SLAVES' LIVES IN BROOKLINE
Life of slavery, whether North or South, was painful.
We have no particular information on the ways that enslaved people were treated in Brookline (as opposed to other communities), other than indirect evidence of two men who escaped from their owners' homes.
However, the data from Brookline clearly informs us that social life, which is fundamental to being human, was especially limited for slaves.
The ratio of men to women was extremely skewed, with the overall male enslaved population almost three times that of women. Northern slave owners preferred men as laborers.
Of the 64 people whose names we have, only 18 were women. Generally, there was only one enslaved person in a household. With many households spaced far apart, friendship would have been difficult, marriage even more so.
As the eminent historian Ira Berlin expressed it, "The sexual imbalance among newcomers wreaked havoc on domestic life in the North, undermining black people's attempts to form stable communities and putting their very existence at risk." (Generations of Captivity, p. 83)
While there were few women, children were even scarcer.
Brookline had almost no enslaved children. Slave owners were generally able to buy the labor they needed, rather than having enslaved women raise their own children. Owners often discouraged childbearing, as a distraction to women's work and an unnecessary expense. In Boston, some owners took out ads offering free babies for those owners who would take them.
Throughout the region, enslaved people worked to circumvent the extreme curtailment of their humanity by working around the obstacles to build community. They organized annual festivals and sometimes found ways to gather together during the Sunday hours when whites were in church. Some took the enormous risk of running for freedom, even though no American colony was safe, as every American colony was a slave state until after the Revolution at the earliest.
In Brookline, we know of two men, Peter and Prince, who made their escape and were never captured.
Esq. Henry Sewall had owned Peter, a slim, young man who was "about 16 years of age," according to the ad that Sewall took out on November 5, 1767, offering a reward for his return.
Sewall reminded his readers that if they helped Peter escape, they themselves would be breaking the law.
A second man, Prince, enslaved to Esq. Joshua Boylston, fled for freedom - though he had been part of the Brookline militia and marched to fight for "independence" on April 19,1775.
Boylston also took out an ad requesting the return of Prince. In the ad, Boylston described Prince as a man of "about 27 years of age" and that he "had men's clothes on when he Ran-away."
In Brookline, enslaved people carried out the wide range of skilled and unskilled work needed for the town's farms and white families to thrive.
Cattle, melons, fruits, corn and many other crops came from Brookline into the markets of Boston.
In her study "Disowning Slavery", Joan Pope Melish shows how slaves played a significant role in increasing New England's standard of living and in expanding the economy generally.
Enslaved adults were valued not only for their labor but also for how their labor made it possible for whites to advance in society. Whites who wished to get ahead politically, by serving in government posts or in the military, needed other men to do the work they themselves could not carry out.
A political plum was to receive the title of "Esquire" from the Crown. This title indicated very publicly that one was a man of importance and value - and wealth. (At the time, Esq. did not mean lawyer.)
Most men who gained this title, such as Esq. Isaac Gardner, were slave owners. Men of the professions - doctors, clergy and the like - also used slave labor to rise to the standards of their professions and the obligations of their homesteads.
In Brookline a number of slave owners were either military men or professionals: Dr. Boylston (who was also an Esquire), Reverend Allen, Colonel Belcher, Deacon Crafts, Deacon Davis, Captain B. White, Justice S. White, and Major E. White.