Advisory: This story includes descriptions of violence, abuse and oppression of Black people, which were the norm in colonial-era Boston.
There is almost no record of enslaved people crossing Boston Common, the nation’s oldest public park and a highlight along the city’s Freedom Trail. But we know enslaved people were using the Common — because Boston took steps to ban them from it.
The Boston Common, founded in 1634, was effectively the city’s front yard. Enslaved people lived and worked all around it. And even though historical records don’t say much about who was using the park, it's clear enslaved people also passed through it.
“We have never found any artifacts exclusively associated with a free Black or enslaved Black or free or enslaved Native person on Boston Common after 1600 or so,” said city of Boston archaeologist Joseph Bagley. “That said, there have been enslaved people on the Common since there were enslaved people in Boston.”
The lack of definitive evidence is because enslaved people were generally not included in historical records. They were officially acknowledged in inventory and probate records, and some had baptismal records. Enslaved people occasionally had unofficial records of marriages that lacked legal standing. Little else officially documented them.
There are occasional references to enslaved people being present in history books — such as a 1916 text that refers to ladies taking carriage rides on the Boston Common “accompanied by a negro servant” — but there are no deeds and no probate records for this land, so official records of enslaved people existing here are scarce.
But we know they were there.
In 1723, Boston’s Town Meeting approved an ordinanceto violently punish people of color on the Common after sunset:
"That no Indian Negro or Molatto Servant or Slave tho' haueing obtained leave from his Master to go into the Comon or Training field on Training dayes or any other Publick dayes, Shal abide there after Sun Sett upon pain of Sever Whipping at the Hou of Correction."Boston Town Records, 1723
And even after the American Revolution, Black people were still sometimes banned from the Boston Common. A 1927 history of colonial New England reports that in 1787, “Indians and negroes were forbidden to stroll abroad unnecessarily, or to loiter in the streets or on the Common during the time of devine service on Sundays; or after 9 o’clock any night on any day of the week.”
This story is part of the project Enslavement History of the Freedom Trail, a collaborative effort between GBH News and Boston University students to detail the mostly hidden history behind some of Boston's most well-known sites.