On Thursday, December 2, Bob Romer gave Bill Sullivan’s American Studies class a personal walking tour of the historic section of Deerfield, MA. Though the class passed many famous examples of colonial architecture and homes filled with treasured antique furniture, they learned more specific narratives of some of Historic Deerfield’s invisible residents, the 25 slaves who then accounted for 8% of the Deerfield population. Professor Emeritus at Amherst and current historian and board member of the Hope Community Church in Amherst, MA, Bob Romer is an important Valley historian: His book, Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts, provides an historic analysis of the twenty-five slaves who lived in Deerfield in 1752 and proves that slavery was pervasive throughout the Pioneer Valley in the 18th century. The American Studies class will use Professor Romer’s book and walking tour as a model to shed light upon the 37 slaves who lived in Suffield in 1774.
Professor Romer’s work quickly revealed that colonial New England was more complex than our middle school curriculum. With brilliant fall sunshine illuminating the west side of historic main street, Bob paused at each 18th century house and brought to life the slaves who inhabited each colonial homestead. Bob also shared research methods and ways to cross reference the town’s store account books and farmers’ ledgers for marginal evidence for how slaves were equipped or hired out for labor. Professor Romer also shared the emotional peaks and valleys that naturally occur when researching Colonial documents, particularly documents that suggest clues about New England slaves. In fact, the only time New England slave owners took the time to describe their slaves was when they composed Run-Away ads in colonial newspapers. And the proliferation of these run-away ads also lends more evidence that our nation’s “peculiar institution” was just as unjust in the north as it was in the south.
Bob ended the tour where his research began, at Reverend Ashley’s Manse. With his soft-spoken wit and self-deprecating humor, he shared some personal accounts of his early retirement days as a docent in historic Deerfield. Bob explained how he learned about Reverend Ashley’s three slaves; he then insightfully and emotionally captured the sin of slavery when he reflected on the tragic elements as well as the fragmentary evidence that the family left behind about their slaves. When Bob began to explain the few narrative details that he knew of Jenny, who lived with the family for seventy years, he shared his frustration with how she was kidnapped from Africa and sold at auction in Boston. In Deerfield, Jenny provided the Reverend’s family with much childcare services, and Bob was stunned to learn that she did not appear in any of the family diaries. Though the Reverend Ashley and his wife purchased elegant gravestones, which can still be viewed today in the nearby burial ground, there is no surviving stone for Jenny. Bob dedicated his book to Jenny.
By the end of the tour, students learned that researching colonial documents for slave narratives will be a rewarding challenge.