Advisory: This story includes descriptions of violence, abuse and oppression of Black and Indigenous people, which were the norm in colonial-era Boston.
King’s Chapel along Boston’s Freedom Trail is full of signage to acknowledge its early members’ ties to slavery. But walking next door to the King’s Chapel Burying Ground is like crossing through a veil of silence. The word “slave” appears nowhere in the graveyard, which dates to approximately the same period as the church, but is owned and managed by the city of Boston.
In some cases, the Freedom Trail sites have different approaches even to the same families.
A sign inside the King’s Chapel explains that Charles Apthorp, “a prominent slave trader,” was one of the largest donors to the construction of the church building — and that his family “held substantial numbers of enslaved people in their homes.”
Outside the chapel, a burial ground sign says only that “Charles Apthorp and his son James were two of Boston’s wealthiest merchants.”
There are, of course, enslavers buried here. One of the most celebrated names in the burial ground is Gov. John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, who declared that Boston could be a “city upon a hill.” A “First Governor” plaque marks the family tomb and tells the story of Winthrop’s career, noting that that he was “considered religious, prudent, conscientious and pious.” No mention is made of the fact that the governor sent soldiers to sack a Pequot settlement in 1637, taking dozens of Native American prisoners, many of whom Winthrop sold or gave to enslavers — and some that he kept for himself.
Another sign tells the story of Captain Robert Keayne, a wealthy merchant who is described as the founder and first captain of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, the oldest chartered military company in the nation. Yet the cemetery makes no mention that Keayne also was a slave owner.
Beth Anne Bower was the historic research consultant when those signs were installed in the burial ground in the early 2000s. She says the team was focused on telling little-known stories about the people who were buried there, including women business owners and French immigrants. Nobody thought about elevating a discussion about slavery on those signs, and there is no record of enslaved people being buried there.
“Twenty years ago, that wasn’t where people were,” she said. “The idea which is happening now … [that] we should start confronting this history, was not really a topic then. And it should have been.”
City officials say they are looking for creative ways to change and update the storytelling at the ancient cemetery.
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.
Correction: This story was updated to delete a statement that new signs couldn't be put up in the cemetery because no new digging is allowed. City officials say that would not be a problem. The story was also updated to correct the year of the Pequot War and the estimate of the number of Native Americans taken prisoner.