Friday, September 25, 2020

A matter of historical record: Slavery in 18th century Windham

By Walter Lunt

Her name was Phyliss. She had no last name. She lived a significant portion of her life in Windham, District of Maine, Massachusetts. Her vocation was described as that of “servant” for the family of Windham’s second settled minister: Parson Peter Thatcher Smith. In reality, servant was the polite term for slave. Phyllis, or Phillis, was a slave. She arrived in Windham as part of the dowry of Elizabeth Hunt Wendell of Boston, who wedded the parson in 1764. She was a “wedding present” from Madam Wendell, as she was known, the mother of the bride.

A fire screen image of
the slave girl Phyliss
(circa 1740s). The life-sized
figure graced the colonial 
kitchen of the Parson Smith 
House for many years and
was possibly painted by 
Madam Wendell, mother-in-law
of Parson Peter Smith.
Madam Wendell, the slave-holder, was an artist. She hailed from a prominent Boston family and was an ancestor of the writer Oliver Wendell Holmes. Her third marriage was to Rev. Thomas Smith, the father of Windham’s Parson Smith. Incredibly, she was first Parson Smith’s mother-the-law, and later his stepmother (Phyllis, Bygone Servant – Portland Evening Express, May 23, 1969).

Phyllis tended to the needs of Parson Smith, his wife Elizabeth and their 11 children. It is believed she was well treated, and may have occupied a small, partially finished room on the second floor of what it now known as the Parson Smith House on River Road.

Peter Lenz, historian and author of Slavery in Colonial Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, wrote in an article for the Portland Press Herald in 1997, “In all likelihood, she (Phyllis) was well and kindly treated, but had she left she undoubtedly would have had a runaway slave ad taken out against her for recapture.”

Lenz goes on to label a myth that “African American bondswomen, children and men had it good, in a happy, contented extended family situation.”

Although photography did not exist in the time of Phyllis, posterity is fortunate to have her likeness recorded on an American “dummy board,” so-called because the painted life-sized figure remains mute. Used in the Parson Smith House as a fire screen (in front of a roaring fireplace to disperse heat and sparks), the portrait features a light-skinned “maid” carrying a tray of steaming cups of chocolate. The oil painting on wood was displayed to the public in the 1950s when the Parson Smith House was operated as a local house museum by the “Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). It is now in storage at H.N.E. in Boston and the subject of controversy among local historians who feel it should have stayed in Windham.

Elaine Dickinson, the current owner of the Parson Smith House, who resides there with her daughter Holly, says the Phyllis fire screen was loaned to H.N.E. by the Smith/Anderson family decades ago and rightfully belongs with the house.

“We still call it Phyllis’ room,” said Elaine, referring to the upstairs area where architectural evidence suggests where the young girl might have stayed and worked, probably weaving and sewing, “we talk about her constantly.”

Sadly, not much beyond her very existence is known about Phyllis. Oral tradition, according to former town historian Betty Barto, indicates that she was never freed, and probably never received a respectable burial.

Across River Road from the Parson Smith House, on the consecrated grounds of Smith-Anderson Cemetery, off to one side, are tiny, jagged rock markers, usually reserved for paupers…or perhaps, “servants.”  <

Next time, another well-known early settler of Windham who allowed his slave to “buy” freedom by keeping half his military wages.


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