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Life on the Corner: New Guinea

This picture was taken about 1910. Copp’s is misspelled. Prince Hall’s grave is at the bottom right. From there down to Charter St. is where the Black North Enders are buried.

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.

11 Replies to “Life on the Corner: New Guinea

  1. Nick. I loved this article. I never knew why dark skinned Italians were called guineas. My dad who was French used to call my mother his “little guinea”. Yes she was a dark Italian. I also loved the picture of Copps Hill Cemetery. I spent many years at Jackson Ave. My cousins and I used to sneak and watch The Freemasons place a wreath on Prince Hall’s grave. Thanks for another great article!

  2. Nathaniel Hawthorne mentioned Salem’s “New Guinea” in the Introduction to his “Scarlet Letter”. Salem’s “New Guinea” was located at either end of Salem’s small South River Mill Pond Dam (beginning of present day Canal Street; Washington Street and Margin Street neighborhoods). About 1830, Susannah Ingersoll, owner of the future House of Seven Gables tourist attraction, mentioned Salem’s early Italian immigrants in a letter to her adopted son Horace Conolly (at college, Yale or Washington/Trinity; Horace Conolly Collection, Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library). I found a photograph of Susannah, c1858, wearing an Italian checkered tablecloth full skirt on eBay and donated it to the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library. I’ll try yo send it to you via “CONTACT”.

  3. The Mather family tomb is located in Copps Hill cemetery. Increase Mather, Harvard College president (1692-1701) and his Puritan minister son, Cotton, are both buried there. My cousin taught at The Mather School in Roxbury for many years. The school was named for Cotton Mather. They were black, so called, “guineas”. My cousin taught at the Mather School (named for Cotton) in Roxbury for many years.

  4. Dr. Once again extrodinary article of North End history that word irratated my my grandfather so badly I’ve been told stories of different nationalities using that word but without the New even Christopher Columbus high school where I attended I heard it once Just Once . Thank you for sharing

  5. My dad was always called that growing up, never mind getting beat up for it… but then he was one of the few, very few , who went off to college( HC ’32) then to BU for his Masters… then became a professor. I guess he showed them . He was First generation Italian ; his parents from Calabria, and very proud of his heritage!!!

  6. Fascinating article, as always. A few years ago, I was in touch with a researcher from California who had located the shop of Benjamin Franklin’s father at what is now the corner of Hanover and Congress (at the corner entrance to the Public Market). He held slave auctions there. The researcher suggested a plaque commemorating this, but got no interest. Not surprising.

    1. Thanks, Bob.
      It’s an amazing story and one that is largely forgotten. I’m surprised it hasn’t been picked up by African American scholars.
      The Copp’s Hill Burying Ground should certainly be on the Black Heritage Trail.
      Interestingly, there may be more black bodies buried in Copp’s Hill than white ones. As more space was needed for deceased residents of New Guinea the church Sextons would simply dig up old bodies and dispose of the remains to make room. It was a way the poorly paid Sextons could make some extra money.
      Copp’s Hill would make a fascinating archaeological dig.

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