Obscure stories of the past are often found between the lines of historical records. The document shown here came to light during research for Rooted: Cultivating Community in the Vermont Grange, the sixth film in Historic New England’s Everyone’s History documentary series.
It is the January-February, 1931, bimonthly Friday program agenda of the Grand View Grange in Addison, Vermont. It appears to be a simple listing of events, but between the lines it conveys much more information—evidence of the Grange’s recognition of black history in America.
Although titled “Lincoln Program,” the agenda activities honor not only the nation’s sixteenth president, who was in office during the Civil War, but also laud some African American cultural contributions. It’s apparent from the date of the program that it was scheduled to coincide with Abraham Lincoln’s February 12 birthday. What isn’t obvious is that the program led into Negro History Week. Reading between the lines, we can see in the Grand View Grange’s 1931 program not only a reflection of Woodson’s achievement but also an affirmation of the contributions of African Americans to the shared history and culture of the United States.
Carter G. Woodson, a historian and one of the founders of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, launched Negro History Week in 1926, designating that it be observed during the second week of February. Woodson selected this period because it contained both Lincoln’s birthday and that of the formerly enslaved world-renowned abolitionist, author, and equal rights activist Frederick Douglass, February 14. Because blacks across the United States had traditionally celebrated the birth dates of both men, Woodson and some of his colleagues designed a weeklong program to promote black achievement and publicize black history.
The Grange opened its program with a rendition of “Marching Through Georgia.” Written by Henry Clay Work at the end of the Civil War, the piece recounts the Union Army’s capture of Savannah, Georgia, in late 1864 by forces under the command of Major General William T. Sherman.
The session continued with a Grange member delivering a paper titled The Negro’s Contribution to our Literature and then the assembly sang “Golden Slippers.” The group most likely sang the original version, a Negro spiritual made famous in the post-Civil War era by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the choral group of historically black Fisk University, and not the slightly retitled parody “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.” The latter was written in 1879 by African American musician/songwriter James A. Bland and became a minstrel show staple. Next, a Grange member read from the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), one of the first influential black poets in American literature. Dunbar also wrote novels and plays.
Roll call featured Grange members reciting anecdotes ascribed to Lincoln. The program ended with a rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the patriotic anthem by Julia Ward Howe that speaks truth to power against slavery, the cause of the Civil War.
It probably would have been impolitic for the Grange to call this event its “Negro History Week Program,” given the tenor of the times. Nevertheless, this populist national organization—founded in 1867 and officially known as the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry—that united farmers and supported them politically, economically, and socially recognized the struggle to ensure that America’s founding ideals extended to all citizens. We don’t know how typical or long-lived this observance was among granges.
In 1970, black educators and activist students at Kent State University in Ohio expanded and revised Negro History Week by observing Black History Month. In 1976, the year of the country’s bicentennial and the fiftieth anniversary of the celebration of black history in America, President Gerald Ford delivered a speech in which he formally urged the nation to join him in recognizing Black History Month “an the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.”
Ona Judge took only what was morally, ethically, and rightfully hers: freedom. Given the law of the land, however, being free was not something to which she was legally entitled. Judge was an African American woman enslaved by the most powerful man in the United States. But she did not let that stop her from executing her imperative to be free.
Ona Judge had the audacity to run away from the Philadelphia household of President George Washington and his wife, Martha, on May 21, 1796, and made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. To the Washingtons, Judge’s rebellion was the ultimate betrayal. But Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author ofNever Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, casts Judge as “a new American hero” whose remarkable act of defiance is “a different lens with which to see the nation.”
The story of Ona Judge puts a spotlight on the hypocrisy inherent in the ideals and tenets that America’s founders expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. That the antagonist of the plot is the first president of the new nation makes it all the more discomforting. Most of the signers of the U.S. Constitution were slave owners. While they did not try to hide that fact, it has gone largely unexamined in the annals of American history.
