Massachusetts High Schoolers Give Freed Slave Her 175 Years Overdue Gravestone
On May 9, nearly 175 years after the death of freed slave Lucy Foster, a memorial service she likely never got took place at a cemetery in Andover, Massachusetts — thanks in no small part to a group of high school girls there.
An elective course, “Out of the Shadows,” taught by Linda Meditz at the Academy at Penguin Hall, an all-girls college preparatory high school in Wenham, Massachusetts, led one of the students to Foster’s story. During the course, the students researched female slaves in 18th- and 19th-century New England.
“They were present, but they have been little noticed by scholars, particularly sort of a group you would focus on. And certainly most students in a place like Massachusetts don’t have a clear sense of the fact that slaves were present in the Colonial period … . They definitely were part of the fabric of society,” Meditz told The Daily Signal in an interview.
Foster, an Andover native, was freed at 16, when Massachusetts abolished slavery.
Starting the course at Penguin Hall last fall, Meditz said it was inspired by her doctorate research on the diary of an 18th-century minister, the Rev. Stephen Williams of Longmeadow, Massachusetts. She branched off into researching a female slave named “Phillis,” who had lived in the minister’s household for 50 years and had been a faithful servant to her community.
“She died in his home. He described how there was a funeral for her and that he said ‘a considerable number of people’ came to the funeral. But having said that, no one knows where she is buried. I’m sure it’s in Longmeadow, most likely at the burying ground at the church where he was a minister,” Meditz said. “But there’s no stone. There’s no marker.”
Bothered by the absence of a headstone for Phillis, Meditz wanted her students to find a local Andover woman they could verify was held as a slave and was buried without a headstone.
“And then, the thrust of the class would be to consider the idea of launching a project to secure a headstone for such a woman,” she said.
A team of people came on board to make Meditz’s vision come to life, she said, “each of whom had a passion they brought to bear at this, and each of whom we paid little to nothing to help us. In the end, what was produced was the highest-caliber.”
Once her students were assigned to the project, they contacted historical societies, asked questions, and learned about the Colonial period in their town. Within days, one of her students, Caroline Buck, a senior, discovered Foster, which led to the project to erect the headstone.
“Caroline was assured that, per the director of the Andover Historical Society, that [Foster] fit the bill,” Meditz said. The student was also able to verify the record at a church Foster had attended.
After a local reporter covered their efforts to embark on the headstone project, a specialist in historical gravestones reached out to Meditz to offer his services at a significantly discounted rate.
“I was concerned about the cost. I know it could run into many thousands of dollars. In the fall, we had 10 in the class. To finish this in the spring, we had seven. For seven girls to raise thousands of dollars felt a little formidable. The price tag for everything was $3,000,” Meditz said.
That covered the marker, carving the inscription, and installing the headstone in the ground at South Church Cemetery.
Meditz got in touch with archeologist Whitney Battle Baptiste from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Baptiste had authored a book, Black Feminist Archeology, and wrote a chapter about Foster, which prompted Meditz to involve Baptiste.
“I discovered that there is an archaeologist, an African-American woman, whom we had hoped very much to consult, someone like that, for the wording on the stone,” Meditz said.
Baptiste not only assisted the class in the wording for the gravestone, but also contributed artifacts she had dug up at Foster’s home, such as china plates, eyeglasses, clothes, and pottery, among other things.
“The girls had the idea to take some of the design elements in the china and put those on her gravestone, because these were things we knew she had owned, and she had touched, and they were a part of her life.”
After all this time, however, there are no known images of Foster that have survived.
“At the age of 16, Lucy was able to secure her freedom. Of course, this means she’s a 16-year-old going out into the world, having to make her way. That, for my students, was incredibly powerful, because all of them are about 16. We talked about the transitions they’re experiencing in life now — imagine going to college and leaving their childhood home and what would it be like to be in her shoes,” Meditz said.
“That was one of the many moments in which they began to have a sense of connection to her, even a personal connection. So, there’s no image of her that survived, no drawing. Photography hadn’t really come into vogue yet during her lifetime,” she said. “We never had any sense of what she looked like, but it didn’t keep them from forging a sense of connection.”
Joshua Nelson, a journalist and filmmaker, is a graduate of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation.
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