Yielding New Stories, Suggesting New Possibilities

February 16, 2010

At first glance, the small cottage across from Sleepy Hollow Cemetery looks rather modest and unassuming. But once you start to learn a little about the history of the Caesar Robbins House, it draws you in.  New research about this historic house, which was recently up for sale and threatened by the possibility of demolition, has uncovered a fascinating story of slavery and freedom, from the “shot heard round the world” to the Emancipation Proclamation.

 

Today the town of Concord is one of the most famously “historic” places in Massachusetts and the country. Visitors can learn about the history of the Revolutionary War at Minute Man National Historical Park and see the authors’ houses and landscapes of the small town that became a center for literary talent and philosophical ideas in the mid- nineteenth century. In such a well-known place, one might think that “history” is over. The work of local preservationists and public historians to document and protect the Caesar Robbins House is a reminder of how preservation work can yield new stories and suggest new possibilities for understanding our past.

 

Caesar Robbins built this small house at the edge of the Great Meadows not long after the battles of Lexington and Concord. He had fought in the Revolutionary War, and earlier in his life he had been enslaved. He was a free man of African descent who lived during the time that Massachusetts first debated, and then eventually, by court decision in 1783, prohibited slavery. His first wife Phillis was enslaved by the Bliss-Emerson family, as was their daughter.

 

Caesar Robbins’s descendants lived in this small house for a little over a century, from 1780 to 1881, until it sold to another family and moved to its current location. Among his descendants was Peter Hutchinson, who became the first person of African descent to vote in Concord. He was also subject of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Peter’s Field.”

 

Until recently, the house was known as the Peter Hutchinson House, marked with a small historic plaque. Word had passed down through the years that the house was connected to Concord’s history and should be protected, and it was identified in a town bylaw as a property subject to demolition review. But the property was not part of any historic district, nor was it listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Town residents regarded it as an important site, but it was also generally agreed that more historical research was needed.

 

Over the past several months, members of the Drinking Gourd Project, a local group dedicated to the interpretation and public awareness of Concord’s African American and Abolitionist history, has worked diligently to protect and preserve the house. In the process, they have uncovered the story of Caesar Robbins and his descendents, highlighting the complex ways in which freedom has been understood in Massachusetts and how it shaped the experiences of African Americans living in New England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

 

The Caesar Robbins House is just one of many historic properties associated with African American history that Preservation Massachusetts is working to preserve. The house was listed as one of Massachusetts Most Endangered Historic Resources in September 2009.

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