In 2012, First Church in Cambridge, one of the oldest churches in the United States, learned that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, First Church families, including two senior ministers, a Harvard President, a Lieutenant Governor and other town and colony leaders, enslaved both African and Indigenous persons. Thirty-six of these enslaved persons were admitted to a second-class version of membership in the church (“owning the covenant and being baptized”), that excluded them from participation in church leadership. First Church was silent before and after the abolition of slavery, during Jim Crow segregation and, until recently, mass incarceration. First Church remained silent during government-sponsored programs of physical and cultural genocide carried out against Indigenous peoples, through wars and forced removal of Indigenous children to boarding schools. And, like most White institutions at that time, First Church profited economically and culturally from the enslavement of Black and Indigenous peoples.
This research opened for us a window into the violence that First Church and its members inflicted on other human beings. Our immediate reaction was to seek some way to remember and honor those enslaved persons who were part of our faith community. However, it has become clear that an act of remembrance by itself is inadequate. In 2018, First Church voted to “explore a project of public remembrance related to our history of complicity with Northern slavery.” This vote led to the Public Remembrance Project and discussions of linking remembrance to the need for reparations.
First Church’s history is also our wider communities’ history. For this reason, the Public Remembrance Project proposes to engage persons in the congregation of First Church and community members in the wider Cambridge and Greater Boston communities, across racial, class, and economic lines, in conversations that we hope will involve our communities in discussion of two linked outcomes:
- A project of public remembrance, if agreed and acceptable to communities in the wider Cambridge and Greater Boston areas, that honors enslaved persons and reflects the historical legacy of slavery at First Church, Cambridge and Greater Boston and
- A form of reparations determined in conversation with and leadership from communities that have been historically harmed by our past actions and continues to be oppressed and marginalized by our White Supremacy.