Category Archives: The Cambridge Room

Rainsford Island’s Legacy of Slavery

This illustration shows enslaved Africans being forced to dance on the deck of slave ship for exercise during the Middle Passage. Source: Amèdèe Grehan (ed.), La France Maritime (Paris, 1837), vol. 3, facing p. 179. From Slavery Images.

Rainsford Island is named after Edward Rainsford, the earliest known European settler who was granted rights to the island in 1636 to use as a farm. Prior to Rainsford’s arrival, the island was occupied by Native Americans who grazed animals and farmed.

Edward Rainsford enslaved two people at the time of his death in 1680. Edward, and at least two sons, conducted business in Barbados, as well as has an interest in several ships that traveled there.

Barbados was key to transatlantic slavery. The island, England’s first tropical experiment agricultural exports, was perfect for growing sugar. Many English colonists in Boston and Cambridge profited greatly from the forced labor of Africans who worked the sugar plantations. The sugar industry, which depended the free labor of enslaved Africans, became an economic powerhouse for England. In 1664, the Council for Foreign Plantations recognized that slaves were “perpetual servants and the most useful appurtenances of a Plantation.”

Edward’s brother, Sir Richard Raynsford, the Chief Justice to King Charles II, holds a place of infamy for his ruling that affirmed the continuation of slavery in the English colonies. In 1677, the case of Butts v Penny gave him the opportunity to inform King Charles II that slavery violated English common law.  However, Raynsford, a confirmed royalist and former MP in the Convention and Cavalier Parliaments, handed down a decision that must have pleased Charles II – no small matter as Raynsford held his seat as Chief Justice in bene placio, at the King’s pleasure.”

The ruling noted that since Africans were “bought and sold among Merchants, therefore are Merchandise and being Infidels, the slaves were goods the equivalent to any other chattels by English common law.”

The result of this ruling allowed for slavery in the English colonies to continue until 1807:Between 1662 and 1807 British and British colonial ships purchased an estimated 3,415,500 Africans. Of this number, around 2,964,800 survived the ‘middle passage’ and were sold into slavery in the Americas.  

The transatlantic slave trade was the largest forced migration in human history and completely changed Africa, the Americas and Europe. 

Until the 1730s, London dominated the British trade in enslaved people. It continued to send ships to West Africa until the end of the trade in 1807.  

Between 1699 and 1807, British and British colonial ports mounted 12,103 slaving voyages – with 3,351 setting out from London.  (See Key Facts about the Transatlantic Slave Trade.)

Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783.

To learn more about the history of Rainsford Island, please join us for the lunchtime lecture, Rainsford Island : A Hidden History of Neglect and Activism in Boston Harbor.

Date & Time:
February 25, 2021
12:00pm – 1:00pm


Register for Rainsford Island : A Hidden History of Neglect and Activism in Boston Harbor

Date & Time:
February 25, 2021
12:00pm – 1:00pm

Rainsford Island : A Hidden History of Neglect and Activism in Boston Harbor
Join us for a presentation about Boston Harbor’s little known Rainsford Island.  For centuries, the island was an off-shore repository for Boston’s unwanted – a quarantine Island for  “small pox victims, impoverished immigrants, violent criminals, drunkards, unwed mothers and their infants, mentally ill, and delinquent boys.”  The brutal living conditions left nearly 1,800 dead in unmarked graves, including soldiers from the Massachusetts 54th, the famous Black Civil War regiment. The work of activist Alice North Towne Lincoln and Louis Brandeis, the future Supreme Court Justice, forced Boston to close the island. Discover the stories of those incarcerated and those who advocated on their behalf.   Learn how we can memorialize them today. 

Robin Hazard Ray contributed to the book and was its author.  Robin has written for the MIT News, the Boston Herald, and many other publications.  She is a docent and tour guide at Mount Auburn Cemetery.  Her historical mystery novel, the Stanger’s Tomb, takes place at Mount Auburn.

Bill McEvoy, Jr. is a US Army Veteran and retired Massachusetts District Court Magistrate.  Since his retirement in 2009, McEvoy has conducted large-scale cemetery research projects, including several at Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery as well as a four-year study on the Catholic Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown.  The Boston Globe featured McEvoy’s work uncovering the story of Rainsford Island on the front page of the March 8, 2020 edition

Rainsford Island, A Boston Harbor Case Study in Public Neglect and Private Activism is available as a free download.

