Advisory: This story includes descriptions of abuse and oppression of Black people, which were the norm in colonial-era Boston.
In June 1774, as revolutionary fervor simmered in Boston, a group of enslaved people went to the Massachusetts State House and petitioned the government for their freedom.
The request, addressed to the governor, the King’s Council and the House of Representatives — all located at the Old State House — asserted that enslaved people have a natural right to be free and were owed reparations.
"no person can have any just claim to their services unless by the laws of the land they have forfeited them, or by voluntary compact become servants; neither of which is our case; but we were dragged by the cruel hand of power, some of us from our dearest connections, and others stolen from the bosoms of tender parents and brought hither to be enslaved. Thus are we deprived of every thing that has a tendency to make life even tolerable."Massachusetts Historical Society
The group asked to be “liberated and made free men of this community.” The also asked for “some part of the unimproved land, belonging to the province, for a settlement, that each of us may there quietly sit down under his own fig tree [and enjoy] the fruits of his labor.”
Government officials eventually moved the State House to its current location on Beacon Street. But the Old State House is also known as the first place the Declaration of Independence was read in Boston, from a second floor balcony, on July 18, 1776.
Lesser known: The Declaration that was read that day did not include a passage that Thomas Jefferson had included in an earlier draft condemning the king for pursuing and sustaining the slave trade. “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere.”
That passage was removed from the final Declaration, which was signed by 56 men, the majority of whom enslaved people.
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.