Enthusiastic research into a family of freed New England slaves reveals some unsettling truths about the treatment of blacks in colonial America.
NPR host Gerzina (English/Dartmouth; Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of the Secret Garden, 2004, etc.) and her husband lived in Guilford, Vt., just across the mountains from the onetime home of freed slave Abijah Prince and his poet wife, Lucy Terry. Delving into the couple’s history over seven years of recondite genealogical research, the modern-day spouses’ evident excitement at unearthing threads in the Princes’ lives is infectious. Born in 1706, Prince spent his early life as the single black slave of minister Benjamin Doolittle in Northfield, Mass., before joining the army in 1747. Gerzina believes that Prince cunningly engineered his own manumission, probably by handing over his military pay to an outside buyer. Certainly he knew how to read and write and had already learned the value of legal documents. Moving in Massachusetts among a thriving “Negro network,” Prince met and courted Lucy, a much younger slave woman who had arrived from Africa in her youth and composed a now legendary poem called “Bars Fight” during the French and Indian War. The two married in 1756 and lived with their growing family in Deerfield; however, they were able to purchase various plots of land in Vermont, where the family eventually settled by the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Gerzina and her husband track the Princes’ movements through purchases, medical records and court papers, especially those documenting the antagonism between the couple and their racist white neighbor, John Noyes, who continually attacked the family in order to drive them out. Lucy argued against Noyes and took one case to the State Supreme Court, where she won. The authors effectively shatter the myth of white benevolence in favor of black ingenuity, including a surprising amount of African-American access to the judicial system.
Occasionally footloose in citing sources, Gerzina pursues a remarkable American story.