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Walden Woods Was a Black Space Before It Was a Green Space

Each year, half a million of us visit the Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord, Massachusetts.  We come to this corner of America’s birthplace seeking Nature, a presence so elusive we’ve taken to capitalizing its name.  Leaving our car on the other side of the busy highway that skirts the famous kettle hole, we swim or canoe lazily in and around Walden’s cool waters, saunter the shady trails of Walden Woods, and pay homage to Nature’s high priest, the man who taught us by example and through his writings the importance of appreciating the natural world.  Henry David Thoreau spent two years of his life communing with himself and Nature in a small cabin he built on Walden’s shores.  Many of us bring dog-eared copies of Walden to the pond and read our favorite passages to the whispering trees.  (“We need the tonic of wildness…” or “Only the day dawns to which we are awake.…”)  At the close of our all too brief idyll, we add a stone to the cairn started long ago by Bronson Alcott and other locals as a memorial to the naturalist-philosopher who reminds us that modernity is as much a curse as it is a measure of human progress.

As Joy Ackerman and others have pointed out, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts works hard to maintain Walden Pond and its environs as a green space.  Built structures and signage are kept to a minimum, as are the number of humans allowed here.  After the day’s first one thousand visitors have been admitted, officials close the parking lot in an attempt to maintain an already fragile ecosystem.  The only human trace featured prominently in the landscape is Thoreau’s.  The state maintains a life-size replica of his sparsely furnished cabin next to the parking lot so that visitors can appreciate his determination to live a “primitive and frontier life.”  Posted maps direct tourists to the original “site of Thoreau’s hut” and the network of paths takes them there.  Near the thick granite posts marking the site, there is a sign quoting Thoreau’s assertion in Walden that he came to the woods to live “deliberately.”  Clearly the Commonwealth of Massachusetts takes very seriously the terms of the gift that resulted in the creation of the reservation.  In 1922, when private citizens granted eighty acres of Walden Woods to the state, they did so with the stipulation that it “preserve the Walden of Emerson and Thoreau.”  Visitors are left to conclude that Thoreau lived an isolated existence in Walden Woods and that he moved there because it was a pristine, natural environment, wholly separate from the exigencies of the nearby village where he lived for most of his life.

And yet Thoreau insists that we experience the Walden landscape as a rich repository of a long and complicated human history that began well before his arrival in 1845.  He devotes the better part of a chapter in Walden to a community of former Concord slaves who lived not far from his cabin in the years following the American Revolution.  He begins with Cato Ingraham, said by some to be a “Guinea Negro,” or native of Africa.  Ingraham squatted on a narrow sliver of land along the Walden road with the permission of his former owner, “Duncan Ingraham, Esquire, gentleman of Concord village.”  Finally free, Cato Ingraham made plans for a brighter future, planting walnut trees near his tiny house.  (Walnut trees produce protein-packed nuts after five years and one of the finest woods in the world after thirty.)  But Walden’s “sterile soil” proved less conducive to other plants and Ingraham died of malnutrition before he could harvest any nuts, much less timber.

There was also “a colored woman” Thoreau calls Zilpha.  (Zilpah White the archives tell us.)  Zilpah lived alone, eking out a living by spinning flax into linen fiber for local residents.  She and the other former slaves also used what was freely available in Walden Woods to make and peddle whatever they could.  Thoreau describes their efforts as a “basket, stable-broom, mat-making, corn-parching, linen-spinning, and pottery business.”  But like Cato Ingraham, Zilpah risked an untimely death.  She refused to work as a live-in domestic, a form of de facto slavery that many former slave women were forced to accept in exchange for food and protection.  Convinced Zilpah must be a witch, locals harassed her.  Thoreau describes how her house was deliberately set on fire.  “[H]er cat and dog and hens were all burned up together.”

Thoreau also describes Brister and Fenda Freeman.  Brister Freeman worked as “a handy Negro” or day laborer.  Like Cato Ingraham, he formerly belonged to one of Concord’s squires.  An extremely successful doctor and land speculator, John Cuming was able to bequeath a considerable amount of money to Harvard for a medical school.  In those days, men of such wealth were rewarded for their economic positions with political power.  John Cuming was town meeting moderator, a county judge, and an organizer of the Concord Committee of Safety during the Revolution.  He, Duncan Ingraham, and other slave holders had the time to build their community and a new nation because slave men and women tilled their fields and cared for their families. 

None of Walden’s former slave families were able to stake a claim to Concord’s future.  By 1822, they and their descendants had either died or left town.  Only Thoreau recorded and appreciated the odds they struggled to overcome.  He goes so far as to compare Brister Freeman to Scipio Africanus, the great Roman general who defeated Hannibal and his eighty war elephants at Zama.  For Thoreau, the former slaves’ persistence in the face of isolation and harassment was heroic, and he moved to Walden Woods in part because he wanted to live as independently as they had.

Although it doesn’t yet bill itself as such, Walden Pond State Reservation is an important African-American heritage site.  It speaks to the segregation imposed in slavery’s wake and the survival of African and African-American ways of living.  With the addition of signage marking the former slaves’ cellar holes and interpretive literature charting the rise and fall of what Thoreau rightly calls a “small village,” visitors could learn about New England slavery and its aftermath while experiencing a better approximation of the landscape Thoreau loved.  History tells us Walden Woods was a black space long before it was reinvented as a green space.

The introduction to Black Walden is available online at www.BlackWalden.com.