What this Beverly beach teaches us about slavery in Massachusetts
About 30 miles north of Boston, there’s a small, craggy beach. In the surrounding city of Beverly, there’s a legend about an enslaved Black man who, as the story goes, lived on a nearby cliff from the 1660s until the 1740s.
His name was Robin Mingo.
According to the legend, Mingo was promised his freedom by his enslaver, Thomas Woodbury, if he completed a task: walk from the shoreline to a rocky outcropping known as Aunt Becky’s Ledge.
Mingo Beach has been named after him for at least the past 200 years.
As Massachusetts officially marks the Juneteenth holiday for just the second time, a researcher at Endicott College is working to unearth Mingo’s little-known story — one of few standing remembrances of people who endured slavery in the state, compared to the many that celebrate white historical figures.
Elizabeth Matelski is an associate history professor at Endicott, which surrounds Mingo Beach and two other beaches. She said it’s unclear if Mingo ever successfully traversed the hazardous path out to the ledge. Once in a great while, the tide recedes enough to make the trek seem possible.
Matelski said she thinks the story has endured because it was held up by the local abolitionist movement as an example of slave owners’ capricious cruelty.
“It really highlights the casual relationship, this very kind of detached relationship, between enslaver and an enslaved person,” Matelski said.
Matelski first learned about Mingo and the beach from fellow Endicott professor Sam Alexander. He often passed the beach while growing up in Beverly, but never realized what it was named or why.
“It wasn’t until the summer of 2020, actually, that I learned the story myself,” Alexander said. “It was in the wake of the George Floyd murder — there was a movement on the part of the faculty to show solidarity with our Black colleagues and students and also to kind of commit ourselves to teaching the legacy of racism.”
Growing up, Alexander said he often saw Beverly’s white settlers honored. But he said he wasn’t taught about the enslaved people who lived there.
“The Woodburys, who were the enslavers of Robin Mingo, have a street named after them not far from where I grew up,” he said. “When I learned that the Woodburys were slave owners, that was a surprise to me.”
Now, the college is supporting Matelski’s plans to investigate Mingo’s life with a fellowship and sabbatical to write a book. Though she’s just at the start of her research, Matelski’s efforts are already drawing attention.
Kyera Singleton, executive director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, said she’s frustrated by the factors driving new interest in Mingo.
“I hate that it takes the death of Black people for others to ask questions about their own neighborhoods, about their own parks, about their own beaches,” she said, adding Massachusetts likes to think of itself as the cradle of liberty, not a place that built its economic foundation on slavery.
“By not engaging with the history, by not dealing with it, it creates somewhat of a historical amnesia,” Singleton said. “The histories are not actually hidden. They’re in front of us. We just haven’t been paying attention.”
The Royall House is one such example. Built in the 18th century, it housed the Royall family, the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts. Their lavish lifestyle was made possible by the 27 people they once enslaved.
Singleton said it’s people like Mingo who laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement, and that there are many other stories like his.
“I think being curious about where you live is the first place you start. Just asking, ‘How did slavery appear in my neighborhood in the 17th and 18th century? Is there a connection? Were there enslaved people in my town?’ ” Singleton said. “I think people are going to be very shocked once they start to ask those questions.”
There are people who have been asking those questions for years. Abby Battis is associate director of collections at Historic Beverly, a nonprofit organization that’s been researching and creating exhibitions about enslaved people for a decade.
Battis is an eighth-generation granddaughter of the Rev. John Hale, who moved to Beverly and built a home there in the 1600s. It’s the same building where Battis now works. Hale’s grandson owned at least four enslaved people.
Battis and her colleagues have amassed a collection of donated archival records. They include a trove of church documents that revealed the date Mingo was buried in Beverly.
Battis said there’s much more to learn about Mingo and many other people who were enslaved. But she said her organization doesn’t have enough funding and depends on volunteers. Battis said she hopes to get more people interested in the work through education. She’s been lobbying to get the stories of people enslaved in Beverly taught in the city’s public schools.
“If we start with the students and start building the understanding, I think that’s where things will change in the nation,” Battis said. “But if we’re not educating the students so that we have a longitudinal understanding of what the truth was, how are we ever going to change and become better? The George Floyds will just be on repeat.”
For now, Matelski and her students are working on appropriate ways to publicly mark Mingo Beach and memorialize its namesake. She hopes doing so will teach people about Mingo’s life: how he fought to protect his family and came to own his own property; how he married an Indigenous women named Deborah Tailor — possibly because their children would be born free.
Historical evidence suggests it’s likely Mingo eventually gained his own freedom, too, Matelski said.
She said she’s hopeful Mingo’s descendants can participate in the ongoing process of telling his story. So far, Matelski has found one reference to him having a child.
Her name was Ginger.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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