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1840s black household artifacts unearthed

Renovators working at a townhouse on Boston's Beacon Hill uncovered what archaeologists believe are the remnants of a 19th century free black household.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Renovators working at a Beacon Hill townhouse uncovered what archaeologists believe are the remnants of a 19th-century free black household.

The shoes, doll fragments, hat pins, children's marbles and an empty sarsaparilla bottle, among other items, were found beneath the flooring of what once was thought to be a privy and could provide insight into the lifestyle of free black families in Boston during that time, experts said.

The house was built about 1840 by Robert Roberts, a free black man who was an active abolitionist and worked as a butler for Gov. Christopher Gore. He wrote "The House Servants' Directory" in 1827.

Despite the national influence of Boston's black families in the abolitionist movement, there is almost no record of their daily lives.

"It's a wonderful piece of history," Mary Beaudry, a Boston University archaeology and anthropology professor, who is helping lead the excavation, told The Boston Globe. "To get a look at a free African-American household — wow!"

Workers doing renovations for property owner Michael Terranova exposed brickwork beneath the floor of an attached shed.

Terranova consulted the staff at the 19th-century African Meeting House, the free-black church and community center whose Beacon Hill site is now affiliated with the National Park Service. They pointed him to Beaudry and Ellen Berkland, archaeologist for the city of Boston.

"I hadn't thought it was possible to get archeologists here," said Terranova, who was not legally obligated to report the discovery of historical artifacts on his property.

Beaudry and Berkland and a group of volunteers started digging Thursday, turning up several thousand artifacts. The work was expected to wrap up Monday.

"These people were poor, but they did great things," Terranova said. "They fought for integration in transportation, theaters, and the schools."