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Stories / Chloe Spear

Chloe Spear

Chloe Spear, Boston freedwoman, was born in Africa. Spear is known to scholars primarily through the Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear, written by “A Lady of Boston” in 1832. According to the Memoir, Spear was kidnapped from the African coast when she was about twelve years old. Her captors carried her to a slave ship headed for Philadelphia, where Captain John Bradford purchased her and took her to his home in Boston. 

Bradford was a merchant and, during the American Revolution, the Continental agent for Massachusetts. The Memoir depicts him as a harsh master and Chloe as an obedient slave. For the deeply religious author of the Memoir, Bradford's most reprehensible fault was his failure to bring up his slaves in the Christian faith. Bradford also claimed that “it made negroes saucy to know how to read” (Lady of Boston, 26). When he discovered that Chloe had been getting reading lessons, he threatened to whip her if she ever went to the schoolmistress again. Nevertheless, Chloe continued to read her psalter in secret and became increasingly drawn to Christianity. During the Revolutionary War, the Bradford family removed from Boston to Andover. There Chloe befriended a devout Christian, a Mr. Adams, who became her religious instructor and spiritual counselor. Upon her return to Boston, Chloe became a member of the New North Congregational Church. 

In 1776 Chloe married Cesar Spear, servant to Nathan Spear; they had several children. According to her obituary, Bradford had promised to free her, but before the manumission took effect, she was emancipated by Massachusetts law. In fact, Massachusetts passed no such legislation ending slavery. It is likely that Spear negotiated her freedom with her master in the early 1780s, when several Massachusetts legal decisions were interpreted as invalidating slavery under the state constitution. In any event, following her emancipation, Spear continued to work as a paid servant to the Bradford family, to whom she remained close even after she went to live with her husband. Cesar was a cooper by trade, but he and Chloe also ran a boardinghouse in the North End. In the postwar economic climate, black men often had difficulty finding regular work as craftsmen or manual laborers. Black women could secure more consistent income, since the demand for domestic labor was relatively constant. Chloe worked as a washerwoman to keep the Spears afloat. The author of the Memoir characterizes Chloe as hardworking, self-sacrificing, and thrifty, in contrast to Cesar, who encouraged his wife to buy herself fine silk dresses. Instead, she put aside the money he gave her along with savings she carefully accumulated from her own work until she amassed seven hundred dollars, enough money to buy a small house.

Deeds and probate records confirm that the Spears bought a house on White Bread Alley, near Hanover Street, in Boston's North End in 1798. They did not live there long before Cesar fell seriously ill; he died in 1806. The Memoir suggests that her husband's death released Chloe from a difficult marriage. Cesar apparently did not share his wife's religious devotion, and as a widow Chloe had the freedom to participate more fully in spiritual activities. Her home became a meeting place for black and white Bostonians to pray and discuss religion. “So happy was her talent in conversation with persons, in the early stages of religious conviction, that in seasons of revival in the neighbouring towns, she was frequently invited to visit them, and was instrumental of good,” the Memoir reported (Lady of Boston, 77). 

Spear's religiosity was ecumenical. Though she had originally joined a congregational church, she also attended Baptist services and befriended Rev. Thomas Gair, who baptized her into his Second Baptist Church in 1788. Spear probably also participated in activities at Boston's African Baptist Church. One of the attendees at her funeral was that church's minister, Rev. Thomas Paul, whom Spear “was much in the habit of calling her son” (Lady of Boston, 90). Spear was buried in the Granary Burying Ground in the tomb belonging to her former master's family. Her one-line death notice in a Boston newspaper described her as “a colored woman, highly respected” (Columbian Centinel, 7 Jan. 1815), and her bequests confirmed her status as a respected member of Boston's black community. In her will she left money to her surviving grandson and to eight black Bostonians, many of whom had ties to the Second Baptist Church. She also left part of her $1,400 estate to the church's fund for the poor and to the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society. 

If “A Lady of Boston” had not written her lengthy Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear, it is unlikely that scholars would have more than a passing interest in this former slave's life. Authored by a white woman years after the death of its subject, the Memoir, like other narratives commemorating the lives of people of color, is “fraught with conflicting literary, social, and racial politics” and “thoroughly mediated” by its author's own priorities (Brown, 38). The preface to the book announces that proceeds from its sale would “be devoted to the benefit of Schools in Africa” (Lady of Boston, iii). The author's educational agenda was also an evangelical one. Near the end of the book, she quotes the favorite Bible verse of missionaries to Africa, “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hand unto God” (Ps. 68:31 AV), and praises “the efforts now making for the civilization of Africa, and for spreading the gospel in that populous country” (Lady of Boston, 106). 

