In America's earliest days, African men, women and children were sold into slavery in all parts of the country, including here in Andover. The Phillips, one of the town's most prominent families, were among those who owned slaves.
Cato was born in 1768 in the household of Reverend Samuel Phillips of South Church. After the Reverend's death in 1771, Cato passed to the Reverend's son, also Samuel, but known as Esquire. Esquire Phillips lived in North Parish and already owned several slaves. He not only raised Cato among his own children - making him a veritable member of the family - but also educated him. This for-the-time unconventional kindness is perhaps the reason for Cato's choice to remain in the household even after Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1780.
Cato continued to serve the Phillips family until he came of age in 1789. Cato may have even joined the Esquire's son and the founder of Phillips Academy, Judge Samuel Phillips, in South Parish for several years during that period. But finally, at age 21, he left the Phillips families, boasting his new freedom by adopting the last name "Freeman."
His departure, however, was not a bitter one. On May 24, 1789, he wrote a letter (which can be seen at the North Andover Historical Society) for the heads of the Phillips families, informing them of his self-emancipation. With a gracious tone, he also thanked them, "for your care over me and your kindness to me, also for your timely checks, your reproofs, necessary correction, wise counsel." Still, Cato seemed to hope for equality in his closing statement: "I being made meet, may be admitted with you into that haven of rest where there is no distinction."
Not long after, Cato married Lydia Bristow in North Parish. Together, they had eleven 11. Generally, Cato was, as historian Claude M. Fuess says of African-Americans in 19th century Andover, "well-treated." To this end, he was able to achieve much as a free man. He was the first African-American permitted to let cows graze on the common in North Parish in 1802. Moreover, he purchased two different houses during his 85 years, one in 1820 from Henry Osgood and another from Simon Flanders in 1848, shortly before his death in 1853. Cato was also a member of the North Parish Church, where he began playing the bass viol in 1798.
But this freedom did not bring Cato equality in the eyes of all his white neighbors. When he accidentally brought the choir loft crashing down with his fiddling at North Church, some wished him expelled from the congregation. A silly verse written about the incident indicates that desire, and reveals the prejudiced nature of religion and society at this time by proscribing "good Negros" with their own, separate afterlife.
Indeed, the congregation did not want to have many blacks in its company. When members voted to provide seats for them in the meetinghouse, it was "passed in the negative."
While Cato Freeman was denied equality in life, he gained it in death. His obituary, featuring glowing testimonies to his "cultivated and well-informed mind," seemed devoid of prejudice. It even remarked "that color is no barrier to confidence and kindness." But most telling of all, he was buried alongside white townspeople near the North Andover common, finally finding that long-desired place free of discrimination.
"Andover Stories" is a weekly column about interesting local people and events, told in anticipation of the Andover Historical Society's 100 anniversary in 2011.