BEVERLY, Mass. (AP) – An enslaved black man, the great story he inspired, and the beach that now bears his name are at the center of new efforts to recognize the role of slavery on Massachusetts’ scenic North Shore.
According to the story, Robin Mingo was promised freedom by his white master if the tide ever went low enough for him to walk onto a rocky outcrop at present-day Mingo Beach. Depending on the narrative, Mingo either completed the challenge and was emancipated, tragically drowned, or spent his days in servitude never seeing the rare tidal event.
“It shows how much power slave owners had over their slaves,” said Katerina Pintone, a 19-year-old aspiring sophomore at Endicott College, where Mingo Beach is located. “That one man could have so much control over another man’s life.”
Last semester, Pintone and other Endicott students researched the local legend as part of a public history class and suggested ways to memorialize Mingo and its namesake beach. Their ideas ranged from a cultural trail to a smartphone app and a boat tour highlighting Mingo’s history and slavery in the popular tourist region.
Professor Elizabeth Matelski, who taught the course, is also researching for a book on Mingo and is working with other historians on a project that maps North Shore sites like Mingo Beach that are historically significant to people of color. Meanwhile, Endicott, a private co-ed school, says it is in talks with city officials to officially register the beach as a historic landmark.
Matelski hopes the effort will stimulate broader discussions about the often overlooked role of slavery in New England.
“Most people who walk by this particular stretch of beach have absolutely no clue about this story,” she said.
Abby Battis, associate director at Historic Beverly, the city’s historical society, agreed. Battis said she never heard Mingo’s story growing up in the seaside town, which is often overshadowed by its more famous neighbors – Salem, site of the infamous witch trials, and Gloucester, the historic fishing port.
“We have to stop telling stories to the old, dead white people,” she said. “Beverly’s story has so much more to offer.”
The history society is doing its part to paint a more complete picture of the city’s role in slavery, Battis added. In 2019, the organization launched a virtual exhibit featuring the stories of the enslaved in Beverly, a 17th-century coastal town about 25 miles north of Boston.
Mingo is not among those highlighted in Set at Liberty, but the Society’s ongoing work has identified at least 100 enslaved people and more than 200 local ships involved in the slave trade.
It’s a “common myth” that slavery in New England either never existed or was inherently different from other places, says Beth Bower, local historian on the board of Historic Beverly.
Historical records show that New Englanders clearly imported enslaved Africans for all the jobs that made the fledgling colony possible, from farming and fishing to building ships, she said.
And while history credits Massachusetts with being one of the first states to abolish slavery in 1783, there is mounting evidence that slavery existed in the state until the early 1800s before gradually disappearing, Bower said .
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but it was more than two years before black slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned of their freedom. That day, June 19, 1865, is now known as June 16, being celebrated for the first time on Sunday as an official federal holiday.
Matelski said she first heard about Mingo’s story in the summer of 2020, at the height of protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
A Michigan native, she said she was immediately struck by the story’s potential to speak to the present as the nation comes to terms with its racist past.
Mingo’s story is all the more significant considering he was married to a free Indigenous woman and his enslaver descended from Beverly’s original founders, Matelski said.
“It’s so ingrained in the history of Beverly and the New England experience,” she said. “There are simply many different topics.”
Part of Matelski’s future focus will be separating myth from fact.
For example, in the most popular tale, Mingo achieves his feat and earns his emancipation, only to die later that year.
However, local records indicate that the real Mingo lived into the 1980s, was baptized, raised a daughter, and even purchased land in the town before dying in 1748.
Matelski believes the Mingo legend has its roots in the stories popularized by abolitionists to underscore the “casual cruelty” of the slave industry, which they staunchly oppose.
Such slave tales typically focused on the harsh realities of southern plantation life and the extraordinary dangers some slaves endured to escape to freedom, making Mingo’s story a uniquely New England version of the genre, she said.
“What we know now is one piece of the puzzle,” Matelski said. “As a historian, you’re like an investigator trying to get as complete a picture as possible of this really important story that hasn’t been told yet.”
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