This summer in Western Massachusetts I’ve noticed a recurring theme while discussing my research. No sooner do I parrot my elevator speech (“I focus on memories of the African-American slave trade and how they are embedded in roles, rituals and aesthetics in Atlantic World sites such as the Caribbean and New England”) than the person I’m talking to immediately says something along the lines of “you know, I just took a tour of this house that was on the Underground Railroad.”
My first day at the farmers market I was explaining to a friend of my parents where exactly I was from, why I was back on the east coast, what exactly Anthropology is, how exactly it differs from Sociology and some elements of the slave trade in Western Massachusetts. After listening to me patiently explain that there was evidently a rum distillery in the Berkshires which distilled Caribbean sugar and the successful self-manumitting lawsuit lodged by Elizabeth Freeman, she immediately talked about a house in Deerfield, MA which had been on the underground railroad.
A couple of weeks later I was at Lanesborough Town Hall speaking with the town librarian. She gave me some helpful hints, such as going to the Berkshire Atheneum in Pittsfield, which would result in two successful research sessions. She also mentioned that there was a house in Lanesborough which had been on the underground railroad, and possibly sugar had been distilled there by escaped enslaved workers on their way to Canada. I opted not to wonder aloud about the logistical nightmare transporting and distilling en route a product you had been forced to harvest and process would pose whilst fleeing.
Finally, during my most recent research excursion to a gentleman who serves on the Cheshire Historical Society, he discussed the name of the town in which he lives, Cheshire Harbor. As you might gather from the name, Cheshire Harbor is next to and within the town of Cheshire. As you might not gather from the name, there is no harbor anywhere in or around Cheshire Harbor. My parents actually had looked at a house in Cheshire Harbor when thinking about retiring and moving to the Berkshires from New York, and then spent an hour or so driving around looking for the water.
Anyways, Mr. Historical Society mentioned to me that the name Cheshire Harbor came from the fact that it’s a pretty, sylvan area nestled on a wooded hilltop. Susan B. Anthony’s father actually composed a poem in praise of the area. The name did not, Mr. HS emphasized, stem from the fact that a house in Cheshire Harbor was on the underground railroad.
Time and time again, I’ve run up against the underground railroad here. I’m sure part of the reason is, quite simply, due to the fact that it is basically a straight shot up through Western MA into Vermont and then north to Canada. Logistically speaking, the underground railroad probably did go through Western MA. There are evidently houses around here that were on the railroad.
However, the fact that people automatically pivot towards the railroad at the mere mention of slavery seems to speak to something deeper. Is it due to the fact that a regional history of opposition to slavery is so drilled into the collective memory out here that anything other than the opportunity for average people to undermine the institution of slavery is simply inconceivable? Or is it an active attempt to ward off any acknowledgement of Northern complicity with the slave trade? A bit from columns A and B? What do you all think?