down to Delaware – have been dwelling to round 9,000 enslaved folks, representing a 3rd of the enslaved inhabitants of the British mainland colonies. New York Metropolis had 5,841 residents, of which 975 have been held as slaves. Boston had roughly 400 enslaved folks.
Racial unrest was shortly adopted by contagion. A measles outbreak the following yr adopted the identical path up the coast as information of the revolt had traveled.
The epidemic began in Newport, Rhode Island, in the summertime of 1713 and hit Cambridge, Massachusetts, that September. It broke out at Harvard earlier than spreading to Boston. Greater than 400 Bostonians died – about 18% of them folks of coloration – at a time when Black folks have been solely 4% of the full inhabitants.
Racial discord and illness continued all through the Colonial interval. Between Cicely and Jane’s deaths in 1714 and 1741, a smallpox disaster gripped Boston, inflaming racial tensions. An enslaved individual named Onesimus helped introduce an early type of inoculation known as “variolation.” This system was practiced on each white and Black Bostonians, to the consternation of many. On its heels, a five-year diphtheria outbreak ravaged New England, killing 5,000 folks, together with Jane.
Historical past repeats
Very similar to at the moment, Colonists acquired blended messages throughout illness outbreaks, with some leaders touting the worth of inoculations whereas others stood quick in opposition to them. As Jane toiled within the shadow of Harvard in 1740, the male landowners of Cambridge held a contentious election that noticed very excessive voter turnout amid a diphtheria epidemic.
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Historical past can present us how illnesses disproportionately hurt weak and marginalized populations; how discord and strife result in racial antipathy; and the way epidemics are managed and mismanaged.
Cicely’s and Jane’s lives mattered exterior of the worth they supplied to their enslavers. In a time of illness and racial unrest that echoes the experiences of generations previous, the lives of oppressed folks like Cicely and Jane are worthy of remembrance.