In 1990, I graduated from Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I arrived at Concord, which is celebrating its centennial this year, in the middle of my sophomore year of high school, feeling excited but nervous. I knew it was a school where girls thrived and the life of the mind was cherished, but I’d also been told (by the president of the college where my mother was dean, who lived in the area) to beware of racism in the town. I was therefore cautious.
I only very rarely saw any of the small number of Black local residents. Instead, virtually all the Black people I encountered there were fellow students from Boston or other neighboring suburbs. Some went to either my school or St. Mark’s, another private school nearby. Others were ABC or METCO students. (METCO, the abbreviated name for the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, is a voluntary school-desegregation program that has operated in the suburbs of Boston since 1966, making it the oldest such program in the nation. ABC, short for A Better Chance, is a program that works to place students of color in predominantly white and affluent private or public schools.)
I think it is fair to say that all of us, or nearly all of us, felt like guests in Concord. And I appreciated the warning about racism in the town, which I unfortunately did experience firsthand (through racial slurs yelled from passing cars, for example). But there was also a lot to recommend Concord. It was and is a bucolic environment where I could visit Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House—the setting for Little Women—and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, which is now a museum. Plus, beautiful, deep purply-blue Concord grape vines grew in front of the Welch’s building on Main Street.
And of course there was Walden Pond, made famous by Henry David Thoreau. When my dad was in town from Chicago, he came along as I visited the pond for the first time. As an activist, he admired Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” I preferred Walden, enchanted by its descriptions of natural beauty. However, when we stood before the pond itself, I was initially underwhelmed by it in comparison to Thoreau’s prose. It was only after a few hours of talking that my impression changed. When the sun began to set, the water sparkled; the shifting light created dazzling and varied colors of green, brown, and blue. It was then that I began to feel some of the magic Thoreau described.
Last weekend, thinking about the centennial of my alma mater and my relationship to the institution—a place that I love dearly and was vexed by in the way that elite New England institutions are frequently vexing for young Black people—I picked up Walden again.
I reread a section of the book, titled “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors,” in which Thoreau describes Black squatters who had lived in the woods before him. Mistreated in town, and enterprising but poor, they took refuge in the wilderness. He described how one of them, a woman named Zilpha, “had her little house, where she spun linen for the townsfolk, making the Walden Woods ring with her shrill singing, for she had a loud and notable voice.”
At length, in the war of 1812, her dwelling was set on fire by English soldiers, prisoners on parole, when she was away, and her cat and dog and hens were all burned up together. She led a hard life, and somewhat inhumane. One old frequenter of these woods remembers, that as he passed her house one noon he heard her muttering to herself over her gurgling pot,—“Ye are all bones, bones!” I have seen bricks amid the oak copse there.
Historians such as Elise Lemire, the author of Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts, have since researched and identified Zilpha and many of the other Black squatters of Walden Woods. Zilpha (or Zilpa) White had been enslaved by a local physician, Charles Russell. Russell was a loyalist in the Revolutionary War who, fearing for his life as someone loyal to the Crown, freed his captives in 1774 and escaped to his in-laws’ plantation in Antigua. Zilpha took to the woods and remained there long after her home was burned down.
In recent years, the town of Concord has worked diligently to acknowledge and preserve its Black history. I appreciate that effort, and encourage visitors to Concord to stop by the Robbins House, which is a historic home dedicated to sharing the story of Black Concord. But I also want to dwell on the fact that Zilpha White was a squatter on a sliver of land, eking out a living as a craftsperson, always under duress. Today, Concord is an affluent town; nearly 73 percent of adults have a college degree, and the median household income was reported to be just under $160,400 in 2020. One doesn’t see squatters there. But there are descendents of the enslaved in town. Many of them continue to be students who come for school and, like I did, feel as though they are treated like guests rather than community members.
So I find myself hoping, as I do whenever we talk about repairing public history and making it more inclusive, that alongside the commitment to remember those Black people who were a part of Concord’s history, there is a commitment to treat those who are there today with greater respect and dignity than was experienced by their predecessors. It is one thing to recognize shameful history, but the better part is learning from it.