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July 2020

The American Revolution is why slavery ended in the North. It also redistributed property, the W.E.B. DuBois homestead reminds us.

From a comment to a post by Peter Wood on the substantively misleading and procedurally ridiculous 1619 Project:

I would like to see some honest scholar of African-American history look into the family of WEB DuBois. He was from Great Barrington, in the Western Branch of the Appalachian Mountains — even today it’s a 2.5-3 hour drive from there to Harvard Square, over the highest part of I-90 east of Montana, which then drops down to cross the Westfield River. (The Connecticut River Valley, a fault line deeper than the San Andreas, splits the Appalachians in Massachusetts, further north they become the Green and White Mountains. As a result, there are no good East-West roads in New England….)

DuBois first went to Fisk University from 1885 to 1888 and then to Harvard from 1888 to 1890. Born in 1868, fatherless since 1870, and orphaned in 1885, how did *any* 17-year-old in remote Great Barrington know that such places even existed?

While his father was a recent immigrant, his mother wasn’t — her folk owned land in Great Barrington. And what a lot of people forget about the American Revolution are the Committees of Public Safety and their practice of confiscating the property of those loyal to the Crown and redistributing it amongst themselves. This was never discussed much after the war, perhaps because the Treaty of Paris obligated the Americans to reimburse the Loyalists for their stolen property, and that was never done.

The other thing to understand about the economy of Massachusetts at the time is that the prosperous people were those who sold things to the British, particularly food & firewood, which was largely transported by water. (It was easier to sail firewood down from Maine than to lug it 30 miles over the rutted dirt roads of the day.) The Patriots were the Trump Supporters of that era, the people who didn’t have good government jobs at better wages.

What Nikole Hannah-Jones fails to understand is — at least in Greater Massachusetts, the Revolution *ended* slavery because most of the slave-owners were Loyalists, with what remained being eliminated when the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was interpreted to preclude slavery.

So she’s not just wrong, she’s backwards.

But back to DuBois. We know that one of his ancestors was a slave who obtained his freedom via service in the Revolutionary War (paging Ms. Hannah-Jones, paging Ms. Hannah-Jones). But what we don’t know is where his mother’s folk got their land — and my guess is that it was confiscated from a Loyalist during the Revolution.

So the ultimate irony here could be that [DuBois] was only able to attend college BECAUSE OF the American Revolution. So much for it being to preserve segregation & slavery….

Good point in general, and fundamentally sound, although from what I can tell, the earlier owners were not Loyalists, and I cannot quite confirm that that particular land is what his ancestor got for serving in the Revolution, or if the family moved to it a few years later.  A 1994 article firmly based on primary sources says:

For his service in the American Revolution ... Tom Burghardt was manumitted and given a small piece of land, approximately six acres ...

The article does not appear to specify if that was the same land DuBois lived on. It seems to have been a different one nearby, because DuBois's great-grandfather Jackson Burghardt bought the property where DuBois later lived in 1795:

In the “House of the Black Burghardts” (1928) ... Du Bois recalled his family’s ancestral home upon the Egremont Plain. First purchased by his maternal great grandfather, Jackson Burghardt in 1795, the site remained within Du Bois’ family for six generations. The homesite and the immediate land surrounding it was a veritable community of intergenerational, free, land owning African Americans. “[U]p and to the east of a hill of rocks was Uncle Ira; down and to the south was Uncle Harlow….And here right in the center of the world was Uncle Tallow, as Grandfather Othello was called” (Crisis 1928).

For Du Bois, the homesite served as an important link to the past that stretched back to the early years of the republic and affirmed his rootedness in New England. It also tied him to a long line of free, land owning African Americans. At the time of Du Bois’ birth in 1868, only five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, his family members were already free homesteaders for almost a hundred years, certainly a rarity in a time when most African Americans were just gaining their freedom.

While the site connected him to the United States, it also served as a link to Africa. Du Bois remembered an African song, in a language no one understood, sung around the family fires when he was a boy. The song is believed to have originated from his maternal great grandmother, Violet, who was stolen from West Africa in the mid-eighteenth century and came to settle on the Egremont Plain with the Burghardts. ...