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“A People not insensible of the sweets of rational freedom”

On 13 Jan 1777, the Massachusetts legislature considered a petition from eight black men on behalf of “a great number of Negroes who are detained in a state of Slavery in the Bowels of a free and Christian Country.”

That petition drew on the natural-rights philosophy that underlay the Declaration of Independence and similar documents in the preceding years. The authors wrote:

That your Petitioners apprehend that they have, in common with all other Men, a natural and unalienable right to that freedom, which the great Parent of the Universe hath bestowed equally on all Mankind, and which they have never forfeited by any compact or agreement whatever—But they were unjustly dragged, by the cruel hand of Power, from their dearest friends, and some of them even torn from the embraces of their tender Parents, from a populous, pleasant and plentiful Country—and in Violation of the Laws of Nature and of Nation and in defiance of all the tender feelings of humanity, brought hither to be sold like Beasts of Burden, and like them condemned to slavery for Life—Among a People professing the mild Religion of Jesus—A People not insensible of the sweets of rational freedom—Nor without spirit to resent the unjust endeavors of others to reduce them to a State of Bondage and Subjection.

Your Honors need not to be informed that a Life of Slavery, like that of your petitioners, deprived of every social privilege, of every thing requisite to render Life even tolerable, is far worse than Non-Existence—In imitation of the laudable example of the good People of these States, your Petitioners have long and patiently waited the event of Petition after Petition by them presented to the legislative Body of this State, and can not but with grief reflect that their success has been but too similar.

They can not but express their astonishment, that it has never been considered, that every principle from which America has acted in the course of her unhappy difficulties with Great-Britain, pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your Petitioners.

The ask was for a law to free all adults enslaved in Massachusetts, and to ensure the liberty of all enslaved children when they reached the age of twenty-one (essentially treating them as apprentices).

The legislature didn’t enact such a law. The Massachusetts courts eventually made the first big step to making slavery unenforceable in the state.

Here are the signatures and marks of the eight men who submitted the petition, as shown in its digital form, courtesy of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions project.

The most famous of those men was Prince Hall. Others joined with Hall in the first African-American Freemasons lodge.

Today I’m focusing on the sixth man, whose given name was Nero. I’ve seen his surname transcribed as Funelo, Funilo, and even Suneto. I posit that that surname was Funels, a phonetic spelling of Faneuils, and that this man had been enslaved by one of the Faneuil family.

TOMORROW: Nero Faneuil in court.

The Power of Pictures

When you are doing research on your family history, one of the most common resources you will come across is a photograph. Although it was more expensive as you go back in history, photography was still a common practice, and so pictures of your ancestors can greatly help you in your research, especially if your ancestors were good at recording information.

Start with you own collection. Make sure that your pictures are organized and safely placed in a container or album that is acid free and of archival quality. This will help you keep things in order when future generations want to research their family tree. For each photograph record the names of the people in the pictures, along with their ages, the date the photograph was taken, the photographer, and the occasion. You might remember what is going on now, but you may not after the years start passing by, and your descendents will have no idea.

When you start collecting old photographs, try to create a similar system of organization. Ask older relatives to help you identify the people in the pictures and give you dates and other information. People outside the family might be useful as well, so employ the help of your parents’ or grandparents’ childhood friends, classmates, and neighbors. Gather as much information about each picture as possible.

For older photographs, you will probably find that nobody living remembers the people pictured. In this case, you have to rely on the recording on the back of these pictures, if there is anything written. You can also use context clues to give the photograph an estimated date. What kind of clothing are the people wearing? If you know that the picture is of a specific family, who is present, who has passed away, and who has yet to be born? Many pictures also included images of the family’s house. Compare this house to real estate records, since many additions were added over the years, changing the appearance.

If you cannot find any of this information, don’t throw out the picture just yet. Keep collecting photographs of your family members-one day, you may find one from a similar time period that has writing on the back, identifying people and places. Check local flea markets, estate sales, and libraries to compare pictures, and keep a record of where you got each photograph so that anyone who picks up you research will at least have that bit of information.