Advisory: This story includes descriptions of abuse and oppression of Black people, which were the norm in colonial-era Boston.
Boston Latin School, the nation’s first public school, founded in 1635, famously educated Benjamin Franklin and four other men who went on to sign the Declaration of Independence. But there were also enslaved people on the grounds likely serving the early students.
An examination of probate records shows Nathaniel Williams, one of Boston Latin’s first schoolmasters in the early 1700s, enslaved two people identified as Richard and Hagar. A 2018 city of Boston archaeological report revealed evidence that they lived at the schoolmaster’s house, located on the public school’s original grounds. They were likely involved in housekeeping chores that allowed the Williams family to focus on other tasks, like educating children.
And Richard and Hagar may not have been the only enslaved people on site. Kathleen Von Jena, assistant survey director at Boston’s Landmarks Commission, said it was not uncommon for Boston Latin School students to bring a “valet” or “private slave” with them while attending the school.
Many of the students were wealthy and people their families enslaved would have helped with their “care” and “upkeep,” said Joyce Hope Scott, a Boston University professor of African American and Black diaspora studies.
The Latin School did not graduate a Black student until 1877.
The city of Boston has included the story of Richard and Hagar in a new exhibit on slavery in Boston’s City Hall. But neither Boston Latin School’s website nor the historic location on the Freedom Trail mention the history of enslaved people at the school.
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.