Created By: University of Massachusetts Boston
You are standing in Framingham's Old Burying Ground, also known as Church Hill Cemetery. When you enter from the Main Street center gate proceed strait to the back side of the cemetery and locate the grave of Peter Salem (it is a solitary headstone in the back middle of the cemetery located behind vegetation in a gully).
Between 1600-1900, Framingham was home to a growing African American population, which included both enslaved and free people. One of the most famous of these community members was Crispus Attucks, who was of mixed African and Indigenous ancestry and born into slavery in Framingham in 1723. He would be a freedom seeker (also known as a runaway) and eventually became a sailor out of the Port of Boston. On March 5, 1770, he was struck and killed by a British soldier's bullet during the Boston Massacre.
A few years later, another African American man from Framingham would play an important role in the American Revolution. Peter Salem was born into slavery in Framingham. His first enslaver was Jeremiah Belknap (Belknap road is named after his family) and he was later sold to Lawson Buckminster. Buckminister was a Minuteman during the American War for Independence. So he would fight in the war, Buckminister freed Peter Salem. He was one of over 500 African Americans who served in the war. Peter Salem would serve in the racially integrated Edgell's Minuteman Company, where he would be involved in the Battle of Lexington. On June 17, 1775, Peter Salem fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill (alongside at least a dozen other Black soldiers) where he is remembered for shooting and killing British Major John Pitcairn as the British were rallying their troops. Since he was now a freeman, like many other African Americans at the time, Peter Salem was able to enlist in the Colonial Army. He would fight at Harlem Heights, Trenton, Saratoga and Stony Point. He would later marry and move first to Salem and then Leicester, where he worked as a cane weaver for chairs. Despite being a war hero, he would die in a Framingham poorhouse in 1816 and be buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave here in this cemetery. The town of Framingham would eventually establish a Peter Salem Day and raise $150 in 1882 to erect a monument in his memory.
There was also a long history of support for abolitionism within the Black community of the town. After slavery became illegal in Massachusetts as the result of Elizabeth Freedman or Mum Bett's victory in her freedom suit in 1781, any enslaved person in Framingham was then freed. In both overt and covert ways, African Americans in Framingham would engage in protests and fundraising for the anti-slavery cause. We will learn more about this in a future stop at Harmony Grove.
How should we remember Peter Salem? What does his life help us understand about justice in Framingham and the United States?
This point of interest is part of the tour: Framingham Local History Walking Tour