PLYMOUTH, Mass. – In a rural wooded area, near the Plymouth and Kingston town lines, there’s a nondescript memorial at a spot that is arguably as important as any in American history.
“Parting Ways,” the burial ground for four African Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War at a time when the vast majority of Black Americans were slaves.
It is a destination that most tourists don’t visit and that history books don’t detail. It doesn’t boast a ship, a rock or a plantation. Located off Plympton Road, all it boasts is a small, marked-off square topped by a marker as a memorial to one of America’s earliest free Black settlements.
Last summer, Marques Houtman, a New Bedford teacher, and Erik Andrade, a New Bedford poet, took a group of school children to the area with the small graves and wooded fence where activist Eddie Johnson, 70, has long campaigned to build a museum and bring all the artifacts, documents and stories related to them under one roof.
“I’ve been fighting for this project for 40 years, and it has gone nowhere,” said Johnson, president of the Parting Ways Museum Corp. of African American & Cape Verdean American Ethnohistory Inc.
A resident of New Bedford, Johnson cites politics and racism as being the stumbling blocks to the project. It is time, he said, and “the mantle needs to be passed on to the younger generation.”
For Houtman and Andrade, teaching people about Parting Ways doesn’t need to wait for a museum. They’re hoping that community awareness about the unique story can be built online through history, literature and commercial sales. And they look at the nonprofit site as a place where tours and farming could take place.
“I was blown away by the story,” Andrade said. “I was very surprised I didn’t know about the project or the African American people involved. I would say a majority of the people in this region don’t know.”
It’s a story about hard work, heroism and reward, said Houtman, a former pro basketball player with the Cape Verdean National Team, who said he is also amazed, being a history buff, that he did not know about the unique tale of the four Black soldiers.
The young Black veterans of the American Revolution – Cato Howe, Plato Turner, Prince Goodwin and Quamony Quash – were granted land by the town of Plymouth near the Kingston border. They built homes and left behind a legacy few know about today although the New Guinea Settlement they founded survived into the early 20th century.
Fascinated with the history of the Black men who were rewarded with the precious gift of land for their service, Andrade and Houtman are on a mission to tell people, especially children, their unique story.
“We need to preserve the narrative and take ownership of this story and tell it to future generations,” Andrade said. “Parting Ways wasn’t in any history book I read. It’s important for folks of African American descent to know what we contributed to in building this nation, beyond the obvious free labor we provided as slaves.”
Another veteran of the Parting Ways project, Wayne Musa Barboza, 69, said he believes there has been deliberate disinterest on part of town and state officials whom the advocates have approached for help over the years.
“How else is it that there have been so many people over so many years that this project hasn’t seen any funding, not one dollar?” he said.
Johnson said he has approached every governor from Michael Dukakis to Charlie Baker to secure support for the project. The only politicians who agreed to support Parting Ways are Congressmen William Keating and the now-retired Barney Frank, whose letters of support Johnson shared with The Standard-Times.
That said, Johnson is proud that organizations from around the country have pledged support and are spreading the word as far away as Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin.
Cheryl Dooley from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, for instance, said via email that she and her family were fascinated to learn about Parting Ways when they visited Plymouth in 2010. She and her daughters, all members of the Samuel Phoenix Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, added a write-up about the four Plymouth heroes in their Spring 2016 newsletter.
Inspired by the story, her daughter Kate made a word search puzzle using names of African American veterans, including the Plymouth heroes, and passed it around at school.
“A real museum in Plymouth on Parting Ways … would make an unbelievable historical contribution not just to Plymouth but to our country,” Dooley said in an email. “Maybe it could even have traveling displays as some other museums and libraries do to make an ever changing opportunity for education to area residents and tourists. It would offer a marvelous resource to someone like myself from another part of the country looking for factual information on this subject and could become a landmark for Black History.”
Andrade and Houtman are convinced that educating the new generation is the way to go.
It is an important story especially for children of color to learn about, to have heroes they can look up to, and to feel proud in their history, they said, as opposed to the largely White and what they see as whitewashed perspective offered in history books that tend to ignore the contributions of African Americans or see them as slaves, and often sub-human.
Slaves and free Blacks fought for the Continentals and for the British during the Revolutionary War but historians note that not a single speaker acknowledged the contributions of African Americans at the 1876 Centennial Celebration of the Revolution in Philadelphia.
Which is all the more reason to preserve and promote the story of these four local Black heroes, said Johnson, who, for decades, has appealed to, argued with and even sued leaders and organizations around the Commonwealth to win recognition for the museum.
Under the leadership of Parting Ways leaders like Marjorie Anderson, Everett Hoagland, Barboza and Johnson, the town of Plymouth in 2004 rededicated 29.6 acres of the original 106 acres given the four veterans. The rest of it had Route 80 and the Boston Archdiocese’s Sacred Heart School built over it. Parting Ways officials, through their research, maintain the land was taken illegally, without eminent domain and no records of that land ownership exist today. Archdiocesan officials did not respond to a query about the deed.
That’s prime real estate and except for two archaeological digs in the ’70s, no one really knows what treasures it holds because it has never been surveyed, Johnson said.
In 1979, the U.S. Department of Interiors erected the marker that declares it a national archaeological district and Revolutionary War veterans’ cemetery.
Last June, the Bethel Plymouth African Methodist Church and the Parting Ways Museum organization commemorated Juneteenth there in honor of the achievements of African Americans and the four young heroes buried there.
“I think it establishes a sense of value,” said Houtman, appreciative of “a hidden history” that he believes younger generations can better champion.
Having traveled around the world, including Africa, Houtman said the story really hits home for a man of African descent who has often “been made to feel like an outsider in the country of my birth.”
Just the concept of Black slaves fighting in the War of Independence is a shocker; to have a site so close by where four heroes are buried, on the land that they were given, is a reality that no one can steal. So it’s time for the story to gain legs, he said.
“It’s bigger than all of us and this is the generation that will be more sympathetic and help,” Houtman said.
Houtman and Andrade said it is time to empower children on South Coast to be ambassadors for the Parting Ways tale.
“Public schools should take a leadership role in exploring this story,” Andrade said. “We can empower young people by teaching them how [African Americans] have a stake in this land.”
It’s a great lesson for today’s youth, especially youth of color, said Houtman, to learn that if you want or need something you have to work for it; that everyone has a struggle and that these four men who earned the rich gift of land ownership at a young age did it at a time when few Blacks owned anything.
“It’s a story of money and power and control. I’m just excited to be a part of it,” he said.
Houtman has already kicked off a media campaign involving fliers, education material for schools, and a proposal for a video documentary titled The First Four: Story of the Parting Ways Project.
Whereas the older generation fought to build a museum on the land they reclaimed, the younger generation sees many more possibilities: an aquaponic farming system on the virgin plot, a book, historic tours, an entrance and parking lot, and an e-commerce opportunity to sell Parting Ways-related apparel, literature, food stuff, health products and events.
“I think it’s just a matter of time,” Houtman said.
“I see it as a great starting point,” Johnson said of their efforts. “They have the skills, the passion, the determination and the technology and they work well as a team with us.
“I believe in them and I know they will carry this on.”