New signs to shed light on Marblehead’s overlooked history

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Strategically placed interpretative signs will shed light on the history of Indigenous, Black and persons of color in Marblehead.

The history project is the brainchild of the staff of the Marblehead Museum, who have undertaken a number of initiatives to research and disseminate the town’s overlooked history, according to the nonprofit’s executive director, Lauren McCormack.

“It’s a history of Marblehead that hasn’t been studied or talked about to the extent of white European history,” McCormack told Marblehead News. “What we are trying to do is remedy that as much as possible.”

The permanent postings aim to fill in missing pieces in Marblehead’s history.

For now, the Marblehead Museum plans to obtain approval to place about five signs around town. The nonprofit will be covering costs associated with the production and installation of the signs.

“We want to put everything into a context and allow people to gain a better understanding of all the people who’ve lived and worked in Marblehead throughout history — even before the land we now call Marblehead was Marblehead,” McCormack said.

Celebrating Joseph and Lucretia Brown

Joseph and Lucretia Brown ran a popular tavern out of this Gingerbread Hill house. COURTESY PHOTO / SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

The Marblehead Conservation Commission signed off on a sign sited at the Joseph Brown Conservation Area. The sign celebrates Joseph and Lucretia Brown, a Black couple who resided in a Gingerbread Hill home in the late 18th century into the early 19th century.

Joseph gained his freedom after fighting in the Revolutionary War as a 2nd Rhode Island Regiment infantryman in the stead of his master’s son.

“Joseph arrived in Marblehead a free man,” the Marblehead Museum notes. “He labored for almost a decade until he was able to purchase half — and later the entirety — of a house on Gingerbread Hill.”

Joseph married Lucretia Thomas, a free woman of color born in Salem. The pair transformed their Gingerbread Hill home into a popular tavern where Black and white townspeople gathered for drinks, dancing and fellowship.

The Marblehead Museum notes Lucretia was a shrewd businesswoman, selling her homemade beer and Joe Frogger cookies of legend.

“Through ingenuity, hard work, and community spirit, the Browns made a lasting mark on Marblehead,” the Marblehead Museum’s sign reads. “Though their earthly remains were buried in Old Burial Hill, their spirits live on in Marblehead.”

The ship Desire was built here

Meanwhile, the Marblehead Light Commission signed off on another sign sited for Hammond Park, a small public space that folks can access at the end of Commercial Street.

It will offer a short education on the slave and trading ship Desire, built in Marblehead in 1636, before the town had seceded from Salem. The Desire is believed to be one of the first ships to bring enslaved people of color into the Massachusetts Bay Colony, according to the Museum.

The vessel was also used to transport Native American prisoners of war to the West Indies, where they were “undoubtedly sold into slavery,” McCormack said.

The journals of John Winthrop, which the Marblehead Musuem writes: “provide the only extant contemporaneous information of the vessel Desire and its connections to the slave trade.”

“There is not a ton of information about the ship,” McCormack said, adding that exactly where the ship was built is unclear. “We believe it may have been by Redstone Cove, and that’s why we requested a sign at Hammond Park.”

McCormack said Desire was built as primarily a cargo vessel and weighed a whopping 120 tons.

“It was a big trade ship,” she said. “But part of that trade was human beings.”

Lee Mansion, other sites eyed

The Marblehead Museum also plans to place an interpretive sign at the site of the kitchen and slave quarters of the Jeremiah Lee Mansion.

Another is eyed for the early 19th century Marblehead Gun House, located where Elm and Pearl streets converge. For this sign, the Marblehead Museum has formally requested Select Board approval.

“We’re not putting this sign here because of the Gun House at all but because of the land it sits on,” McCormack said. “In the 18th century, that area was called ‘a Negro burial place.'”

That burial place has popped up more than once in Marblehead Town Meeting records, according to McCormack.

“We just wanted to identify and let people know about the burial site,” she said.

The Marblehead Musuem will also seek Select Board approval to place a sign on the traffic island where Beach Street and Ocean Avenue meet.

“That sign will acknowledge the Naumkeag band of the Massachusett tribe,” said McCormack. “They were the very first people who lived and traveled for the most part before European settlements — before the land that was called ‘Marblehead’ was called ‘Marblehead.'”

The Marblehead Museum’s action here, in part, is to replace and correct a sign that the Marblehead Tercentennial Committee installed in the 1930s.

“It misidentifies the native people in this area,” McCormack said. “So, we wanted to fix that with the correct information.”

The new signs, too, can be updated with ease, she noted.

“We’re always learning something new about this history,” McCormack said. “If we come up with some new information that really changes our understanding, we could easily make that change.”

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