Meet Boston's historic
Black community leaders, abolitionists, & activists

Explore the ways in which they strategically used the power of public memory in their pursuit of freedom.

We Claim/Reclaim Space examines the lives, work, and legacies of early Black and abolitionist communities in Boston and Cambridge as they established and recorded their history, memory, and activism. From the American Revolution through the end of Reconstruction, they pushed to expand the boundaries of freedom and citizenship locally, nationally, and ultimately globally.

Darby Vassall

In this timeline, the journey of Darby Vassall (c. 1769-1861) and his family is filtered through the lenses of place, agency, community building, networking across differences, and voice as they work with others to sustain their lives and abolish slavery in America.

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We Claim/Reclaim Space serves to highlight and personalize the stories of these communities as they negotiated property and proved their agency. Through the vehicles of petitions and speeches, they networked, co-founded and participated in organizations, lawsuits, and protests spanning over eight decades. These activities culminated with the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment, ending American slavery in 1865.

In this digital exhibit you will encounter documents, images, and objects that reveal a host of individuals who strategized to challenge invisibility and erasure, and make their presence significant. Darby Vassall, Prince Hall, and others worked together as formerly enslaved people to become free. As participants in the Revolutionary War, they processed and asserted their rights as citizens of Boston and Massachusetts. Using the device of organization to press their aims, they co-founded the first Black Masonic Lodge, African Lodge 459 and the African Society by 1797. These principal organizations promoted Black unity and provided the much-needed support of their independent communities.

We Claim/Reclaim Space explores the agency of active voice, during and after the Revolution. Prince Hall, Darby and Tony Vassall, along with other Black citizens, actively challenged the denial of rights and equality that their community suffered. To address these and other issues, they methodically purchased property to establish place, and wrote petitions to garner funds for these purchases. Their activities set into motion a continuum of demand for civil rights that would affect policy development, which manifested in pivotal documents like the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, the Declaration ofIndependence, and the Bill of Rights.