Lexington draws an annual 10,000+ visitors who seek to watch April 19, 1775 come to life before their eyes. They chat with a costumed interpreter, read Longfellow’s poem, and dress up as a Redcoat. If they’re especially fascinated, perhaps they’ll investigate for themselves where that “first shot” may have come from.
Over my seven years as a tour guide in Lexington, though, it’s been rare that I’m asked about people of marginalized identities who lived in the town and/or took part in the events of April 19th—particularly Black people. I always make a point on tours to address the presence and roles of Black people and women, and that they ought to be viewed as more than just a supplement to the main story. I was once asked why I dared to make such a “political statement” on tour.
The fact is that Lexington is by no means immune from the perils of slavery; there exists documentation proving well over a century of involuntary servitude in our town. You may be asking yourself what this fact has to do with the history of April 19, 1775, but in reality it is the only reason necessary to further examine the place of slavery in “the birthplace of American liberty.” The lives and stories of enslaved people work just as much to define “American” as do the actions of Paul Revere and Captain John Parker. It’s important that they’re told.
A 1754 census showed twenty-four enslaved people living in Lexington – the highest number in the state. It’s especially worth noting that Lexington, at that time, was a small town of less than 700 people. Reverend John Hancock (grandfather of the signatory of the Declaration of Independence), was himself a slave owner, having used town funds to purchase a man referred to as “Jack” in family records. The Hancock family later bought a second enslaved person, Dinah.
By 1775, the number of enslaved people in Lexington had decreased to eight. A number of free Black people also resided in the town, possibly including former enslaved people who either chose to remain in Lexington or continued working for the families by whom they had been owned. Of this Black population at the time, at least three were present on the common when the opening shots of the Revolution were fired: Silas and Eli Burdoo, both free, and Prince Estabrook, an enslaved person.
We don’t know exactly why Prince served with Captain Parker’s militia, although it’s likely that it was in lieu of his master. Prince, then 35, was among the ten militiamen wounded that morning, making him the first person of color of the war to suffer injury. (This would, of course, depend on how one defines the true “beginning” of the war; one could argue it was Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre.) Though set off for a time to recover from his wound, Prince continued serving in the Continental Army in the following years.
Prince eventually did meet freedom – either through his enslaver Benjamin Estabrook or with the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783. However, a 1790 census of the town showed that “a nonwhite freeman” lived on the Estabrook farm, meaning that Prince may have continued to live near the family. After his former master’s death in 1803, Prince followed three of his sons to Ashby, Massachusetts, where he lived until he died around the age of ninety; he is buried there.
In 2008, a memorial was placed outside of Buckman Tavern, where Prince would have met with some eighty other militiamen early on April 19th, to commemorate his military service (pictured above).
As many as forty other people of color, both free and enslaved, are known to have participated in the events of April 19th in some capacity. History tends to see them today as “staunch patriots” who were fabulously loyal to the cause – but claims such as this are not based on material evidence. While it may be easy to come to the conclusion that the war brought a sense of unity that eventually resulted in the end of slavery in Massachusetts, it’s important to note that few, if any, accounts exist from Black people themselves. Thus, it’s impossible to say for certain why these soldiers served, and, more generally, how they viewed the rebellion. Patriotism truly had a different meaning to those who were enslaved; Reverend Jonas Clarke (Rev. Hancock’s successor) regularly used the term “slavery” to chronicle the conditions of simply living under British rule in the colonies.
Lexington may be known as a progressive suburb today, but by no means was it always like this. Lexington Historical Society is committed to promoting diversity and inclusion in its interpretation of our town’s history – all of it. Last year the LHS began a multi-year project dedicated to research on Lexington’s Black residents and the integration of it into our historic tours, particularly that of the Hancock-Clarke House.
On your next visit to our historic sites (and any others you visit), I invite and encourage you: ask about Black people, enslaved and free. Ask about Indigenous people. Ask about women. Much of what we may hope to know has been lost to history – but every bit of research must begin with an inquiry.
-Ben Bernier, Tour Guide
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.