Opposition to Slavery in Beverly Stories of the Enslaved in a New England Town

The battle against slavery in the U.S. advanced slowly, state by state and county by county. A law banning the international slave trade was passed in 1794 and another in 1800, but it took many years to finally end the practice in this country. All of the Northern states had abolished slavery by 1804. The Southern states’ economic dependence on slave labor made many white people reject the calls to abolish the system of unpaid, lifetime servitude. Anti-slavery societies began to form. Many Beverly citizens started several abolitionist groups in the 1830s dedicated to freeing Americans held in slavery and to stopping the “corrupt public sentiment”—they were also trying to stop discrimination against people of color.

Members of these abolitionist groups signed petitions, attended meetings, and helped fugitives fleeing the South gain their freedom. The last is hard to prove because anyone who helped an enslaved person to freedom after 1850 was breaking the law, according to the Fugitive Slave Act that Congress passed that year. It would take a war—the Civil War—to settle the issue of lifetime enslavement but racism proved to be an even harder problem to solve.

The Anti-Slavery Society in Beverly

In 1833, noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison formed an activist branch of the abolition movement called the “American Anti-Slavery Society.” State and local “auxiliary” Anti-Slavery Societies were established. By 1840, the Society had over 2,000 auxiliary societies and 150,000 to 200,000 members. According to the American Anti-Slavery Society constitution, members argued on both religious and “natural” grounds, through periodicals, pamphlets, and lecturers, that all individuals had the right to liberty and that slavery should be abolished.

Beverly’s Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1837 as one of the auxiliary societies that was an offshoot of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Constitution of the Upper Beverly Anti-Slavery Society

The 1837 Constitution of the Upper Beverly (now North Beverly) Anti-Slavery Society states that its purpose is to free people of color from legal slavery, and to get rid of prejudice against any person based on the color of their skin, which was called “. . . corrupt public sentiment.”

Petition to Use Town Hall to Discuss “American Slavery”

The Beverly Anti-Slavery Society petitioned the Selectmen of Beverly 1838, asking to use the town hall for a meeting to discuss American slavery.

Petition to the Selectmen of Beverly 1838 by the Beverly Anti-Slavery Society to use the Beverly town hall for a meeting to discuss American slavery. Some recognizable names seen on the petition include James Cressy, Augustus N. Clark, Israel Trask, Warren Prince and John I. Baker (who became the first mayor of Beverly in 1895).

Letter from Elihu Burritt to Israel Trask

Elihu Burritt (1810–1879) was a social reformer and early advocate of the abolition of slavery during the 19th century. He visited Beverly at least once, speaking at local anti-slavery societies. In this 1844 letter to Beverly businessman, Israel Trask, Mr. Burritt expresses his thanks for Trask’s support in the hard work of fighting slavery.

Anti-Slavery Activist Israel Trask

Before the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, there were many in the North who didn’t have an opinion of slavery. After the law passed, many felt they were being forced to support slavery. Some white people defied the law by helping runaways get to freedom. In Beverly, the story is told that Israel Trask, a local pewter maker who lived at 12 Thorndike Street, opened his home (seen here in an undated photograph) to runaway enslaved persons seeking refuge. Trask was active in the anti-slavery movement, and supported men and woman who fought to free the enslaved.

Beverly Women’s Anti-Slavery Society Petitions Congress

Starting in the early 1800s, abolitionists bombarded the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. with petitions to end slavery and the slave trade, especially in the District of Columbia where pro- and anti-slavery forces were locked in a fierce conflict.

In the 1840s, the Beverly Women’s Anti-Slavery Society was one of the abolitionist organizations who sent a petition to Congress asking that slavery be abolished and all human beings in the District of Columbia be declared free.

The Undersigned, women of Beverly, Mass., deeply convinced of the sinfulness of Slavery and keenly aggrieved by its existence in a part of our Country over which Congress possesses exclusive jurisdiction in all cases whatsoever, do most earnestly petition your honorable body immediately to abolish Slavery in the District of Columbia, and to declare every human being free who sets foot upon its soil.”

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

The Fugitive Slave Act was a law that compelled citizens to assist in the capture of any runaways. It also denied the enslaved the right to a jury trial and increased the penalty for interfering with the surrender process to $1,000 and six months in jail. Under the United States Constitution, slave owners had the right to reclaim their enslaved persons who ran away to free states. One of the tenets of the Fugitive Slave Act stated that “all people of the United States were required to return escaped slaves to their owners.” Some Northern states, such as Vermont, passed laws protecting black fugitives in defiance of the law.

The Aftermath

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as the United States entered its third year of Civil War. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” However, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to the enslaved in the north and did not end slavery in the nation.

Life continued to be difficult for the newly freed, as racial prejudice and discrimination limited both economic opportunity and participation in civic life. For more than 150 years, since the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, civil rights for African Americans have been and continue to be fought for today.


One reason that we look at the past is to help illuminate the present. In “Set at Liberty,” we see that ideas of equality and liberty for all didn’t arrive all at once, but took root and, with much effort and sacrifice, slowly grew. The battle for equal rights and acceptance, however, isn’t over. This exhibit is only the start of uncovering the narrative of the lost histories of the enslaved in Beverly. As Historic Beverly works to slowly peel back the layers of racism this community has forgotten, we have uncovered numerous stories that have yet to be researched.

We know of references to at least 26 other named and unnamed blacks enslaved in prominent Beverly homes that are not included in this exhibit, including Gove; Copper; John Standley’s “unnamed Negro”; the “Negro man valued 95 pounds” owned by John Balch (son of Benjamin); Porcius, a 10-year-old girl sold to William Bartlett in 1769; Cate, owned by John Lovett III in 1764; and Mereer, who was owned by Benjamin Cleaves in 1768. These are a handful of the stories of the enslaved found in our collection of primary sources at Historic Beverly. These are the histories waiting to be told. These are the histories that will no longer be silenced.

Historic Beverly would like to thank the Associate Director for Collections at Historic Beverly, Abby Battis, who was the project manager and content curator of “Set at Liberty,” Terri McFadden, researcher and former archivist at Historic Beverly, for her deep knowledge of Beverly history and the history of the enslaved in Beverly; and Martha Wetherill, for her work in designing and editing this exhibit.

Many thanks to the following readers, editors, and content specialists: Amy Battis, Carmen Beals, Beth Bower, Kim Brengle, Sarah Corshia, Daniel Fish, Sue Goganian, Bethany Jay, Lucy Keller, Ric Murphy, Kathleen Lynch, Jeanne O'Hearn, Liz Duclos-Orsello, Thelma Roney, and Lincoln Williams.

This exhibit is supported in part by a grant from the Beverly Cultural Council, a local agency that is supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency. https://massculturalcouncil.org.