Honoring Agnes: Special dedication on Old Burial Hill for enslaved woman

The new, historically accurate gravestone for Agnes, an enslaved woman in Marblehead

More than 300 years after she died, a new gravestone will be dedicated at Old Burial Hill for Agnes (or Agnis, see below for an explanation of the two spellings), an enslaved woman who lived in Marblehead at the turn of the 18th century. The Marblehead Racial Justice Team (MRJT) will lead the ceremony on Sunday, Sept. 25, after raising $7,000 for the project.

“We know that Agnes’ grave is an emblem,” said the Rev. James Bixby with the MRJT. “We know of about 100 to 200 people who lived enslaved in Marblehead. Where are their gravestones? They were dumped in a low-lying swamp upon basically being worked to death. How did Agnes survive her situation and how did she maintain an identity?”

Agnes was enslaved by the Russells, a prominent merchant family in town. She is listed among Samuel Russell Sr.’s property upon his death, referred to as “one negrowoman” valued at 20 pounds. It is believed that after Samuel’s death, she was passed down to his children.

Records at St. Michael’s Church show that Agnes was baptized there in her early 40s, which was unusual for enslaved people. She died in 1718 at the age of 43 and was buried with her owners’ family, also highly unusual.

Mabel Sliney, who graduated from Marblehead High last year, produced a documentary about Agnes and her gravestone. You can watch it HERE.

Agnes’ first gravestone (with her name spelled ‘Agnis’) disappeared in the 1970s and was replaced with a makeshift marker with an incorrect date. The new stone being dedicated on Sunday is a perfect replica of the original, modeled from a photo and crafted by artisan Dan Cedrone at Marblehead Memorials. It is made of stone imported from Africa, Anges’ home continent, Bixby pointed out.

Marblehead Town Historian Don Doliber is related to the Russell family and will speak at the dedication.

“We erect these markers as memorials but more importantly to remind us as citizens that we change with the times,” Doliber said.  

The MRJT has been working on the Agnes gravestone project for several years, according to member Lou Meyi. It’s important for Marblehead to acknowledge its history of slavery, he said.

Rev. James Bixby (from left), Lou Meyi and Judy Gates of the MRJT filming a documentary at Old Burial Hill

“This is part of a broader, hopefully national, reckoning for a more inclusive view of what U.S. history is all about.”

Judy Gates, also on the MRJT, lives across from Old Burial Hill, and believes it’s fitting that Agnes is being honored there.

“This marker, in some ways because it is on top of Old Burial Hill, gives special recognition to the fact that we had enslaved people here,” she said.

After a recent string of racist graffiti incidents in Marblehead, Bixby said it’s more important than ever to acknowledge and honor people of color in Marblehead’s history – and present.

“The town is trying to increase its diversity. If a person of color comes to Marblehead, they don’t want to be told that this is the first time a person of color has ever been here. It’s not true.  This is the beginning of a good conversation that will be fruitful.”

Bishop Gail Harris of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts (a woman of color) will speak at the dedication ceremony, along with MRJT members and town officials. The ceremony begins at 1:30 p.m., but people are encouraged to arrive at 1:00 p.m. to explore the cemetery. The program is expected to last about 30 minutes.

**** The Marblehead Museum uses the ‘Agnes’ spelling because that is so she is named on her baptism record, even though her gravestone reads ‘Agnis.’

 “Spelling was very fluid in the 17th and 18th centuries,” explained Marblehead Museum Dir. Lauren McCormack. “Even family members spelled names differently at different times. So, one spelling on her gravestone and one spelling in the baptismal record. I think we tend to use Agnes with E because that is the most common spelling today. Spelling was not codified to the same extent as it is now until the Webster’s dictionary started to come out in the 1820s or 30s.”

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