“I wanted to tell the story of the beginning of the nation through the eyes of a slave,” Dunbar said while discussing her work at a standing-room-only program on March 5, 2017, sponsored by the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail’s Elinor Williams Hooker Tea Talk. Dunbar said she discovered Judge’s story two decades ago while working on a project about African American women and their transition from enslavement to freedom in antebellum Philadelphia. In the course of that research, Dunbar came across an advertisement George Washington had placed in a Philadelphia newspaper offering a $10 reward for the capture of a fugitive girl slave.
Judge was twenty-two years old when she slipped away from the Washingtons’ Executive Mansion and left Philadelphia, making her way to Portsmouth, where the institution of slavery was waning and a community of free blacks existed. Judge had escaped by ship, a secret she finally revealed five decades later in interviews with two abolitionist newspapers. At the time of her escape, Judge had been made Martha Washington’s slave-in-waiting, selected expressly to attend to every detail of the first lady’s life, day in and day out. It was a thankless task she had been forced into at the age of ten.
The Washingtons did not see Judge’s escape coming. Not only was it an embarrassment; it might incite other slaves to rise up. The Washingtons were no doubt dumbfounded and irate that the favored Judge would commit such a crime. The president’s wife needed her “body servant” and the Washingtons were determined to get her back.
“It really was relentless,” Dunbar said of the president’s efforts to have Judge returned to his household and the individuals he tried to enlist in the cause. Among them was John Langdon, a signer of the U.S. Constitution and president pro tempore of the nation’s Senate (he later served as governor of New Hampshire). It was Langdon’s daughter, Elizabeth, who sounded the alert that the president’s fugitive slave was in Portsmouth. Elizabeth was familiar with Judge because of her trips to the Washingtons’ Executive Mansion to visit her friend, the president’s granddaughter Nelly.
Judge’s whereabouts became known in August 1796 after she and Elizabeth saw each other on a Portsmouth street. The senator, who seems to have displayed some minor antislavery sentiments though he was not an abolitionist, was, nevertheless, a law-abiding elected official. And it was Langdon’s duty to abide by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793—which, despite having signed it into law, the president took discreet steps to circumvent in order to re-enslave Judge. Langdon, however, also had a responsibility to his constituents, whose opposition to slavery was growing.
According to Dunbar, the senator may have sent word to Judge that Washington was preparing to take her by force if necessary; or perhaps a free black domestic worker at the Langdon home may have warned her. When Washington’s representative came for Judge, she was gone, having fled Portsmouth for nearby Greenland.
“No matter what he does, he is unable to reclaim this woman,” said Dunbar. Washington even had a nephew try to negotiate with Judge to get her to return. She adamantly refused the offer. “What kind of message does that send when you’re the president of the United States and you can’t control one woman?” Dunbar said.
Although she was never caught, Judge was never really free; because of her fugitive status she spent the next fifty years looking over her shoulder, said Dunbar. But in defying an unjust law, Judge—who became Ona Staines after marrying a free black seafarer named and had three children—was never returned to slavery.
How history is made isn’t always the result of momentous events. Very often, it is the passing down of a legacy and the ongoing stewardship of that inheritance that determines historical import. A prime example of this history-making process is the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm. A part of Boston’s landscape since the late 18th century, this once obscure property has been transformed from a blight spot in its Mattapan neighborhood into a community institution with a bright future.
When I learned of the existence of the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm in 2013, I was surprised, for a few reasons. For one, there are few historic sites for which Mattapan is recognized, none that would draw tourists to that part of Boston. I had attended elementary school just a few blocks away and had no idea that this colonial-period farmhouse with its big red Victorian-era barn were nearby (although being in grade school, the uniqueness of the property probably would not have registered with me).
Later, as a teenager growing up in Mattapan, I don’t think I ever even saw the property; surely if I had, I would have remembered the sign over the front door that bore my last name. In truth, there was really no reason that the former farm’s history would be widely known because the quaint house and barn at 487 Norfolk St. was a private residence that had never been publicized as a historical site. That, no doubt, was how the Epsteins—Jorge and Ida—wanted it. For Jorge Epstein, who operated a part of his architectural salvage business from his yard, it was the history of the stuff that he stored on his property, not the history of the property itself, which he advertised.
