Advisory: This story includes descriptions of violence, abuse and oppression of Black and Indigenous people that were the norm in colonial-era Boston.
Every tour of Boston's Freedom Trail stops at the sanctified site of the Boston Massacre and tells the history of five men who were shot and killed there on March 5, 1770, described as the first martyrs of the American Revolution.
Most tour guides will tell you that the British soldiers who shot the men were largely acquitted (two were found guilty of manslaughter, punished with a branding and released).
What is not often told during those tours: The soldiers who killed protester Crispus Attucks were acquitted of murder in part because their defense attorney — future president John Adams — argued that Attucks, a 6-foot, 2-inch tall Black man who was carrying a stick at the time, “was a stout fellow whose very looks were enough to terrify any person.”
Attucks is generally described as a man of mixed race, the first killed in the Boston Massacre and who was buried in Granary Cemetery beneath a stone commemorating the clash. But there is seldom mention that Attucks was once enslaved.
An 1887 history of the town of Framingham, where Attucks was born, says that he was “probably a descendant of John Auttuck, an Indian,” whose family probably “intermarried with Negroes who were slaves.” Other accounts point more clearly to Attuck's parents as Prince Yonger, an enslaved man from Africa, and Nancy Attucks, an Indigenous woman.
Attucks was enslaved by Deacon William Brown of Framingham, who in 1750 took out an ad in the Boston Gazette offering a reward for the return of the "run-away" to his "master."
Few other details about his life are known. Historians believe he changed his name to Michael Johnson to avoid capture, and that he spent the next couple decades working as a sailor.
Boston now officially recognizes March 5 as Crispus Attucks Day.
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.