In honor of Juneteenth, here are some snippets of African-American history with Lowell connections:
Harry “Bucky” Lew, born in Lowell in 1884, was the first African-American to play professional basketball.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached in Lowell on April 12, 1953, at the First United Baptist Church on Church Street. At the time, King was a doctoral student at Boston University.
Billie Holiday’s final public performance took place in Lowell on May 11, 1959, at the Flamingo on Merrimack Street. On May 31, Holiday collapsed in her New York City apartment. She remained in the hospital until she died on July 17, 1959, at age 44.
Walker Lewis Jr was Lowell barber who served in the US Navy during the Civil War. His great uncle, Quock Walker, was a slave living in Barre, Massachusetts, who challenged his enslaved status in court. His case reached the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1780, right after the state had adopted its Constitution. The SJC held that the words of the Massachusetts Constitution that “all men are born free and equal” meant what they said, so the Court abolished slavery in Massachusetts.
Nathaniel Booth was a Black man working as a barber in Lowell. He was also an escaped slave. When “slave catchers” sought Booth in Lowell in 1851 he fled to Canada. In his absence, Linus Child, the manager of the Boott Cotton Mill negotiated the price of Booth’s freedom, raised the money from the community, and notified Booth that it was safe to return to Lowell. Booth return to and remained in Lowell until his death in 1901.
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church on Merrimack Street was one of several places in Lowell that served as stops on the Underground Railroad. (The church’s first minister, Rev. Theodore Edson, was the president of the Lowell Anti-Slavery Society).
Theresa Garland Lew was the Salutatorian of the Lowell High class of 1912 and then graduated from the Lowell Normal School (which became Lowell State Teachers College and then University of Massachusetts Lowell), Lew was the first Black teacher hired by the Lowell Public Schools, teaching at the Bartlett School for 21 years.
In 1839, 53 kidnapped Africans overpowered and killed the crew of the Spanish ship Amistad which was transporting them to slavery in the Americas. The ship landed on Long Island and the Africans were tried for the murder of the crew. In finding the men not guilty, the U.S. Supreme Court held that they had been taken illegally and acted in self-defense. The Amistad defendants went on a speaking tour to raise money to pay for their passage back to Africa. One of the places they spoke at was St. Paul’s Methodist Church at 35 Warren Street in Lowell which is now the home of UTEC.
Barzillai Lew was a free Black man who served in the Comtinental Army throughout the American Revolution. After the war he settled in the section of Dracut that later became the Pawtucketville neighborhood of Lowell.
In 1946, a group of Black residents of Lowell including Harold Wingood, Samuel Crayton Sr., James Ward, Rev. Julius Mitchell, and Rev. Robert Smith formed the Merrimack Valley Branch of the NAACP. The charter included Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, and adjacent towns. Crayton served as the chapter’s first president.
Lowell High School (founded in 1831) was the first integrated and co-educational public high school in America.