The content of the Memoir itself was part of an evangelical project directed closer to home. The author ends each of the four chapters of Spear's biography with a didactic section plumbing Spear's experience for evidence of God's providence and examples of how to live a Christian life. While the Memoir's author clearly believed that people of all races and nations could become exemplary Christians, she also exhibited the racial chauvinism that most nineteenth-century white northerners shared. She exhorts her white readers to take heed of Spear's story, warning, “How dreadful then will it be in that solemn day, when we shall all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ, should any, who may have read this little history, be found unprepared for his coming, while this uncultivated African shall sit down in the kingdom of heaven” (Lady of Boston, 45). 

Despite its biases and possible distortions, the Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear provides an unusually rich account of the life of a former slave in the North, including many details corroborated by other sources. The text cannot be classified strictly as a slave narrative because its author's intent is more evangelical than abolitionist. Furthermore, unlike most narratives of southern slaves, the Memoir does not even purport to be autobiographical, but the author does claim to have recorded stories that she had earlier heard Spear recount herself. For all that the Memoir tells about Chloe Spear's life, the identity of the book's author is uncertain. Some sources attribute it to Rebecca Warren Brown, who used the pseudonym “A Lady of Boston” for her children's book about the general Joseph Warren, issued in 1835 by the Memoir's publisher. Other bibliographies cite the author as Mary Webb, a founder of the Boston Female Society for Missionary Purposes and the Boston Children's Friend Society. Webb also tried to start a school for African American children in the North End and directed the Sabbath school at the Second Baptist Church. Given her membership in Spear's church and her interest in educating black children in Spear's neighborhood, it is likely that she and Spear knew each other personally. 

Spear accumulated more property than did most blacks (and even many working-class whites) in the Boston of her day. Her social network, especially within the city's interracial community of Baptists, seems to have been deep. The simple fact that someone bothered to write a 108-page account of her life made her particularly unusual. But many of the details described in that account—including those corroborated by other sources—reflect experiences common to former slaves in the region. Many other black New Englanders knew the convergence of the American Revolution and personal emancipation, the difficulty of making a living out of low-paying and exhausting domestic work, and the significance of faith communities to spiritual and social life. While Spear's successes were remarkable, the challenges she faced were typical for the first generation of freed people in Massachusetts.

Read the full, original biography by Margot Minardi in the African American National Biography.

View complete story (pdf)

Online Resources

"Documenting the American South," website. Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spearhttps://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/brownrw/summary.html

Bibliography

Brown, Lois. “Memorial Narratives of African Women in Antebellum New England,” Legacy 20 (2003): 38–61. 

 

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, rev. ed. (1999). 

 

A Lady of Boston. Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear, a Native of Africa, Who Was Enslaved in Childhood, and Died in Boston, January 3, 1815 (1832). 

 

Piersen, William D. Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England (1988)

 

Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Magazine, Mar. 1815.

Author

Margot Minardi

Adapted by

Sophie Alegi

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

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Key Events

c. 1750

Chloe is born in Africa.

c. 1762

Chloe is kidnapped from the African coast when she was about twelve years old. She was transported on a slave ship to Philadelphia, where she was purchased by Captain John Bradford and taken to his home in Boston. She learned to read in secret.

1776

Chloe marries Cesar Spear and they had several children.

early 1780s

Chloe Spear likely negotiated her freedom with her master when several Massachusetts legal decisions were interpreted as invalidating slavery under the state constitution. Spear continued to work as a paid servant to the Bradford family, and also as a washerwoman, putting aside her money and eventually amassing enough to buy a small house.

1788

Spear was baptized into the Second Baptist Church by Reverend Thomas Gair.

1798

The Spears buy a house on White Bread Alley, near Hanover Street in Boston’s North End.

1806

Cesar Spear fell ill and died, enabling Chloe to partake more fully in spiritual and religious activities that her late husband had apparently not approved of.

3 January 1815

Chloe Spear dies, leaving her money to her surviving grandson and to eight black Bostonians, most of whom had ties to the Second Baptist Church. She also left part of her estate to the church’s fund for the poor and to the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society.

1832

The rather evangelical Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear is published, having been written by “A Lady of Boston,” an individual with a clear missionary and ‘civilizing’ agenda.