When I was about twelve years old my mother would occasionally send me to buy fish at a fishmonger near Faneuil Hall called Sanborn’s. We got most of our fish from the Sicilian fishermen who hung in my father’s tavern but my mother liked creamed finnan haddie which wasn’t available in the North End. Angelo Labadini, my father’s great friend and the maitre d’ at the Locke Ober Cafe, gave her their recipe and she loved it. My father wouldn’t touch it but I developed a taste for it and to this day if I see finnan haddie on a restaurant menu I can’t resist ordering it.
Sanborn’s fish market catered to the Back Bay gentry and the prices reflected the status of their clientele. As I looked at the obscenely expensive fish in the display cases I noticed a hand lettered sign that said “Guinea Haddock” which was about 30% more expensive than regular haddock. This was a kind of fish I had never heard of and when I got home I asked my mother about it. She looked uncomfortable and explained that the American people called dark skinned Italians, like my father’s family, “Guineas” because they looked like they came from New Guinea. Guinea haddock, she said, was caught by the Italian day fishermen and was the freshest available. Well, this made no sense at all to me. New Guinea was on the other side of the world from Italy and I was sure natives there didn’t speak Italian. I tried to pursue the issue further but my mother clearly didn’t want to discuss it so I dropped the subject and filed it in the back of my mind where it lay dormant for the next fifty years.
Recently, I’ve been reading in the North End Historical Society’s web site about the history of the Copp’s Hill Cemetery and to my surprise I discovered that for almost a hundred years there was a section of the North End called “New Guinea” located at the base of Copp’s Hill. It’s an interesting but sad story that is intertwined with the history of slavery in Massachusetts.
The earliest record of slaves in the Massachusetts Bay Colony dates to 1624 when Samuel Maverick was said to have owned slaves. The Puritans had no moral objections to slavery. They believed in the Calvinist doctrine of predetermination which meant that God intended Africans to be slaves and whites to be slave owners, it was their lot in life and the Bible endorsed this practice. Slavery was never as prominent or as important in the North as in the South but it was certainly an integral part of the State’s economy. Northern slaves were generally used as household servants, as assistants to tradesmen or in the maritime industry. On the eve of the Revolutionary War, 2.2% of Massachusetts residents were of African origin and up to 10% of Bostonians were Black. Many of the great Massachusetts family fortunes originated in the slave trade which was called “Blackbirding.” The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson’s great grandfather, Cornelius Waldo, for example, was a very successful slave merchant who imported and sold slaves from Africa.
Massachusetts always had an uneasy relationship with slavery and the Abolitionist movement was very active in Boston in the decades before the Civil War. William Lloyd Garrison began publishing his anti-slavery broadsheet, The Liberator, in 1831 and gave vehement anti slavery sermons. You can see his statue on the Commonwealth Avenue mall. Although slavery was never officially outlawed in Massachusetts until the 13th amendment was ratified in 1865 there were a number of legal cases in the Massachusetts courts which gave slaves certain rights which were unavailable to those in the South.
Because of these legal challenges, slavery was de facto ended in Massachusetts by the end of the 18th century but the newly obtained freedom was more semantic than actual. Many former slaves and their children became indentured servants and they were severely restricted in where they could live and in their day to day activities. They settled in small, separate enclaves where they had their own shops and support systems. In Colonial Boston there were two Black settlements. The larger one was on the North Slope of Beacon Hill centered around the African Meeting House on Joy Street but there was also a smaller one at the base of Copp’s Hill facing Charlestown probably from Copp’s Hill Terrace to North Washington Street, then called Charlestown Street. This settlement was called “New Guinea” because many of the former slaves had their origin in the West African country of Guinea. In fact, the term “New Guinea” was used in many cities and towns throughout New England to designate the section where Africans lived. Italians were called Guineas as a derogatory term because of their olive skin.
There are very few records of people who lived in the “New Guinea” section of the North End. The Black North Enders who lived there left without a trace when slum clearance and the influx of Irish and Italians forced them out. They are our forgotten neighbors but for one hundred years they were an integral part of the North End. These freed slaves and their descendants lived in the North End for several generations yet virtually nothing is known about them; they remain anonymous.
Interestingly, many of their dead are buried in the Copp’s Hill Cemetery. The section along Snow Hill Street from the grave of Prince Hall down to Charter Street is the common burial place for the people of “New Guinea”. There may be over one thousand bodies buried there, no one knows for sure, and there are few, if any, grave stones. Oral history says the few grave markers that were there were stollen and used as decorative ornaments or in the building of other residences.
The books written about the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground catalog the graves of the deceased white North Enders in great detail and have lists of their names, dates, epigraphs and even coats of arms. The African residents of New Guinea are ignored, their graves are unmarked and we know virtually nothing of whom they were. It’s as if they never existed.
So, the next time you walk through the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground take a moment to visit the graves of our forgotten African/American neighbors. They left the North End over one hundred and fifty years ago but their lives mattered and they should not be forgotten.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.