BOSTON — In 1670, Zipporah Potter Atkins took the remarkable step of purchasing a home in Boston’s North End neighborhood.
Atkins’ purchase was remarkable for many reasons – not the least of which was that by buying the house, Atkins became the first American-American to purchase a home in the city.
Atkins, who was born free at a time when Africans in Massachusetts were more often enslaved, was able to make the purchase because her father — who was a slave — had received a small inheritance from his owner.
Although little is known about her life, the mere existence of Atkins prompted the decision to place a historic marker on the site of her home — now part of the city’s Rose Kennedy Greenway.
Gov. Deval Patrick, speaking at a ceremony unveiling the marker on Tuesday, said he was humbled to be where her home once stood.
Patrick, the state’s first black governor, said that while much is known about the history of blacks as slaves in America, the contributions of black people as property owners, musicians, inventors, investors, leaders and visionary speakers is less well known.
“Our story is America’s story. It’s the commonwealth’s story. It’s this neighborhood’s story. It’s everybody’s story,” Patrick said. “To be in the presence of an affirmation of that by placing this marker in this place for all time is a pretty special thing for me.”
Vivian Johnson, a researcher with the Heritage Guild, a group dedicated to commemorating the lives of the city’s black citizens, said her investigation into Atkins’ life showed that the inheritance money her father received ultimately was passed to her and went to purchase the home.
Johnson said the records also referenced a garden near the home.
“Zipporah Potter Atkins achieved the American Dream of home ownership long before that term was invented,” Johnson said. “By purchasing a house and land on this site, she established a place for herself in the oldest continuous neighborhood in the city of Boston and she ensured that her place in our history would be preserved.”
Johnson said her research also showed that Atkins had continued to grow and learn.
By 1699, when she sold her house, Atkins was able to sign her initials at a time when many could not read, becoming the first woman of African descent to initial a deed in Suffolk County.
“By writing those letters of her name she communicates with us across 350 years,” Johnson said.
In 1783, a century after Atkins lived in her home, Massachusetts’ highest court would rule that slavery violated the Constitution, making Massachusetts the first state to abolish the slave trade and making it a hotbed of the abolitionist movement – although the state and Boston would struggle with racism and racial tensions for centuries.