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Historic New England honors Black History Month

Feb 6, 2020

In honor of Black History Month, we’re celebrating stories of African American New Englanders from our collections. These are just four examples of people who made their mark on New England life and culture.

Man (Edward Cassell) stands in front of Nichols House, Salem, Mass. holding a basket. c. 1907
Edward Cassell photographed in front of Nichols House, Salem, Mass., 1907

Edward Cassell

Edward Cassell ran a successful catering business in turn-of-the-century Salem.⁣⁣

A well-rounded businessman, Cassell had already made a name for himself as a hairdresser, waiter, and, finally, caterer by the 1870s. It is the latter profession for which he became best known. He served as head caterer at the prestigious Hamilton Hall in Salem, Massachusetts, through the early 1910s, charming guests with his perfected rum punch recipe. His culinary skills were renowned along the North Shore and Boston, and he served many important banquets, including a party that accompanied the Prince of Wales on his trip in Salem. His recipes and legacy live on in old cookbooks such as Hamilton Hall Cook Book.⁣⁣

Group of women sit for a photo in a room at the Ebenezer Baptist Church
Group portrait taken November 15, 1946

Flower Club of the Ebenezer Baptist Church

The Ebenezer Baptist Church was formed in 1871 in the South End of Boston. Its founder and first pastor, Peter Randolph, was formerly enslaved in Virginia and led a coalition of other formerly enslaved people to Boston. Randolph went on to pen a highly acclaimed autobiography, From Slave Cabin to Pulpit, which detailed how he dedicated his life to ministering throughout Virginia and New England. The Ebenezer Baptist Church became one of the largest Black churches in the city, thanks to the leadership of Randolph and the Rev. Dr. William S. Ravenell, who served as pastor from 1929 to 1966.

The women pictured above comprised the church’s Flower Club, which was in charge of coordinating decoration of the church’s interior. Fresh flowers were placed on the altar every Sunday and for special occasions thanks to these women.

Edward Bannister painting of woman reading under a tree
Edward Bannister’s Woman Reading Under a Tree (1880-1885)

Edward Bannister

Edward Bannister was one of the most successful Black artists of the nineteenth century.

Born in New Brunswick, Canada, Bannister moved after his parents’ deaths to Boston, where he worked as a barber and a photograph tinter. Eventually, he studied the artistry of the human form under the sculptor Dr. William Rimmer at the Lowell Institute. Bannister ascribed to Tonalism, an American style of painting from the late 1800s that featured landscapes with a palette of closely related colors. His work largely depicts rich, blended scenes from nature. His oil painting Under the Oaks even earned a bronze medal in the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia.

He and his wife Christiana Carteaux Bannister were staunch abolitionists and activists, involved in various causes such as advocacy for the equal pay of Black soldiers. Carteaux Bannister even founded the Home for Aged Colored Women to stave off homelessness among older African American women.

See Woman Reading Under a Tree by Edward Bannister in person this May at our upcoming exhibition, Artful Stories: Paintings from Historic New England, at the Eustis Estate in Milton, Massachusetts.

Studio portrait, c. 1855

Pedro Tovookan Parris

Pedro Tovookan Parris was kidnapped along with his three brothers in the 1840s. Although the trans-Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1807 — decades before Parris’s capture — Parris was the victim of a raid in a village near modern-day Mozambique. After being sold to a Portuguese slaver, Parris came to the United States on the Porpoise. The ship’s crew was unaware that the captain, Cyrus Libby, had organized an illegal slave trade until they had already set sail. When they arrived in Rio de Janeiro, the crew turned Libby in to the American consul. Parris was transported to Boston, where he testified against Libby at trial.

After moving to Maine, Parris painted an autobiographical watercolor on a piece of fabric nearly six feet wide and eighteen inches high. The watercolor is divided into different scenes depicting four moments of his life — his arrival in Rio de Janeiro, the ship that transported him to New England, a view of Boston, and an image of the western Maine farm where he lived until his death in 1860. The pictorial slave narrative is possibly the only one of its kind.

He later learned to read and write, and honed other skills in mathematics, public speaking, and even ventriloquism. Parris took part in campaigning for gubernatorial candidate George Gordon, the former consul to Brazil who helped free him from the slave ship.

For more stories like these, check out Black History Month portraits from our carte de visite collection and an online exhibition highlighting African American vacation destinations in New England.