Lunchtime Lectures from the Cambridge Room

Join us for a weekly virtual series on Thursdays at noon, featuring author talks, lectures, and workshops on genealogy and Cambridge history.  For our kick-off event on February 25th, author’s Bill McEvoy and Robin Hazard Ray will discuss the fate of those banished to Boston Harbor’s Rainsford Island.  In March, the Leventhal Map Center will take us on a walk through Cambridge using historic maps.  Becky Cooper, author of We Keep the Dead Close, will talk about the murder of a Harvard graduate student that gripped the nation.  Check our schedule as we continue to add more programs throughout the Spring.

The Cambridge Public Library Needs Your Help!

Cambridge High and Latin Yearbook Staff, 1921.

We are in the process of digitizing and making freely available all the Cambridge High School yearbooks in our collection.  Unfortunately, we are missing many years.  We need yearbooks from Cambridge High and Latin School (before 1920, 1950s and 1960s), Rindge Technical School (any years), and Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (1987 to present).  If you are interested in donating a yearbook, please contact Alyssa Pacy, Archivist at the Cambridge Public Library, at or at 617-349-7757.  With your help, we can preserve and make accessible this important (and fun!) piece of Cambridge history.  Thank you!

Happy Birthday James Baldwin!

Celebrated American author James Baldwin would have turned 96 yesterday. In honor of his birthday, we’re posting these amazing photographs of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin (CRLS) Black Student Union meeting Baldwin at Northeaster University’s African American Center in 1986. Baldwin, pictured in the center, died the following year.

These photographs are from the Caroline Hunter Papers. Hunter, a life long activist and retired CRLS math teacher and assistant principal, donated her papers to the Cambridge Public Library in 2019. We are working diligently to make them available to the public.

Juneteenth Celebration, Wednesday June 19: Robert Johnson’s Cambridge Connection

Robert Johnson’s signature from the Johnson Family Bible, a new Cambridge Room acquisition.

Join us to commemorate Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the former Confederate States of America, by exploring the fascinating life of Robert Johnson, fugitive slave and abolitionist, and his connection to Cambridge.

We will offer two programs on the same evening:  a genealogy workshop and a reception and talk.

Workshop:  The Robert Johnson Family Tree:  Researching an African American Abolitionist Family
We will explore the paths our genealogical research took, plot out the Robert Johnson Family tree and his connection to Cambridge, and offer tips for researching African American genealogy.

Date & Time:
6:00pm – 6:45pm, Wednesday, June 19, 2019
Main Library, Cambridge Room

Talk and Reception:  The Robert Johnson Family Bible
Come see an important new Cambridge Room acquisition and learn about Robert Johnson, fugitive slave and abolitionist, and his family’s connection to Cambridge.  This is the first in a series of programs featuring gems from the Library’s Archives and Special Collections.

Date & Time:
7:00pm – 8:00pm, Wednesday, June 19, 2019
Main Library, Cambridge Room

Ragu Salvatore: A Recipe from Simeone’s Italian American Restaurant

This is a recipe from Anthony Simeone’s memoir, Recipes from Papa:  Food, Family & Memories of Growing Up Italian American.  His father, Salvatore, founded Simeone’s Italian American Restaurant, which was on Brookline Street in Cambridge for 30 years from 1946 to 1976.  The excerpt of the book is from Simeone’s Italian American Restaurant Memorabilia Collection.

Spots Still Available for Beginner’s Genealogy Workshop Series

Beginner’s Genealogy Workshop Series
Join us for a 4-week, beginner’s genealogy workshop. For two-hours each week, we will demystify the overwhelming process of sorting through online records as well as give tips for how best to make use of research visits to local repositories. We will help you find ancestors, organize your research, and start a family tree. Come with a new question every week and leave with an answer and something tangible to bring home, such as a copy of a birth certificate. By taking this class, you will be automatically eligible to enroll in a FREE, two-part course on digital storytelling taught by CCTV. Learn how to make a digital film about your family’s history based on your genealogical research. Create a treasured digital keepsake to pass on to family members. Registration is mandatory.
Dates & Times:
2:00pm – 4:00pm, Wednesday, March 14, 2018
2:00pm – 4:00pm, Wednesday, March 21, 2018
2:00pm – 4:00pm, Wednesday, March 28, 2018
2:00pm – 4:00pm, Wednesday, April 4, 2018
Main Library, Community Room