By Claire Greene
November 11, 2010
Drinking Gourd Commemorates Home Sites of early African-Americans
Earlier today, I described plans to install a commemorative bench at the new site of the Caesar Robbins house, at the north end of the North Bridge parking lot.
That bench is just the first of many that members of the Drinking Gourd Project hope to position at former house sites of African-Americans in Concord.
Let’s take a walk About Town to learn about another.
From the Hapgood Wright Town Forest parking lot across from the high school, take a quick right and walk up the hill, parallel to Walden Street. When you get to the top of the hill, you can see the new handicapped parking spaces on the east side of Walden Street near the intersection of Route 2.
Stop right there, look around and you will see a ditch fence. This is a distinct, manmade ditch with a lump to the left of it that goes at a right angle from Walden Street straight into the forest and then takes a left turn.
You’re standing where Brister Freeman penned his animals. Freeman, a freed slave, built the fence sometime after 1780. That’s why the hump is overgrown with brush and moss; it’s been there a long, long time. This wall shows the extent of Freeman’s property.
According to Liz Clayton, the Drinking Gourd Project hopes to place a boulder bench between the ditch fence and the side of the path accessible from the handicapped parking lot.
The bench, a boulder with the top lopped off, will be engraved with a quote from Walden. In Walden, Thoreau wrote about former inhabitants and described Brister Freeman.
Walter Brain, a member of the Thoreau Society, found the fence, using one of Thoreau’s surveys. Alan Schmidt handled the mapping.
The Drinking Groud project also hopes to place commemorative benches at the home sites of Cato Ingraham and Zilpah White, both located in what is now Walden Pond State Reservation, and at the original site of the Caesar Robbins house, presumed to be in Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
National historical park, state park, national wildlife refuge, town: quite a range of landholders involved in this commemorative project.?
Historic house chosen for African-American roots
The Caesar Robbins House, soon to be moved to Minute Man National Historical Park, has been selected by the Toni Morrison Society for its Bench by the Road Project. Toni Morrison won the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Bench by the Road commemorates unmarked sites that are important in African-American history.
So far, there are four benches around the U.S., in Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina; Oberlin, Ohio; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and Washington D.C. The Concord bench will be the fifth.
According to the Toni Morrison Society’s website, Morrison observed in an interview that there were no historical markers to help remember the lives of Africans who were enslaved:
“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road.” (The World, 1989).
The Caesar Robbins house was home to several generations of African-American families between 1780 and 1881. The house was saved from teardown by the Drinking Gourd Project and is expected to be moved to Minute Man National Historical Park in fall 2011. The bench will be installed at the house.
In 1881, Peter Hutchinson, last member of Robbins family to live in the house, was the first African-American resident of Concord to vote. He lies in an unmarked grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
“Thoreau wrote about him, Emerson knew him, we want to put a marker on his grave,” said Polly Attwood, vice president of the Drinking Gourd Project. “People go to Sleepy Hollow for the transcendentalists, but this is important, too. Peter Hutchinson should be in the mainstream of Concord history.”