In 1700 there were approximately 90,000 people living in New England. The black population numbered about 1,000, roughly half of whom lived in Massachusetts.
By the mid-1700s African slavery was well established in Massachusetts.
In 1752, black people made up 10% of Boston's population. On the eve of the Revolution, Massachusetts had over 5,200 black residents, more than any other New England colony but still a small number compared to colonies in other regions.
Since New England’s climate was not suitable for large-scale farming, most slaves in Massachusetts were laborers for merchants and tradesman or domestic servants for wealthy families, although some did work as farm hands.
As most slave owners did not have enough slaves to justify building separate living quarters for them, their slaves often lived with them in their homes.
Many famous buildings and structures in New England were built with money from Massachusetts’ slave trade, such as Faneuil Hall in Boston, which was constructed by wealthy slave trader and merchant Peter Faneuil, whose family regularly sold slaves in public auctions on nearby Merchants Row.
Harvard Law School was built with money made off the sale of land donated by a wealthy plantation owner, Isaac Royall Jr., and the House of Seven Gables in Salem was built with money from Captain John Turner’s small role in the Triangle Trade of selling fish to Caribbean plantation owners to feed their slaves while importing the sugar they harvested on the plantations.
There is no exact date that marks the end of slavery in Massachusetts and no specific law that suddenly brought it to a halt.
The ratification of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780 which included an article that states;
“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”
This article became the subject of a series of landmark cases starting in 1781: Brom and Bett vs. Ashley, Jennison vs. Caldwell, Quock Walker vs. Jennison and Commonwealth vs. Jennison, during which two slaves, citing the article, sued their owners for their freedom, with one slave even charging his owner with assault and battery for beating him.
Both slaves won their cases after the jury agreed that slavery was inconsistent with the Massachusetts Constitution, thus stripping slavery of any legal protection in Massachusetts forever.
According to an article in the Boston Globe, as a result, slavery was slowly phased out in the state:
“The end was neither swift nor definitive. Not a single newspaper article from the time made note of the end of a century and a half of bondage. Instead, the high court finally ruled, and then there were debates over semantics until, farm by farm, owner by owner, the practice sputtered, and then failed. But not before some of those enslaved had been sold back to the Caribbean so an owner could avoid a difficult financial loss.”
Material resource credit from the Massachusetts Historical Society and History of Massachusetts