Upon visiting the property, I wondered why this out-of-place-looking site had never caught my eye, considering the number of times I had driven on Norfolk Street. It had been obscured, set back from the street and partially hidden by garden masonry and fencing that Jorge Epstein had fashioned as well as by trees and overgrown shrubbery, nestled among a variety of architectural styles: brawny, late-Victorian-era residences, early-20th-century three-deckers, nondescript midcentury brick apartment buildings and compact modern single-family houses. The Fowler Clark Epstein Farm was easy to miss. It took abandonment, dilapidation and near loss to a developer’s wrecking ball for this gem of a property to garner the type of recognition and attention that would save it and give a vibrant role in the community.
I decided that the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm would be the perfect topic for my master’s degree capstone project at the Boston Architectural College. Initially, I thought of my idea as a novel little notion with a relatively straightforward outcome: the preservation of an endangered historic site that was once part of a large farm, devoting its substantially smaller landscape to urban agriculture. I perceived it simply as saving a part of the built environment that would recall the area’s long-passed agrarian tradition. I did have a slight sense that I was onto something potentially much bigger, in part because Boston had recently adopted a zoning provision that allowed for urban farming. As I delved into the research for my capstone project I began to see to see that my idea was relevant not only to historic preservation but that it might also address some contemporary social concerns, not only in Boston but also around the country.
Now Mattapan is home to a premier historic site, the steward of an important Boston legacy. This place of pride is the headquarters of the Urban Farming Institute of Boston, which, in addition to growing food at the property, will serve as an urban farming education and training center. Rehabilitation of the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm shows the past at work today for the future. It is a testament to how history is made.
The Loring-Greenough House in Jamaica Plain isn’t a traditional historic house museum. In fact, there are those who say it isn’t a house museum at all. To be sure, visitors can drop in for tours of the 1760 grand Colonial mansion, located at 12 South St., on Sunday afternoons from April through December, or at other times by appointment. But the place is almost always stirring with activities and events that reflect its role as a community institution, not just another house museum.
It is the unique stewardship model employed at the Loring-Greenough House that imbues the property with a current-day vitality that maintains its historic character while averting the sometimes static and staid atmosphere that can settle over house museums. The owner, the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club, has operated the house this way since saving it from demolition in 1924.
Besides tours, during which visitors can hear about the many experiences of those who resided at the mansion during its 164 years as a private home and learn about local history, including the rebellious colonists’ military use of the property during the Revolutionary War, the public can partake in activities and programs such as “Thursdays on the Lawn,” which features a farmers’ market; luncheons and high tea parties; artists’ open studios, where artwork can be purchased; author readings; a concert series; movie nights and the “History Happy Hour,” to name a few. The Loring-Greenough House is also available for wedding rentals and other private functions.
Remarkably, management of the Loring-Greenough House is an all-volunteer affair, from the docents on up to the board of directors of the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club. Established in 1896 during the nationwide women’s club movement, the Tuesday Club – which now admits men – has expanded its community-oriented founding mission to serve as a center for historical, cultural and educational activities initiated by the club as well as other organizations in Jamaica Plain.
It was mid-1924, and the Georgian manse had been cleared of its furnishings, readied for razing; the owner, David Stoddard Greenough V, had sold the property to a group of speculative developers who planned to transform the site for commercial use, keeping apace with the modern changes that characterized the immediate area in this “streetcar suburb” of Boston. It was one of the last surviving 18th-century homes in Boston’s Jamaica Plain section, and though its occupants had taken their belongings and moved out, the residence had not been stripped of its character-defining features. The Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club took on the challenge of saving the house from demolition. The club’s intent was to use residence not only as its headquarters but also to establish it as a community betterment institution. Tuesday Club members were also keenly aware of the historical significance of the property because of its Colonial roots and the role it served during the Revolutionary War, recognizing the contribution that the continued existence of the house would make to heritage preservation.
