In 2012, the Hidden Brookline Committee put forward a warrant article on slavery as part of our work in public education. It was the first time in Town Meeting that slavery in Brookline had been discussed since the 18th century.
To introduce the topic, we prepared and showed a short video.

Several residents, notably Malcolm Cawthorne and Bobbie Knable, spoke powerfully about the importance of this resolution.

Others raised a variety of questions and concerns. Click to see the full Town Meeting discussion of the resolution, including those who opposed the resolution.

The text of the Resolution follows:


Petitioners: Human Relations Youth Resources Commission and Hidden Brookline Committee

May 2012
Article 27

To see if the Town will adopt the following Resolution:

A Resolution Regarding Slavery in Brookline

WHEREAS, slavery was officially legalized in the Massachusetts Colony in 1641, three years after the settling of Brookline; according to Town Meeting records, slavery existed in Brookline by1675, if not before, and continued until roughly 1800.

WHEREAS, over 70 children, women and men in total (primarily African-Americans, but also Native-Americans) were enslaved here – bought, sold and inherited; dehumanized and stripped of their names and heritage.

WHEREAS, in 1717 the Town Meeting selected a slave owner as its first minister and paid his salary out of Town funds.

WHEREAS, in 1744 the Town received a substantial bequest for the building of a new school from Edward Devotion, a slave owner and citizen.

WHEREAS, in 1746, Town Meeting agreed to have Henry Sewall's enslaved man Felix clean Town Hall.

WHEREAS, in that same year over one-quarter of Brookline households owned people.

WHEREAS, the ownership and trade in enslaved persons and the exploitation of their labor increased the prosperity of many Brookline families, thus increasing the collective wealth of the Town.

WHEREAS, as noted in the large plaque at the entrance to Town Hall, on April 19, 1775, three enslaved Brookline men marched as Minutemen to the Battle of Lexington for freedom from foreign rule.

WHEREAS, we believe that acknowledgement of past wrongs can promote reconciliation and can prevent the repetition of these wrongs and their related injustices.


RESOLVED, that the Town Meeting of Brookline hereby acknowledges with profound regret the enslavement of Native-Americans and African-Americans and the exploitation of slave labor by this Town, within this Town, and amongst the citizens of this Town.

RESOLVED, that the Town Meeting call upon the people of Brookline to acknowledge and recognize contributions of Native-Americans and African-Americans to the Town and the achievement of equality, liberty, justice and democracy.

RESOLVED, that we pledge continued vigilance against all practices and institutions that dehumanize and discriminate against people.

RESOLVED, that the School Committee is encouraged to promote inclusion of this history of Brookline slavery in appropriate places in its curriculum.

RESOLVED, that the Town Clerk shall distribute copies of this resolution to the public libraries and schools of this Town and shall post this resolution on the Town's website. Or act anything relative thereto.


At the time we declared our independence in 1776, every state was a slave-owning state, including Massachusetts. In Brookline, slavery had already existed for over 100 years and would continue for another 25 years. The first mention of slavery comes in Town Meeting records of 1675, when a business consortium of Brookline men informed the Town that they would be holding six Native-Americans in Town until they could arrange their sale to the Caribbean. Hidden Brookline, a committee of the Human Relations-Youth Resources Commission, brings this warrant article now before Town Meeting so that we can publicly acknowledge this painful past and resolve to be vigilant against any and all recurrence of such prejudice.

In a unique and highly emotional ceremony, on September 12, 2009, with the cooperation of the Cemetery Trustees and recorded by Brookline Access Television, we unveiled an engraved stone in the wall of the Old Burying Ground to honor and celebrate the African-American enslaved men, women and child buried there. Almost 300 members of the public joined in this special occasion.
On June 8, 2011, the Hidden Brookline Committee received an award from the Brookline Preservation Commission in recognition for this event.

Malcolm Cawthorne speaking in favor of a warrant article acknowledging with profound regret the history of slavery in Brookline:

Thank you, Town Meeting members, for providing an opportunity for me to address you and thank you for being honorable representatives for the town I love so dearly.

My family moved here in 1973, I attended Devotion School and Brookline High School; so have my siblings and my children. While I went away to college, got married and lived outside of Brookline, I have spent some part of every year for the last 39 years in Brookline – it is an important part of my identity. Tonight, you have an opportunity to make Brookline a more inclusive place and recognize a much more inclusive history.

I have been teaching History since 1992 and teaching History at the high school since 1998.
My experience through Brookline Public Schools gave me very little study or understanding of Slavery in America let alone Brookline. I went to college in the south where I was shocked to discover that slavery existed in the northern Colonies and States. As well educated as I was when I left with my Brookline High School diploma, the education that helped me get into every school I applied to, I was ignorant to the existence of slavery in my own back yard.

