In some households, male slaves worked side by side with their masters as coopers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, and wheelwrights. In other homes, they ran errands, functioned as valets and performed heavy work for their masters. In Boston, slaves worked closely with sailors and merchants. Female slaves were often required to carry out the various household tasks their mistresses demanded.
Surprisingly, Massachusetts slaves were not without rights. Unlike slaves in the southern colonies, New England slaves could hold property and serve in the militia, as was the case, for example, with five of Lexington’s slaves: Prince Estabrook, Pompey Blackman, Samuel Crafts, Cato Tuder, and Jupiter Tree. However, it wasn’t until the eve of the American Revolution that black men were welcomed into the ranks of the militia. In 1652, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted a law requiring all African-Americans and Indian servants to undergo military training and serve in the militia. Four years later, fearing a slave revolt, Massachusetts reversed the law and prohibited African-Americans providing military service.
Enslaved people could testify in Massachusetts colonial courts against both whites and other blacks, however the weight and value of their testimony were often diminished or discounted because of their status.
A slave could also sue for freedom, as demonstrated by a female mulatto slave named Margaret. On November 20, 1770, Margaret appeared in a court in Cambridge represented by the Boston lawyer Jonathan Sewall. John Adams, who was in the midst of the Boston Massacre trial, represented her masters, the Muzzey family of Lexington. At the end of the hearing, which lasted most of the day, the court freed Margaret.
On rare occasions, enslaved people were also permitted to petition their town selectmen or colonial government for legal assistance. In 1774, several African-Americans addressed the Massachusetts General Court and demanded they be granted the rights and benefits of liberty that their white counterparts were demanding of the crown.
Still, slavery was a degrading and inhumane institution.
By 1643, all of the New England colonies had established laws punishing runaway slaves as “fugitives”. In 1667, England enacted strict laws regulating slavery. A slave was forbidden to leave his master’s property without a pass or permission from his master and never on Sunday. Thus, a slave could not move in search of opportunity or even travel outside of his or her town without the master’s assent. If he were discovered, a slave would be prosecuted as a fugitive. A slave could marry only with the master’s blessing and interracial marriage was illegal.
By 1667, most American colonies had recognized that a slave could not be freed from bondage by baptism, thereby discarding the Christian principle of enslaving other Christians. That same year, the penalty for killing a slave in Massachusetts was a mere £15.
In 1670, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law permitting slaveholders to sell children of slaves into bondage. Thus, a slave, as well as his wife and children, could be sold to another owner at his master’s whim. As late as 1774, the seaside town of Newburyport was hosting auctions for the sale of child slaves.
Finally, a slave was always subject to both actual and potential cruelty against which there was no defense. On Boston Neck, travelers were presented with the view of a cage containing the bones of Mark, a slave who had been convicted of murdering his master. The spectacle was intended to serve as a constant reminder to slaves in Massachusetts of the potential penalties for defiance. If a slave struck a white man, he would be summarily and severely punished. Even worse, by 1682, most American colonies prohibited slaves from asserting self-defense in criminal prosecutions.
By the start of the 18th Century, prominent Massachusetts officials recognized the evils of the practice and called for an end to it. In 1700, Chief Justice Samuel Sewall of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court published The Selling of Joseph, a book outlining the economic and ethical grounds for abolishing slavery. In 1764, James Otis, a leading proponent of colonial independence, wrote in a highly regarded and influential pamphlet "The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black."
Unfortunately, it was not until 1783, through a series of cases known as "the Quock Walker Case," that slavery was abolished in Massachusetts. As Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice William Cushing asserted "[S]lavery is in my judgment as effectively abolished as it [is] wholly incompatible [with the Massachusetts Constitution] and repugnant to its existence."