The Tuesday Club didn’t have enough capital to buy the property from the developers until member Marguerite Souther stepped in to fund the purchase in July 1924, using a $15,600 loan she obtained and securing a bank mortgage of $30,000. In March 1925, she transferred ownership to the Tuesday Club. Among the conditions the Tuesday Club agreed to was repaying Souther for the personal loan and paying off the mortgage within three years.
Five generations of the Greenough family had owned the homestead, acquiring it in 1784 when it was part of an agrarian estate that encompassed at least 60 acres. The estate was created in 1760 by Joshua Loring, who, though having advanced from a privateer for Britain to a commodore in the Royal Navy, was a Massachusetts native and had grown up in the town of Roxbury, not far from Jamaica Plain. Severely wounded in August 1760 on Lake Ontario during the French and Indian War, the disabled Loring retired to his Jamaica Plain estate, living the life of a gentleman farmer, in part on his pension from the British government.
The Lorings resided at their country estate for 14 years; because of the increasing Colonial dissent, the Loyalist retired commodore fled with his family, to Boston, seeking the protection of British forces. The Lorings then made their way to Nova Scotia and finally to England. They never returned to Jamaica Plain, though it seems the commodore thought that they would; besides leaving many of their belongings in the house when they fled, the commodore had bricked up his wine and liquor cellar, to be discovered in the mid-1800s during the installation of an iron vault by David S. Greenough III for the family’s silver near the west chimney on the first floor.
With the Lorings gone, the property became the headquarters for Nathanael Greene, a major general in the Continental Army, in the spring of 1775. On June 23, 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress seized the property and used the house as military hospital. The property remained under military control until March 1776, after which it was confiscated by the state, which leased and later sold it. On April 5, 1784, a wealthy widow named Anne Doane bought the estate in anticipation of her marriage to David Stoddard Greenough I.
The architect of Loring’s two-and-a-half story, grand-style residence is unknown. The timber- frame, clapboard-sheathed structure is capped with a hipped roof and dormers, which provided light in the garret servants’ quarters. Although the main entrance to the house faces south, the building’s design gives the appearance of three façades, with the south, west and north elevations featuring pedimented center entryways.
The interior was designed with the traditional Georgian floor plan containing a center hall with two tiers of rooms on either side, all with fireplaces. These included a drawing room, dining room, kitchen and breakfast room on the first floor and on the second floor, a bedroom and adjoining dressing room, a nursery, two small bedrooms and, what most likely was Mrs. Mary Curtis Loring’s room, which she called “the Blue Chamber.” Much of the original building materials and architectural features from the Lorings’ residency are still intact, such as paneling, finishes, doors and hardware. The 12-panel front door with its HL hinges and massive rim lock date to the 18th century.
The successive generations of Greenoughs made various modifications and upgrades to the house, among them, the 1811 construction of an ell that features a summer kitchen on the main level, servants’ quarters on the second level and an excavated root cellar, cistern and smoke chamber; and much later, after the turn of the century, the addition of central heating and an indoor bathroom, and a coal-burning stove in the kitchen. Also by this time, subdivision had whittled the once 60-plus-acre estate down to its present size of just under two acres.
None of the furniture and fixtures is original to the Lorings or the Greenoughs. However, the house is furnished and decorated with antiques donated over the years by Tuesday Club members or friends of the Loring-Greenough House, as were the collections held there. These historically significant items include china and decorative art, American and European paintings (including several Greenough portraits), folk art, ornate calling card cases, dolls and other toys, handmade beaded bags, quilts and period costumes.
Next year, the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club is planning to honor the 300th birthday of Commodore Joshua Loring, who was born on August 3, 1716.
The Loring-Greenough House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and designated a Boston Landmark in 1999. Visit the house online at http://loring-greenough.org/ or https://www.facebook.com/lghouse.