Black History at 56 Brattle Street

February 27, 2024

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Cambridge Center for Adult Education’s years of service and historic Brattle Street premises are filled with stories of marginalized individuals searching for a place of belonging in the greater Boston region. At the intersection of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, CCAE honors the triumphs of Mary Walker, born an enslaved woman in North Carolina who tirelessly sought freedom for herself and her family in Massachusetts. Once designated as property herself, Walker achieved emancipation and bought the property at 56 Brattle Street in 1870. It was in this home where her family reunited and where further generations prospered for decades.

Mary Walker was born in August 1818 on the large Cameron family plantation in North Carolina, marking the fourth generation of her family to be enslaved. While Walker’s mother tended to the mistress of the house, Mary was first employed as the childhood playmate and later as servant to the plantation master’s six daughters. When the Camerons hired Northern governess Mary McLean Bryant to educate their children, Mary Walker was permitted to join the lessons. It was there she learned reading, writing, and the fundamentals of her education.

An unexpected pregnancy cut short both Walker's schooling and childhood. No record exists to indicate why her three children were given the family name “Walker”. In 1836, eighteen-year-old Mary and her family moved again when the Camerons relocated to Raleigh. Mary worked as a seamstress, making and mending fashionable garments for the Cameron sisters. Sewing soon turned to caretaking as tuberculosis swept through the city, the plantation manor, and the slave quarters. By 1844, Mildred Cameron, one of the last surviving Cameron daughters, had become incapacitated and traveled to Philadelphia for medical assistance. Mary, now her full-time caregiver, accompanied her North.

During the Camerons’ stays in the North, the 1847 Personal Liberty Law was passed. This law allowed for any enslaved person brought voluntarily into the state of Pennsylvania by a slave-owner to claim their freedom. After the Camerons threatened to send Walker further south to Alabama and away from her children, Walker faced the choice of exile or escape. In the summer of 1848, thirty-year-old Walker sought emancipation with the support of Pennsylvania law, local abolitionists, and the community of freed Black Philadelphians.

When the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 threatened this newfound freedom, her employer James Lesley purchased Walker a train ticket to Boston to seek further refuge. Although safe once again, Walker was heartbroken without her family. Over the next decade, the Lesleys and other abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe, helped Mary Walker in her struggle to reunite with her children. In 1859, Walker’s connection J. Peter Lesley wrote an impassioned letter to Mildred Cameron.

“I have seen how sick at heart she is about her mother,” Lesley wrote on behalf of Mary. “Her heart is slowly breaking. She thinks of nothing but her children… Her mother-heart yearns unspeakably after them.” Mildred Cameron never replied.

Mary and her Cambridge community desperately followed news of the war, from the assassination of President Lincoln to the surrender of Raleigh to Union General Sherman’s army in 1865. Three months after the end of the Civil War and after seventeen years of separation, Walker finally reunited with her two youngest children, now freed and grown.

Walker desired to provide financial stability and a permanent place to call home. During her years in New England, she worked for the family of Sarah Robbins Howe. Walker also made a living and a name for herself as a talented seamstress, a skill taught to her by her mother. In gratitude for her service, James Murray Howe and Estes Howe purchased Walker a home on 54 Brattle Street (now 56 Brattle) in June 1870. Decades before, this modest two-story wooden house on Brattle Street served as inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Village Blacksmith.”

Walker dictated in her will that the house could not be sold until her youngest grandchild had turned twenty-one, ensuring her family would never be forcibly moved or parted again. Mary Walker died later that year and is currently buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

One side of this small home held the small family of her daughter Agnes Priscilla Walker, named for Walker’s mother and grandmother, and new granddaughter Mary. On the other side of the Blacksmith House lived her grown son and last child, Bryant – named not after an ancestor but in honor of governess Mary McLean Bryant and all she had contributed to Mary Walker’s education.

56 Brattle Street housed the Walker family into the 20th century, allowing all of Mary Walker’s grandchildren to grow up together. In 1912, with the consent of all living family members, 56 Brattle was sold. The profits supported the future generations of Walkers in their own missions.

Sixty years later, Cambridge Center for Adult Education acquired the Blacksmith House property at 56 Brattle Street in 1972. Today, CCAE acts as steward for the historic site and holds educational classes on literature, finance, languages, arts, and sewing. Mary Walker’s legacy is forever commemorated at CCAE, with a classroom named in her honor on Brattle Street. Much of the yellow building is original and preserved from Walker’s lifetime. This includes the original structure of the Brattle House, hardwood flooring, and the twisting wooden staircase, where Mary Walker faced the steep climb one step at a time.