City Recognizes Its Black History

Tuesday June 06, 2023

NEWBURYPORT — The history of African Americans in this city has been what Northeastern University professor Dr. Kabria Baumgartner recently described as stories that “have been erased or misplaced.”
Now thanks to the Newburyport Black History Initiative, a dozen charming and interesting stories about African American residents of this city will be placed on metal signs in highly visible sites throughout the downtown at or near where black residents worked, played and helped build this port city.
The signs on double or single posts, in brick or attached to the walls of historic buildings will be near the Firehouse Theater, on Bartlett Mall, along State, Pleasant and Merrimac streets, near what is now Mission Oak Grille, and of course, in Brown Square, where there is a statue to William Lloyd Garrison, who fought against slavery, and named for Moses Brown, who built ships to bring slaves to America.
The black history initiative is headed by Baumgartner, Cyd Raschke and city senior planner Geordie Vining.
The City Council and Parks Commission has approved the locations for each interpretive sign, and Vining said he plans to order the next five signs in coming weeks and three more later this year.
He said more research for some signs, particularly two about black-owned businesses and the one on black mariners, still needs to be completed. “The research, writing, editing, review and layout takes a while,” Vining wrote.
The research comes from the Newburyport Public Library’s Archival Center and the Museum of Old Newbury and by historians, editors, researchers, city officials and black community stakeholders.
The initiative is also designing a website over the next several months to provide a geographic story map that shows the location of the signs and other sites. The site will be an evolving archive and repository for expanded versions of the stories on black residents. It will also have videos, newspaper articles, census sheets, maps and photographs detailing the city’s black history.
The first sign, in place since last fall on the Clipper City Rail Trail, educates the thousands who walk and ride bicycles along the trail, about a little-known, mostly black neighborhood at Auburn and Low streets, called Guinea Village.
Of the first sign, funded by the Community Preservation Commission, Mayor Sean Reardon said, “It is long overdue.” He promised a robust effort by the city to honor its former black residents, including holding lectures, panel discussions and workshops on the city’s black history.
One sign will honor Moses Prophet Towns, (1859–1951), who came from Virginia and worked as a beloved employee of the historic Wolfe Tavern on State Street for more than a half century. The sign about Towns will be placed at the Harris Street parking lot.
Another sign on the front corner of the Firehouse Theater will inform residents and visitors about the life and travels of Nancy Gardner Prince. Born to a sailor father in Newburyport in 1799, Prince wrote one of the few surviving autobiographies of a free black woman who lived in the pre-Civil War America. Her life story through 19th century America included travels to Russia and Jamaica.
In a planter in Patrick Tracy Square on Pleasant Street will be a sign honoring Louis C. Tyree, (1884–1963) who with the help of generous benefactors in the city earned his college degree and became a lawyer in the early 20th century.
Black photographers operated several studios on State and Pleasant streets during the 19th Century. A sign recognizing those studios will be installed in brick in Inn Street at the end of a planter.
Black children were not allowed to attend Newburyport public schools in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A sign honoring the fight by black residents to integrate the schools will be installed off the Auburn Street sidewalk in Bartlett Mall park across from the Kenney School. It is near the historic Guinea neighborhood.
Black women like Caroline Cottrell (1856-1918) had few choices other than work as domestics, often living away from their families. Cottrell, a Newburyport housekeeper, worked for the Morrill family and helped raise future Mayor Gayden Morrill. She saved money and invested it in World War I Liberty War Bonds, which she passed on to her family. A sign about her life will be installed at the old Baptist Church, which is now Mission Oak Grille on Green Street.
Black owned businesses, mostly concentrated along Water and Liberty streets and Elbow Lane, played a significant role in building the economy of the city during the 19th Century. A sign, honoring John C.H. Young’s barber shop off Merrimac Street, will be erected in the grass buffer at the Green Street Parking Lot near where the shop operated.
A sign honoring the black activists of the last two centuries will be added to Brown Square, east of the Garrison statue.
Black soldiers and sailors from Newburyport served in all the American wars, fighting for a nation that did not recognize their rights as full citizens. The city is designing and erecting a sign in their honor on the Green Street side of Brown Square near the Veterans Plaza.
In the mid-18th and 19th centuries, about one out of five mariners in the thriving Newburyport maritime trade were black. A sign honoring these black sailors, when completed, will be erected on the central waterfront as part of Market Landing Park Expansion project.
In the Old Hill Burying Ground, there is a small concentration of graves and stone markers for black men, women and children buried in the 18th and 19th centuries. This part of the cemetery is across from the historic Black neighborhood. A sign will be erected in a section of the cemetery off Auburn Street.

Support Local Businesses

Priced Right Junk Removal

Local Forecast

Subscribe To Receive Our Newspaper Every Wednesday Morning FREE

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and newspaper within your emails.

You have Successfully Subscribed!