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Lowell History: African Americans in Lowell


Although often ignored or unrecognized by both historians and the community-at-large, African-Americans played an important role in the history of Lowell, Massachusetts.  This exhibit of the events and experiences of two African-American families, the Quork-Lewis Family and the Lew Family, is an attempt to understand and appreciate their courage and contributions.

The Quork-Lewis Family (1754-1954) 
Records of the Quork-Lewis Family experiences began with the sale of three slaves, Mingo, Dinah and their son, Quaco or Quork, to James Caldwell of Barre, Massachusetts, in 1754.  At Caldwell's death in 1763, Quork, his parents, and siblings were left to  Caldwell's widow, Isabell, who took them with her when she  married Nathaniel Jennison.  Jennison became sole owner of these slaves at Isabell's death in 1774.  In 1781, after two promises of freedom were broken, Quork ran away from Nathaniel Jennison to the brothers of his former owner.  When caught by Jennison, Quork was beaten and locked in a shed for several hours.  These actions became the basis for a lawsuit in which the Massachusetts Courts applied the new 1780 State Constitution with its claim of the "rights of man."  After a series of suits, counter suits and appeals, Quork's case was upheld in 1783 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.  This case is now viewed as the landmark decision which effectively ended slavery in Massachusetts.

     Among the slaves, owned by Nathaniel Jennison, was Quork's sister Minor Walker.  In 1792, she married Peter P. Lewis, also from Barre, and they moved to Cambridge.  There they purchased a home and raised a family of nine sons and two daughters.  Their sons and daughters became leaders in the anti-slavery movement centered in Boston.  About 1830, John and Sophia Lewis Levy, Walker Lewis, Simpson H. Lewis, Andrews V. Lewis, Samuel A. Lewis, Enoch Lewis, and Peter P Lewis, Jr. moved their families to Lowell.  Their reasons are not clear:  perhaps family ties, business expansion, anti-slavery activities, or better educational opportunities for their children.

     John Levy, hairdresser, was an agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and a paid organizer for the Annual National Anti-Slavery Bazaar held in Boston.  In 1843, Levy worked with Maria Chapman and Sarah Clay to establish the Lowell Woman's Anti-Slavery Society and their anti-slavery fairs were held in Old City Hall.  In 1844, Levy, along with William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglas, and others, helped organize a series of one hundred anti-slavery conventions throughout Massachusetts. 

Lowell's Old City Hall

In 1825, Walker Lewis married Elizabeth Lovejoy, described as a light skinned mulatto, and they had two daughters and two sons.  In 1826, Lewis was a founding member of Boston's General Colored Association an organization formed "to promote the welfare of the race by working for the destruction of slavery."  By 1844, Lewis was one of very small number of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) "Elders" before a long-term Ban on Blacks in the Priesthood was implemented.

     Peter P. Lewis, Jr. and his wife, Lephia Lovejoy, had three sons and one daughter.  In 1844, an incident occurred in Lowell which created community-wide outrage.  Peter's four children, part of a school group visiting the traveling Chemical Painting Exhibition at Mechanics Hall, were denied entry.  The Lowell newspapers publish strong editorials:

We deem it the duty of the press to protest your sort of exclusiveness, having its origin in a narrow-minded prejudice, and to stand up manfully for the rights of the colored citizens when trampled upon in any way.  The proprietor has very much mistaken the public sentiment of Lowell by adopting such a cause; in our public schools, he will see the children of colored parents  sitting side by side with those of white parents, a living evidence of toleration and respect.

     Walker Lewis' commitment to the anti-slavery movement was seen in the Nathaniel Booth Case.  In 1844, Booth, an escaping slave, settled in Lowell and opened a barbershop.  When the 1850 Federal Fugitive Slave Law superseded the 1843 Massachusetts Personal Liberty Law, “one or two slave catches” were seen in Lowell and Booth fled to Canada.  Shortly, he returned to live with the Walker Lewis family.  The Lowell Free Soilers Party also offered protection.  They publicly encouraged the escape slaves seeking freedom in Canada to return home to Lowell.  One member  expressing "a willingness to suffer death rather than let a fugitive slave be caught when it was within his power to prevent it."  In 1851, when slave catchers returned for Booth, Linus Child, Boott Mill agent, negotiated with the southern plantation owner and then raised money from the Lowell community to purchase Booth's freedom.  In 1855, the Massachusetts Legislature extended the Personal Liberty Law which practically nullified the 1850 Federal Fugitive Slave Law.  The South viewed this action as defiance of the Federal Constitution and the tension between the South and the North grew.

     The families of John Levy, Walker Lewis, and Peter Lewis, Jr. became an integral part of Lowell.  They owned homes and businesses and were active in the educational, political, and religious life of this city.  When Walker Lewis died in 1856, Linus Child, Boott Mill agent, served as guardian for Walker Lewis, Jr.  In 1858, Walker Jr. reached majority age and Linus Child returned all the money Walker Lewis left for his son's care.

     By 1853, Simpson H. Lewis was one of the "colored citizens" petitioning the State for the right of men of color to serve in the militia.  However, it was not until the Civil War, under "military necessity," that naval crews and regiments were opened to "colored recruits."  Perhaps their uncle's early fight explained why so many of the young Lewis men were among the first to enlist and serve aboard the USS Rhode Island with the 55th Colored Cavalry.

     In the late 1800s, life became very hard for the families of Edward B. Lewis, Theodore W. Lewis, Levi Lewis and Walker Lewis, Jr.  Some injured in the Civil War suffered severe health conditions.  Others find their businesses as barbers slowed by competition from Irish and French-Canadian immigrants.  These health and financial difficulties forced them to seek Soldiers Relief from the Lowell Office of Veterans Affairs.  By the early 1900s, members of this generation were gone.  In 1954, Theodore W. Lewis, last daughter died and was buried in the family plot at  the Lowell Cemetery.