February 22, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
Worcester, Mass – From the indigo plantations of South Carolina to the wall on the north side of Wall Street, the economy of the early United States rested on the unpaid forced labor of kidnapped Africans. Opposition to slavery came from two places: from the resistance, escapes, and rebellions of slaves themselves, and from white people who thought it was wrong.
Those two streams came together in the case of Quock Walker, an escaped slave from Massachusetts who challenged the legality of his recapture—and in 1783, after four trials, won his freedom. The judge in the final one instructed the jury that slavery violated Walker’s rights under the state constitution.
Quock Walker was born in 1753 to Dinah and Mingo Walker. His name was likely an anglicization of the West African name Kwakou; there are several different spellings of it. When he was nine months old, his family was sold to James Caldwell of Worcester.
Caldwell settled in the village of Barre, about 20 miles to the northwest. In 1763, he was killed when a tree struck by lightning fell on him. His widow, Isabell, married Nathaniel Jennison six years later, but died in 1773.
Walker said that James Caldwell had promised to free him when he reached 25, and that Isabell had lowered that to 21. Jennison refused. So in April 1781, Walker escaped and went to work on Caldwell’s younger brothers’ farm. Jennison and at least one other man went over there, beat him with a whip handle, and dragged him back.
Jennison sued the Caldwell brothers for interfering with his property, and Walker sued Jennison for assault. Jennison won the property suit by showing a receipt for buying Walker, but the jury in the assault case ruled that Walker was a free man and ordered Jennison to pay damages. Jennison lost his appeal when his lawyer failed to file the papers on time, and the Caldwells won theirs when their lawyer, Levi Lincoln, argued that slavery was against the “law of God” and the Massachusetts constitution.
Walker then filed criminal assault charges against Jennison. In 1783, a state Supreme Judicial Court jury convicted him.
“Our Constitution of Government,” Chief Justice William Cushing told the jury, “sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal—and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property—and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution.”
The verdict effectively ended legal recognition of slavery in Massachusetts, as it came after several cases in which state courts had given slaves their freedom. The former owner of Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, a 39-year-old woman declared free by the courts in 1781, abandoned his appeal after it. “I never knew a Jury,” Vice President John Adams wrote in 1795, “by a Verdict to determine a Negro to be a slave—and they always found them free.”
That may have come from economics more than enlightenment, historian Robert M. Spector contended in The Journal of Negro History in 1968: As agriculture gave way to trade and manufacturing, “slaves moved into the skilled trades where they competed with white artisans, driving down wages and prices. The hostility of white workers to slave competition proved to be a powerful element in the movement to abolish slavery within the state.” “The common People would not Suffer, the Labour by which alone they could obtain a Subsistance to be done by Slaves,” Adams wrote. While Massachusetts was the center of the nation’s abolitionist movement in the 19th century, it denied black people the right to vote in state elections in 1778 and outlawed interracial marriages until 1843. Boston schools remained legally segregated until 1855. (Some 120 years later, an attempt to end de facto segregation by busing high-school students out of the poor black neighborhood of Roxbury set off months of rioting in the poor white neighborhoods of Charlestown and South Boston.)
Either way, the Massachusetts court that freed Quock Walker in 1783 recognized that he was a human being with human rights—unlike the U.S. Supreme Court when it denied Dred Scott his freedom in 1857, ruling that he was merely “an article of property.” The American people, Cushing told the Walker jury, were “more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses—features) has inspired all the human race.”
The “enslaved African race were not intended to be included” in that, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote in the Dred Scott decision. The framers of the Constitution, he said, believed they were “so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” and therefore, “might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery.”
Cushing would become one of the first nine justices of the Supreme Court, appointed by President George Washington in 1789 and serving until his death in 1810. Levi Lincoln went on to be Attorney General during Thomas Jefferson’s first term, from 1801-1805.
Little is known about Quock Walker's life after he won his freedom. The 1790 Census recorded a “Quako Walke” living in Barre, apparently married with two daughters—but listed him as a “free white man.” Historian Harry Richardson told the Worcester Telegram and Gazette in 2015 that Jennison had sold Walker and his younger brother Prince to Connecticut after the 1783 verdict, but they escaped and returned to Barre, settling in a neighborhood populated by free black farmers. Prince Walker’s grave is in the woods there.