Retired Boston University Professor Discovers Zipporah Potter as the First Black Landowner in Boston

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Five or so years ago, Vivian Johnson, a retired professor of education at Boston University, was poking through records in the Massachusetts Historical Society — she loves to do research — looking for information about how African-Americans educated their children in the 17th century, when she came across something that would occupy her for the next five or so years.

It was a woman’s name, Zipporah Potter, along with one bit of information that Johnson found impossible: that she was a 17th century African-American woman who owned property in the North End. Both of these facts put her way, way ahead of her time and make her the first African- American landowner in Boston, male or female.

“What makes this so exciting is that during this period that we’re talking about, from 1641, Africans were enslaved in Boston, so not only was she unusual because she was free, but the likelihood of anyone having purchased land was not very good, especially for a woman,” said Johnson.

Johnson found the deed to the house, which Potter purchased in 1670, and a 1676 map that depicted it just next to where a mill pond emptied into a creek that carried it to the bay. The pond and the creek are long gone, as is the colossal highway that kept the property in shadows for decades. The spot is now a nice stretch of mowed grass on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, just off where Hanover Street crosses. A historical plaque will be unveiled at the site Tuesday, with a dedication by Governor Deval Patrick.

Zipporah had six surnames, at a time when these were rare for people of African descent. When she married and became Zipporah Potter Atkins, the ceremony was officiated by Cotton Mather, the great Protestant minister of his time.

Records indicate she inherited some money when her father, a slave, died, and that is what she used to buy the house and property. But how she remained free and how she used that inheritance to acquire land when blacks and women did not, remains an intriguing mystery.

“This was tricky beyond what anybody can fully comprehend,” said Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History in Boston, which worked with Johnson. “It looks like she’s the only black person here who hasn’t been enslaved, and this is a time when white women didn’t own property. How in the world does she pull this off? Not only does she buy property, but she holds onto it for nearly 30 years, even after she’s married.”

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Source: Boston Globe | Billy Baker and Laura Crimaldi

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