Newburyport resident and renowned historian Dr. Kabria Baumgartner is digging into the rich and often untold history of African Americans in Essex County. Thanks to a $100,000 grant awarded by the National Parks Service and the Organization of American Historians, Dr. Baumgartner is working to uncover materials and information to help create more inclusive and interpretive sources for local sites that reflect the true racial diversity of the county.
Through public records and census records, Dr. Kabria Baumgartner can confirm there were many African American families living in Newburyport in the 19th century. However, she has found archival materials like newspapers, photographs, and other documents extremely limiting for Newburyport itself. While Dr. Baumgartner, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire, is still actively researching and uncovering materials, there are some fascinating stories and artifacts that have already been discovered for Essex County. Folks had the chance to hear Dr. Baumgartner’s discoveries first hand, as she was the keynote speaker at the 2021 Newburyport YWCA’s annual Engaging Community Luncheon where she spoke about her findings and shared stories and answered questions.
One such story that she uncovered is that of Sara Baro, referred to as “the African princess”, who lived in Topsfield. Sara, who was born in West Africa in the late 1830s, was captured and brought to the United States as a child. The Conant family “took her in” as an indentured servant—slavery was abolished back in 1783 in Massachusetts, but we know that the labor of enslaved people continued to fuel the economy in Essex County well into the late 18th century. Sara’s life is an amazing story of survival in the face of adversity. The Conant family seems to have treated her well and Sara even received an education at Topsfield Academy. While Sara could not change her class status, she appears to have lived a satisfying life worthy of something very special Dr. Baumgartner discovered—a will. It turns out the Topsfield Historical Society holds a very valuable artifact, Sara’s jewelry box which also happens to contain her will. This shows that while she may not have had a large amount of money, Sara had made enough of a life for herself to feel the need to create this document. Dr. Kabria Baumgarner sees this as just the beginning of her search to find more documents and artifacts related to the African princess.
Another of Dr. Kabria Baumgartner’s stories she has come across is that of the Hinton’s, an African American family that resided in Andover in the late 19th century and early 20th century. This historical story is a great example of black entrepreneurship and a tale of Black family life in New England. Allen Hinton, a freed slave, moved from the south to Andover for a new beginning—where he started his family. It’s also where he started the Hinton Family Ice Cream Farm, the first ice cream selling business in New England. The business was embraced by the community, with Allen and family selling at local schools—Phillips Andover Academy and Abbott Academy for Young Ladies. Allen’s daughter Alice later took over the business and received praise from Booker T. Washington himself for her keen business sense.
Dr. Kabria Baumgartner, who resides in Newburyport with her family, is an interdisciplinary historian of nineteenth-century African American life and culture in the United States and the author of the award-winning book, In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America. Dr. Baumgartner and her co-principal investigator in the Essex County African American history project, Elizabeth Duclos Orsello, continue to research and find artifacts and materials to enrich our communities. Orsello, a professor at Salem State, and Baumgartner both use this grant as a teaching moment, getting their students involved in the research first hand. Photograph taken by Matthew Troisi 22 CPA, UNH EDU.