New Bedford-based Group Highlights Black History Site in Plymouth

Aug 26, 2016

Next month, the Smithsonian will open the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. It’s an idea that has been years in the making—advocates first suggested a museum in the early 1900s.

In New Bedford, a nonprofit has also been working for years to get recognition for a piece of African-American history. Theirs is the story of four former slaves who fought during the Revolutionary War, then settled in Plymouth. But the group has struggled to generate support to develop the site where the men are now buried. Kathryn Eident went to Plymouth find out why.

Tucked in the woods off Route 80 in Plymouth is a clearing with four graves protected by a simple white fence. The site is called Parting Ways, and it’s nearly invisible from the road. In fact, you could easily drive right by it.

The land was the homestead of four former slaves who fought in the Revolutionary War: Quamony Quash, Cato Howe, Prince Goodwin and Plato Turner. The town of Plymouth gave the men land in return for their service. Now, that land is their final resting place.

New Bedford resident Eddie Johnson directs the nonprofit, Parting Ways Museum Corporation of African American and Cape Verdean American Ethohistory, a group dedicated to preserving the site.  “The surprising thing is that people who live in Plymouth have very little knowledge of any of this,” he said.

If Johnson had things his way, the story of Parting Ways would be in every American history book. But it’s not.

New Bedford resident Eddie Johnson points out the foundation of what some archaeologists believe was the homestead of a Black Revolutionary War veteran in Plymouth, Mass.
Credit Kathryn Eident

  “It’s very emotional for me every time I come here,” he said. “Can you imagine what it took to build a home here? Just placing these rocks.”

By the early 1900s though, most of the families had either died out or moved away. The land became abandoned, their stories forgotten.

Johnson has spent years trying to revive their stories, and he has big ideas for what the site could become. But realizing his vision has not been easy. The 71-year-old says he has clashed with state and local officials over racial tensions and back-door politics. It’s hard to know, though, how much this conflict has affected his work promoting the site.

“We have been trying to get every governor since Michael Dukakis, including Deval Patrick,” he said. “I met with Deval Patrick personally, up to Charlie Baker. But none of those people will recognize this history yet.”

Johnson’s had other problems, too. He filed a complaint to the state’s civil rights commission alleging that the Town of Plymouth discriminated against him and his nonprofit. But the complaint was dismissed, and Johnson was later barred from contacting the commission because employees said he became hostile. Plymouth officials wouldn’t comment on the case, either—only to acknowledge that a complaint had been filed.

Pilgrim Hall Museum Executive Director Donna Curtain says it’s not discrimination that’s held things up —it’s money.

“There’s lots of competition for preservation and money for historical work and it’s a very challenging thing to put together,” she said.

Curtain has worked with Johnson for years. Her Plymouth-based museum holds some of the artifacts found at the site. She says groups often struggle to find support when trying to build museums or protect artifacts and land.

“I think the town has been generous in supporting the improvements and supporting the site to the extent that it can but, you know, towns aren’t museums,” she said. “In a community like Plymouth that is just so rich with many historical sites, it’s difficult to literally get something started from the ground level.”

The site has a lot going for it. The federal government protected it as an archeological dig site. It’s also listed on the National Register of Historic places.

New Bedford teacher and marketer, Marques Houtman, wants to see the site further protected and studied. He grew up with Johnson and calls him a mentor.  But the 35-year-old wants to take a different approach to promoting the Parting Ways story. He’s developing a curriculum he’s hoping the New Bedford schools will use. That way, Houtman says, the Parting Ways story will take on a life of its own, as Johnson has dreamed.

“I want to push this passion into these young kids and I want them to run it,” he said. “It’s not like, ‘we Black people did this.’ We all had a stake in it.”

Historian and author Lois Horton has studied sites like Parting Ways and says the group’s story is not unusual. She says that while getting Black histories into the mainstream has been tough—it’s getting easier.

“I think in the 1970s, the whole movement of doing history from the bottom up so to speak helped the whole other part of the rediscovery of black history,” she said. “All of that has been a trend that’s been continuing up until this fall, when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will open.”

And, she says, excitement about the new Smithsonian museum may ignite renewed interest in some of the smaller, but no less important, chapters of American history—like the story of Parting Ways.