CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Mary Walker was a former slave who escaped her owner, fled north, and came to own a Cambridge landmark.
Recent celebrations at the Blacksmith House have brought generations of Walker’s descendants to the Harvard Square home. It’s the first time they visited with the knowledge that the home is part of their own family heritage.
A Visit To The House
Fifteen of Walker’s descendents have come from as far away as New Jersey and Michigan, as well as right here in Massachusetts.
The house is relatively new information for Clare Kenney, of Midland Park, N.J., now 85 years old. She gingerly climbs the stairs of the 200-year-old house as the floors creak out a welcome.
“Boy, you couldn’t tiptoe around this house,” Kenney joked.
Kenney grew up on nearby Mt. Auburn Street. She remembers the mailman who used to talk about being born in the two-story Blacksmith House. She didn’t know it then, but that mailman, Frederick Walker, Mary Walker’s grandson, was her great uncle.
“I remember him delivering mail on Mass Ave. I used to play around the block in Cambridge on Mt. Auburn Street. I used to see him all the time, but I never knew he was my uncle,” Kenney said. “My mother kept everything kind of quiet.”
But Clare Kenney’s older sister knew something of the family’s history. Dorothy O’Shaughnessy says she knew the Blacksmith House had once been in her family.
“I didn’t know all about Mary Walker until very late in years because my mother was kind of a very, very proud lady who had Indian blood in her, which she wasn’t terribly proud of,” O’Shaughnessy said.
O’Shaughnessy, who now lives in Lexington, is 92 years old.
“We didn’t talk much about Mary Walker in our family,” she explained. “I didn’t even know that she was a slave lady until Syd came into our life.”
The Mary Walker Story
Syd is historian Sydney Nathans. He has spent over two decades piecing together Mary Walker’s story. In his new book, “To Free a Family,” he tells how Walker, a fugitive slave, came to own the Blacksmith House in 1870.
Mary Walker and her two children were mixed race, as was her son-in-law. But her daughter-in-law was an Irish immigrant named Annie.
“If you look at the census for 1870 and 1880, you see that the census taker, who comes door to door, and when he lists the race of people, he listed the race of everybody, but Annie, as ‘M,’ mulatto, which stands for mixed race in the 19th century,” Nathans said.
But then came the realities of identity in America.
“Then 1900 comes and the census taker is forbidden to put something between white and black. It’s now either/or. Jim Crow comes to the North. Jim Crow comes to the census, and it’s either/or,” Nathans said. “In the 1900 census everybody but one person is listed as ‘W,’ white.”
And white is the way generations of Mary’s descendants have been listed and have known themselves to be for years, until Nathans contacted them. His book about Mary Walker has filled in some blanks in her family’s history and, for that, O’Shaughnessy is grateful.
“I’m a very lucky lady, really I am,” she said.
O’Shaughnessy’s sister, Kenney, says she wishes she’d known about her family’s rich history before now.
“When we learned about Mary Walker, I was so proud of that heritage, and I felt resentful that I didn’t know about it,” Kenney said.
These days Mary Walker’s former home on Brattle Street is part of a cluster of buildings that house the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. It too only recently learned of the buildings past, and the center plans to highlight that history as it embarks on a restoration project.