You see, the Brookline I know has always been liberal minded, accepting and open. These are the main reasons, along with the great schools, that my wife and I decided to move our family to the town that reared me. However, that dissuades us from looking for the true story of Brookline. We simply assume that this is the way we have always been; progressive, fair and egalitarian. This is why my students readily believe the stories of the Bowditch, Lawrence, Philbrick, Pierce and Tappan families, they believe the town was never different than the one they know now. To imagine townspeople, who would protest and fight in wars to end slavery, sells very easily in Brookline's modern existence. This is an exciting part of my job as an American History teacher – to place local history within the realm of national discourse.

However, most of my students fight the acknowledgement that Brookline had slaves. The idea that Brookline knowingly denied people rights of citizenship and freedom is so very foreign to them. The Brookline they know has school-wide Chinese New Year celebrations, performs winter vocal concerts with adults representing multiple languages and religious denominations and presents the counter arguments of Native Americans before Thanksgiving. Slavery in Brookline is almost inconceivable to my students. Yet, their reaction is typically one of anger. "Why are we just learning this now?" is the question I am most often asked. The kids feel deceived, lied to and corrupted by adults who have been afraid to tell them the truth.

I think Brookline has an incredible opportunity this evening. For an African American who has grown up her and chosen to raise his family here; this is an opportunity to acknowledge the existence of people who identified as I do but had no voice. This is an opportunity to look at me and say we are better than our ancestors and predecessors. More importantly, for the people that represent the multiple races, religions, ethnicities and languages spoken in our wonderful town, this is an opportunity to say we embrace all of our history, that our town's history is a real reflection of America and moved within the narrative of our country's history, that we have come so very far from our humble beginnings, and that we recognize that the power of acknowledgement makes every citizen proud to be included in such a fantastic town.

I hope you consider the impact you posses in your vote, because, not too long ago, some of you nor I could have imagined casting a vote. The American Dream belongs to all of us, and so does this history.

Thank you for listening.

Bobbie Knable, Town Meeting Member, speaking on May 24, 2012 in favor of Warrant Article 27: acknowledging the history of slavery in Brookline

Despite the election of a black president, some of the divisions resulting from racial difference remain undiminished. For the most part, we still try to avoid talking to one another about issues of race, and when avoidance fails, it often seems as if blacks and whites inhabit different universes.

And, perhaps, in fact, we do. My great grandmother was born on a plantation shortly after the civil war. I am old enough to have grown up during segregation - not just in the South, where I could buy an ice cream cone in the drugstore, but not sit at the counter to eat it; where I traveled in segregated trains between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Knoxville, Tennessee; was limited to 'colored' water fountains and restrooms; shopped for shoes or hats without being allowed to try them on. But also, in Detroit where a hotel refused to honor my family's reservation and referred us to a 'black' hotel in town; and in Cleveland where newspaper real estate ads often read "whites only". When I married, more than a third of the states would have refused to perform or recognize the union, because my husband was white, and when we considered where we would live, we eliminated perhaps half the remaining states because they would have ranged from unfriendly to dangerous for an interracial couple. And, finally, when we bought our home in Brookline, I didn't see it until the papers were signed because Boston area realtors had shown us so few homes when we applied together.

Most of these things no longer happen. So why was listing them important? It's important because that list is part of the life I've lived and part of who I am. Surely I know how much has changed, but to act as if, because it has changed, the experience of those decades no longer matters is like saying that what I lived and how did not happen or does not matter.

I once took a tour of a South Carolina plantation, and as we admired the beautiful intricately carved woodwork, all I could think of was how much effort it would have taken some slave to keep it dusted and polished, and that, had I lived during slavery, it might have been my job.

What has this to do with this warrant article? It is, in fact, an argument for its importance. Acknowledgment of the differences of how people experience this country is essential if we are to be able to talk productively about where change is needed and how to bring it about. The historical Brookline that makes us proud because of its opposition to slavery is not the only Brookline that existed. Recognizing that four or more generations here endured slavery is a way of correcting history, of recognizing that accuracy in recording history is a way of respecting the experience of all who lived through it, and who, through many more generations, suffered the consequences of that experience.

That the practice of slavery thrived for a significant time in Brookline is as important to know and acknowledge as is the opposition to slavery expressed by individuals more than a hundred years later. Slavery was neither a short-lived aberration nor the practice of a negligible few. Whatever we are today--whether as a community or as individuals--is, in some measure not entirely separable from what we have been in the past. To the extent that we acknowledge and accept the past and our different experiences of it makes it possible to have necessary conversations about race in the present.

Looking back makes it possible to move forward.