Forgotten to history

Plans stall on museum to honor early African-American settlers

Frank Andrews (left) and his brother, Joey Andrews, Parting Ways committee members, look over markers at the graves of the Parting Ways settlers. Frank Andrews (left) and his brother, Joey Andrews, Parting Ways committee members, look over markers at the graves of the Parting Ways settlers. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Constance Lindner
Globe Correspondent / February 17, 2011

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Four African-American veterans served in the Revolutionary War, built and lived in their own homes, and left behind vestiges of daily life that fused American and African cultural traditions.

It all happened at a fork-in-the-road settlement on the western outskirts of Plymouth, providing a unique example of African-Americans who were “able to organize their world on their own terms from the late 18th century onward,’’ said archeologist James Deetz.

The community, known as the Parting Ways New Guinea Settlement, was abandoned in the early 20th century, then rediscovered in the mid-1970s as part of the nation’s Bicentennial.

Since then, there has been an on-again, off-again effort to build a museum on the site, but the project has been stalled by a lack of funding. Now, as another Black History Month passes, what could be a treasure of African-American history is a snow-covered swath of land where its significance is marked only by a few scattered signs.

“I don’t think anyone would deny the significance of this site, but somehow, the timing has never been right, and even more so now, given the financial climate,’’ said Donna Curtin, executive director of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society.

The original settlement consisted of 106 acres granted by the town of Plymouth to Cato Howe, Prince Goodwin, Plato Turner, and Quamony Quash, in return for their military service during the American Revolution.

Howe is believed to have been a freeman when he enlisted, and may have fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Quash and Turner were freed slaves, and Goodwin partially resided at the settlement as a freed slave who continued serving the household of William Thomas for years, according to Norman Barber, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Their community came to include three generations of descendants, who lived there until 1908, when the last house on the property burned down. The last resident was named James Burr, who is believed to have returned to the property in 1861 to be closer to the burial site of his grandfather, Plato Turner.

Parting Ways was largely ignored until 1974, when Plymouth Bicentennial Commission member Marjorie Anderson brought attention to the site not only to preserve a significant moment in the nation’s history, but to prevent the acreage from being turned into a town cemetery.

The Plymouth Bicentennial Advisory Committee on Black History and Culture emerged as a subcommittee, and the site soon attracted donations, academic support, and interest from celebrities such as “Roots’’ author Alex Haley, boxer Marvin Hagler, and activist-comedian Dick Gregory.

In 1975 and 1976, excavations were led by Deetz, a Brown University archeologist and Plimoth Plantation’s assistant director.

Among the intriguing findings was the juxtaposition of cultures. The cellar was designed according to the African custom of 12-foot-square modules, Deetz said. The above-ground areas of the home, meanwhile, displayed quintessential New England features, including a 16-foot-square dimension.

Tamarind jars, which came at that time from Africa and the West Indies, were also found at the site.

Deetz’s findings of African traditions were confirmed by John Vlach, professor of American studies and anthropology at George Washington University, and Richard B. Nunoo, director of the Museums and Monuments Program for the government of Ghana.

The discoveries also evoked a sense among the excavators that they were finding something momentous.

“In order to understand this,’’ said Frank Andrews, who as a teenager worked on both of Deetz’s digs, “you have to realize that we were uncovering things that belonged to men who fought in the war that freed this country, even though some of them had been — were — slaves, who went on to live free lives in their own homes on their own land while slavery continued for about 70 more years,’’ followed by decades of Jim Crow laws.

Other excavations followed, but the first ones were significant enough to warrant Deetz’s recommendation that the site be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which occurred in 1979.

Deetz also recommended that a museum be built on the site to continue gathering research and to educate the public.

In 1977, the town of Plymouth sold the site for $1 to the bicentennial subcommittee, which had changed its name to Parting Ways: The Museum of Afro-American History Inc. The sale included the stipulation that a museum be built within 10 years, but that deadline passed.

The issue arose again in 2004, when Town Meeting again supported the establishment of a museum, to be called the African American and Cape Verdean Museum of History. It also gave organizers 10 years to come up with the funding and to build the museum.

At the moment, however, the project is at a standstill.

Eddie Johnson, the head of the nonprofit organization that is pushing for the museum, last November filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. In his complaint, submitted in the form of an e-mail, Johnson said that Route 80, which runs through the Parting Ways property, and a Catholic school in Kingston were illegally built on the landmark site “without any public records or public participation or public hearing of these official land transactions.’’

According to the town planner’s office in Kingston, the school received the land from a private donor and began building in the 1940s, long before the Parting Ways site gained attention.

Johnson also requested that Plymouth’s town clerk, Larry Pizer, provide documentation of the “taking’’ of the landmark site by eminent domain, as well as comparable documentation from the office of Secretary of State William Galvin.

The discrimination commission’s media liaison, Barbara Green, said that “we take every complaint that we receive seriously . . . and our piece of it is to examine the evidence and see if discrimination occurred.’’

In an interview, Johnson also expressed concern that artifacts from the excavations are held in several locations, and aren’t being used in a systematic way to educate the public on the significance of Parting Ways.

The town of Plymouth keeps its Parting Ways records at the 1794 Court House Museum, which isn’t open year-round. Lee Regan, who is responsible for the reference and history collection at the museum, puts out a Parting Ways display several times a year with photographs, articles, artifacts such as Revolutionary War buttons and a tamarind jar, as well as other holdings.

Additional information about Parting Ways veterans and their families was discovered more than a decade ago in genealogical records stored in the basement of Town Hall. They were moved to the Plymouth Public Library by Regan and library director Dinah Smith O’Brien.

The records, now kept in four vertical files in a secured room and transferred to microfilm for public use, have extensive information dating back to early Plymouth, including slave owners and slaves.

“The horse thieves, the saints, are all here,’’ O’Brien said of the Plymouth residents in the records, including Mayflower descendants who moved to other towns.

Parting Ways isn’t the only example of black history in Plymouth.

Awareness and interest in African and African-American contributions to the United States has increased, said Barber of UMass Dartmouth, who added that tours focusing on aspects of black history are gaining in popularity.

For example, an 18th-century shed behind the Russell Library building with similar dimensions to those found at Parting Ways (property owner Colonel Watson was a slave owner) was part of a recent tour researched by Karin Goldstein of Plimoth Plantation and Curtin of the antiquarian society.

“When people think of Plymouth, they think of Pilgrims and the Mayflower, Pilgrims at a Thanksgiving feast with Native Americans, but there is a richer history and we want to start thinking outside the Pilgrim hat,’’ said Curtin.

Johnson, for his part, said he hopes to gain support for the museum through organizations such as the Sons of the American Revolution as he tries to see the museum become a reality. And though the logistics are far from resolved, the goal has wide support.

“Everyone wants to see this museum happen,’’ said Pizer.