WENHAM — Students at The Academy at Penguin Hall are learning about slavery in New England through the eyes of a long forgotten Andover woman and former slave, and have taken it upon themselves to erect a headstone in her memory.
The project began when their teacher, Linda Meditz, was hired this summer by the all-girls private school, which is on Essex Street. Meditz had examined the diary of a 1700s minister named Stephen Williams for her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Connecticut, and became fascinated by the stories of slaves mentioned throughout the diary.
In particular, she was intrigued by the story of an enslaved woman named Phillis who ultimately was buried without a marker in Longmeadow. When Meditz came to Penguin Hall, she created “Out of the Shadows,” an elective class with a goal to identify any former slave women who had lived in the area and learn more about them.
“The ultimate dream was to identify a woman where we could establish her place of burial and put up a headstone for her,” Meditz said. According to Meditz, few graves of slaves were marked.
This fall one of her students, Caroline Buck, 18, of Andover, asked her father if he knew of anyone who might know the name of any slave the class could research. He connected the class to Elaine Clements, the executive director of the Andover Historical Society, and Charlotte Lyons, the historian for South Church on Central Street in Andover, who both suggested students research Lucy Foster.
Lucy Foster was born into slavery in Boston in 1767, and was given to Hannah Foster of Andover – at the age of 4 – as a wedding gift. At 16, Lucy was freed when slavery was abolished in Massachusetts. When Hannah Foster died years later in the 1800s, she left Lucy Foster an acre of land, a cow, and a sum of money.
Lucy Foster was able to build her own home, and based on a large selection of pottery remains that archaeologists discovered on Lucy’s former property in 1943, it is believed she may have made a living by operating a tavern on her land and feeding passerby. Lucy died in 1845, likely from asthma.
“It was actually very extraordinary she was able to get that land, given a cow, and later got a cottage and opened a tavern sort of thing where she gave food and drink to people that came by,” said Autumn Armano, 17, of Ipswich. “She was never married, which I thought was cool. She was an independent woman who created a life she actually found enjoyable.”
“There are so many people that actually get lost in history, who play important roles,” said Mikayla Johnson, 16, of Lynnfield. “She had a very unusual circumstance and weird relationship with Hannah Foster, and the fact that this all happened, but she was forgotten about, is kind of amazing.”
Lucy Foster was a member of South Church for about 50 years, but does not have a headstone and the exact location of her remains is unknown.
Lyons, the church historian, said she believes Lucy may have been buried in the 6-acre cemetery of South Church, where the Foster, Chandler, and Ballard family headstones and monuments are found.
Lucy Foster was tied to all three families, as Hannah Foster married Job Foster in the early 1770s and, after he died, she married Philemon Chandler in 1789. A man named Joshua Ballard also helped Lucy Foster raise funds to build her cottage on the acre of land Hannah left her.
“My instinct is, given the amount of things she had to do with these three families, it would be very likely this area is where she is at,” Lyons said.
“What they are learning and how they are learning about early Americana and slavery through the lens of an independent woman is just amazing,” she added. “How these kids are learning...it’s a really different way to learn a topic and invest themselves in it.”
The 10 students in the class have decided to fundraise to put a headstone in memory of Lucy in the area of the Foster, Chandler, and Ballard family headstones and monuments, and have tentatively begun planning what words and images it will depict. The teens will also hold a ceremony this spring, in collaboration with South Church, to dedicate the stone.
“It’s pretty cool that a bunch of girls from an all-girls school found (her),” said Lila Caplan, 16, of Swampscott. “We took it more personally when we found (this information)... We’re looking at it as a person, and who she was.”
Multiple students in the class have taken it upon themselves to reflect and learn more about Lucy Foster on their own. Sophie Chabot, 17, of North Reading, was inspired to write a poem. Elise Welch, 16, of Manchester, has been sketching and coloring images of the pottery collected at Lucy’s home, and attempted to recreate one of Lucy’s teacups at a pottery studio. Others, like Anna Barrows, 15, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, have taken on additional research.
“One thing that has touched me is the sense of affection for Lucy among the girls,” Meditz said. “I think she feels familiar to them. Some of them have seem some hard knocks in life already. I think there’s a certain tone of compassion that has emerged in handling the material that is important in a topic like this, that has a deeply human element.”
“It really stuck with all of us,” Welch said. “It doesn’t feel like school. It feels like we’re a small community doing something for a larger community. Even though we’re just doing one headstone for Lucy Foster, it can also represent all the unmarked slaves. We’ve all just kind of had a deep connection with it.
“We only have a certain amount of time in this class, every other day,” Welch added. “We want to do more, take it home and show our appreciation for it.”
Kelsey Bode can be reached at 978-338-2660 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsey_Bode.