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Quock Walker, Journey to Emancipation

by Paula Paris

Quock Walker’s Journey to Emancipation

“We can lift up the legacy of Quock Walker and the many other pioneering forces behind the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts; and we can use his fight as inspiration as we work towards a more just and equitable Commonwealth.” -- Senator Cindy Friedman


“I am looking forward to annually commemorating Quock Walker’s significant place in our state’s history.” -– Representative Michelle Ciccolo

Last week we described a Season of Freedom between June 19  (Juneteenth ) and July 8 (Massachusetts Emancipation Day aka Quock Walker Day). Today’s post is about the last date. 

The Commonwealth’s newest holiday is the culmination of three years of advocacy by a group of citizens from Lexington and deliberation between our state’s legislative bodies. On November 1, 2022, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law H.3117, An Act designating July 8 as Massachusetts Emancipation Day, a.k.a. Quock Walker Day, in recognition of the declaration of rights that rendered slavery unconstitutional in the Commonwealth as well as the significant contributions made by Quock Walker to abolish slavery in the Commonwealth, and recommending that the day be observed in an appropriate manner by the people.  H.3117 additionally directs the Governor to issue a proclamation annually to commemorate the day.

The enabling legislation was sponsored by Senator Cindy F. Friedman (D-Arlington)  and Representative Michelle Ciccolo (D-Lexington).

Quock Walker, born to enslaved parents in 1753, successfully sued for his freedom in a case that led to Massachusetts becoming the first state in the nation to abolish slavery on constitutional grounds. Commonwealth v. Jennison was decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on or about July 8, 1783– 80 years before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and 82 years before the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in the rest of the United States.

Slavery did not end quickly. Individual states were slow to adopt provisions of freedom for enslaved people. More often than not, manumission– an agreement to free one’s enslaved persons–  was granted at the sole discretion of the enslaver.  Severe punishment awaited enslaved persons who tried to assume freedom on their own.

Enter Quock Walker.

The name Quock (aka Quork) is an Anglicized variant of Kwaku, which means “boy born on Wednesday” in the tradition of the Akan people of Ghana, where Quock’s parents, Mingo and Dinah, originated. His family was purchased by the Caldwells, a prominent family from Worcester, Massachusetts.  The Caldwells promised Quock his freedom when he became an adult. But James Caldwell died when Walker was 10 years old and his widow was re-married to  Nathaniel Jennison. Although the widow Caldwell had vowed to grant Quock Walker his freedom when he turned 21, she died when Quock was only 19. Jennison did not feel obligated to honor his wife’s promise and refused to free him. 

Though still enslaved, Quock Walker was plotting his path to freedom despite the well-known risks. At the age of 28 he ran away to a nearby farm.  He was hunted down and reclaimed by Jennison and severely beaten.

Through underground communication sources Walker learned of the 1781 case of an enslaved woman named Elizabeth Freeman (aka Mum Bett) who,  represented by abolitionist Lawyer Theodore Sedgwick, had successfully sued for her freedom in the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington, MA. The case rested  on the grounds that slavery was not consistent with the state constitution’s statement  that “all men are born free and equal.” Thus, precedent was established for Quock Walker’s journey to freedom.

But it would take more court cases for the goal to be achieved.  First, Nathan Jennison sued the brother of James Caldwell, who had harbored Walker after his escape.  The charge was “deprivation of the benefit of his servant” and the court found in Jennison’s favor. But on appeal, a jury declared Walker to be a free man and granted him damages of 50 pounds.

Walker then sued Jennison in the County Court of Common Pleas in Worcester for criminal assault and battery for the beating he had endured, and additionally cited the premise of the Freeman case that all men are born free and equal.  Although there were no concrete sanctions against Jennison, the decision declared Walker’s freedom under the state’s constitution. That decision was appealed, but then upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1783.

The fight for abolition of slavery was a moral battle between property rights and human rights. Records of enslaved persons were meticulously documented as enslavers inventoried all their property; so documentation of enslaved people in Massachusetts could be found in the census records.  By 1790, seven years after the Quock Walker case, the census recorded no enslaved persons in Massachusetts. 

The Quock Walker cases raise the awareness that slavery did not occur only in the South, as has traditionally been taught.  There were no cotton plantations in New England. The enslaved in this part of the country were generally referred to as servants and worked on farms or in households. They were accounted for as chattel.  Many were brought from the sugar plantations of the West Indies.  American history is incomplete without the telling of their stories.

In addition to commemorating Kwaku “Quock” Walker’s significance to the Commonwealth, Massachusetts Emancipation (aka Quock Walker) Day, July 8, provides a new opportunity to reflect on the meaning of freedom and justice for all. It would be fitting for Quock Walker Day to be adopted by the other 49 states,  making our Massachusetts trifecta—June 19, July 4, July 8—a Season of Freedom for the entire country.

Header image: “A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts”, First Articles 1780

Paula Paris is Deputy Director of JFYNetWorks

Other posts authored by Paula can be found here.

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