Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first in New England to permit the enslavement of kidnapped Africans in the 1600s. Four centuries later, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and the Boston Reparations Task Force announced today a group of historians will research and document the city’s role in slave trade, enslavement in the area and the legacy and impact of slavery today.

“I’m grateful to these teams of historians who will serve our city by documenting Boston’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the myriad legacies of slavery that continue to impact the daily lives of our city’s communities,” Wu said. “Through their scholarship and partnership with our task force, we will better understand the full picture of our city’s history and look forward to their comprehensive report that will build on our ongoing efforts.”

The city and task force said researchers will conduct both original historical research and provide a comprehensive review of major themes and findings on the city’s history from 1620 to the present in a written report.

This is following a request for proposals released last September. A budget of $500,000 will support the effort, and funding comes from the annual operating budget and federal relief funds.

The contracts are awarded to Kerri Greenidge, Mellon associate professor in the Department of Studies of Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora at Tufts University; Kendra Field, history professor and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University; and Kyera Singleton, executive director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters. Their team will review the years 1620 to 1940.

A coalition from Northeastern University, led by Margaret Burnham, director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, and Deborah Jackson, managing director of the Center for Law, Equity and Race, will cover the years from 1940 to the present. The team also includes Ted Landsmark, professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern; community leader Donna Bivens, and Richard O’Bryant, director of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute.

Burnham said the repercussions of enslavement can be baked into local laws and practices.

“This will be a fact-based report that will seek to not just identify disparities that characterize relationships between racial communities in Boston, but also the relationship of those disparities to city policy,” she said. That will mean looking at institutions as diverse as the Boston School Committee, transit, fire and police departments, and public works, she said.

Burnham also said they want to look into other entities interceding. “The ways in which federal intervention was oftentimes necessary in order to fully include African American interests and employment opportunities in these city structures," she said.

Boston is the most recent entity to investigate its role into slavery. Harvard University launched its effort in 2023, and Amherst established a reparations fund in 2021.
“Boston is on trial to redress historical injustices that flow directly and indirectly from the institution of chattel slavery, and the examination of the truth and expansion of the narrative that will give us that evidentiary pool from which to argue for repair,” said task force member L’Merchie Frazier.

The task force and researchers will complete the report within a year, which will inform their recommendations for next steps towards “truth, reconciliation, and reparations” addressing the city of Boston’s historical involvement in slavery.

Updated: January 24, 2024
This story has been updated with additional comment from Margaret Burnham.