Thursday, February 11, 2021

Thomas Dalton, Boston Abolitionist (1794—1883)

Gibson House Museum( 1992.401.82) 
The women of the Gibson Family—Catherine Hammond Gibson, Rosamond Warren Gibson, and Mary Ethel Gibson Allen—kept albums filled with photographs of relatives and friends. These images were typically studio portraits, traded as part of the custom of leaving calling cards when paying someone a social visit. At the Museum, we find them to be a helpful "who's who" of Boston, and especially the Back Bay, in the nineteenth century.

In two different albums, Catherine included a photograph of Thomas Dalton. Dalton was a free African-American man born on the North Shore in Gloucester in 1794 who became a well-known activist and abolitionist in Boston's Black community. At the age of twenty-three, Dalton moved to Boston, where he first worked as a bootblack. He eventually opened his own used clothing store on Brattle Street and went on to become a prosperous merchant. His store, located near today's Government Center, was at the foot of the west slope of Beacon Hill, the center of Boston's Black community.

In 1826, Dalton co-founded the Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA), said to be the most progressive Black civil rights organization in the early nineteenth century. The MGCA focused on abolishing slavery in the United States, and also getting rid of segregation and discriminatory laws in Massachusetts. The leaders of the organization, of which Dalton was president, were the leading lights of Boston's Black community. In 1833, Dalton led the MGCA to join the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and the two organizations worked together throughout New England.

Dalton and his second wife, Lucy Lew Dalton, were particularly interested in eliminating segregation in schools, and that cause was a major focus for their entire lives. Dalton helped organize the Abiel Smith School, a public school for Black children.

Why is Thomas Dalton's photograph mixed in with those of Gibson relatives and neighbors? We aren't sure. Carte-de-visites, or photographs published on cards, were very popular during the second half of the nineteenth century. In addition to trading images with friends and family, it was very common to collect images of well-known figures. Celebrity carte-de-visites were sold at stationery shops, much like souvenir postcards are sold today.

Although Boston had a long history of slaveholding during the colonial period, it became a hotbed of abolitionist activity in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Reformers like William Lloyd Garrison and activists like Frederick Douglass were able to raise money for abolition and protest against discriminatory laws like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which affected free black communities in the North. A strong anti-abolition faction existed within wealthy white Boston society, however, especially among merchants who profited from the cotton industry and had no interest in disrupting the economic benefits accrued from the system of slavery. We don't know whether the Gibsons were supporters of abolition or not, or how they might have responded to the outbreak of the Civil War, which happened the year after Catherine Hammond Gibson and her son Charles moved into the house at 137 Beacon Street.

- Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator

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