Metro, Newton, 2024 Celebrating Black Voices

Newton’s Verified Stop on Underground Railroad

Toward the end of her memoir Annals from the Old Homestead, Ellen Jackson, a member of one of Newton’s founding families, recounted a night in which a friend of her father brought a freedom seeker to their home.

“One night between 12 and one o’clock, I well remember father was awakedned by pebbles thrown against his window,” Ellen wrote. “He rose asked what was wanted? Bowditch replied it was he, with a runaway slave whome he wished father to hide tillmorning, and then help him on his way to Canada, for his master was in Boston looking for him.”

The Jackson Homestead under Ellen’s father, William Jackson, was a stop on the Underground Railroad, meaning it gave illegal lodging and assistance to those escaping from slavery. 

“The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad, but a secret network of Black and white abolitionists working to help people escape from where they were enslaved to where they could be free,” reads the Historic Newton exhibit on the Jackson family’s participation in the Railroad. “Boston was one of the key Underground Railroad centers in the North.”

According to Ellen’s manuscript, the homestead’s role in the Underground Railroad was far from minor.

“[William] did indeed give his time, money and much of his thoughts to the abolition of slavery,” Annals from the Old Homestead reads. “Thus the Homestead’s doors stood ever open with a welcome to any of the workers against slavery for as often and as long as suited their convenience or pleasure.”

A letter from William Bowditch, William’s family friend and a conductor for the Underground Railroad, provides further evidence for the Jackson Homestead’s regular participation in the Railroad.

“We had no regular route and no regular station in Massachusetts,” the letter reads. “I have had several fugitives in my house. Generally I passed them on Wm. Jackson at Newton. His house being on the Worcester Railroad, he could easily forward any one.”

According to Historic Newton’s Education Manager Allison Pagliaro, the homestead would have been a convenient stop for the Underground Railroad due to its proximity to the literal railroad.

“The convenience of the railroad was very important, especially thinking about if people wanted to go to Canada or further west in the United States, the railroad could get them there relatively easily,” Pagliaro said. “Especially considering the access to other areas of the country, and then also the access to Boston, being so close to abolitionist activity in Boston … some abolitionists who were practicing in Boston lived here and Newton and then just commuted in”

Although limited documentation of the Jackson Homestead’s Underground Railroad activity exists, written documents shed light on the logistics of harboring and assisting freedom seekers. While a popular oral tradition says the Jacksons hid freedom seekers in the well in their basement, Pagliaro said the reality of providing assistance was likely less dramatic.

“The people who were freeing themselves from slavery were often not hidden in underground places or anything,” Pagliaro said. “Like when they came to the Jackson homestead, they could have had dinner with the family and they could have slept in a bed.” 

The Jackson family has a long history in the city of Newton—John Jackson was the first Jackson to settle in the area, having bought 18 acres of land near what is now the Newton-Brighton boundary in 1639. His brother, Edward Jackson, joined him from England three years later, and William and Ellen are directly descended from him. 

Despite Edward having been a slave owner himself, the Jackson family, with William as patriarch, was strongly abolitionist. Many family members gave their time and resources to abolitionist efforts. 

“It seems like that many of the Jackson family—so William’s generation as well as his children—were pretty big abolitionists,” Pagliaro said. “And so they were active in various community groups or fundraising organizations … it was important to them, I suppose you could say.”

William, in addition to assisting freedom seekers, sought to help abolish slavery through politics. He helped found the Liberty Party, a political party with abolitionist goals. His brother, Francis Jackson, was disillusioned with government as a means for change, and instead did work for the Boston Vigilance Committee, the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, and the American Anti-Slavery Society.

“He became more active in these smaller societies where he could allocate funds or he could keep track of funds,” Pagliaro said. “[The brothers] sort of differed in how to abolish slavery, but agreed that it should happen.”

Abolitionist activity in the household was not limited to the two brothers. Two of William’s daughters, Sarah and Hannah Jackson, were a part of sewing circles and sewed clothes for Union soldiers during the Civil War, as well as for freedom seekers. And Ellen, whose memoir is the primary source of information on the homestead’s Underground Railroad activities, eventually became president of the Freedmen’s Aid Society. 

“I’m not sure if we have records of their opinions on how to abolish slavery, but we do have records of what various abolitionist [work] the Jacksons did,” Pagliaro said.

The City of Newton bought the Jackson Homestead in 1949, and Historic Newton has been using the home as a museum since 1950, preserving and sharing the history of the Jackson family and Newton as a whole. The homestead is part of National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, which is a National Park Service program that registers locations with confirmed connections to the Underground Railroad.

“Through its mission, the Network to Freedom helps to advance the idea that all human beings embrace the right to self-determination and freedom from oppression,” reads the website.

Currently, Historic Newton has an exhibit called “Confronting Our Legacy: Slavery and Anti-Slavery in the North” in the Homestead and an online exhibit called “Seeking Freedom in 19th Century America” that explore the Jackson family’s story in addition to the many other complex slavery and anti-slavery stories that took place in Newton. Historic Newton curator Marya Van’t Hul emphasized the importance of preserving these histories in a place like Newton.

“There still are many of us here in the North who don’t recognize that slavery was a northern issue as well,” Van’t Hul said. “There’s a tendency for us to think, ‘Oh, we were the good guys here in the North’—and it’s not true. We had enslaved people here, right here in Newton right in this piece of land and many other pieces of land.”

Van’t Hul also emphasized the importance of recognizing the bravery and efforts of Black Americans in these stories.

“It was enslaved people themselves and African-Americans who were already free who did most of the work,” Van’t Hul said. “Yes, there were some white people, like William Jackson, who were leaders in the white people’s groups and of abolition groups and did a lot including with their money—which they had more of—but the ones who took most of the risk and risked life, limb, and everything they had were for the most part African-American.”

February 19, 2024