Before the African American enclave on Nonotuck Street, before David Ruggles joined the Northampton Association, Henry Anthony, a fugitive slave from Maryland, was the first known African American to live in Broughton’s Meadows, what would later be known as Florence. On September 22, 1841 Anthony bought an acre of land on Spring Street from Julius Phelps.
But we have an earlier possible indication of Anthony’s presence. In a letter from Lydia Maria Child, the well-known writer and abolitionist, she writes to her young friend Anna Loring on December 20, 1840
Thanksgiving evening we had a queer time. Our colored man brought his fiddle, and wife and baby, and a very old black man, who was once a slave; and all except the baby danced; and Mr. Child and our Irish Ann danced with them. My sides ached with laughing, to see the old black man dance; he looked so comical. He danced with his elbows and head full as much as he did with his feet.
We currently have no idea of who the “very old black man” might have been. Grave markers in the Park Street cemetery for Maria Anthony and her children reveal that they died in the Spring of 1843, two-and-half years after this Thanksgiving celebration. The age of the children at their death were approximately two and three years. The child in his mothers arms could well have John the younger of the two. Child referred to “our colored man” as though the person was working for her and her husband David. We know from Anthony’s obituary and from recollections of Arthur G. Hill that Anthony was a well known fiddle player. On February 8, 1841 she wrote to her friend UGRR agent Joseph Carpenter:
The only house on our farm is a sort of shanty with two rooms and a garret, where a smart colored man and his wife (fugitives from injustice) now reside. We expect to whitewash it, build a new woodshed, and live there the next year.
This would explain why Anthony was buying property of his own in the fall of 1841 as the Childs proceeded with their plan to move from their rented house near the Mill River Dam to the shanty on Florence Road.
Anthony was a gregarious and well-liked member of the growing Florence community. He was also lent his name to the call-to-meeting issued by ten former fugitive slaves to protest the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of September 1850. (see image in Underground Railroad section). Anthony’s early removal to Florence is confirmed by Arthur G. Hill in his recollection “Florence, the Sanctuary of the Colored Race”:
Henry Anthony should have been mentioned earlier in the chronicle as he earlier than some of these herein mentioned became a resident here, living on Spring St. in the house now occupied by Lawrence Coughlin. He supported himself by what he raised on his land and what he earned now and then with his fiddle playing for dance. He became quite blind in his last years. But as he did not know one note from another, playing entirely by ear and [main strength ?] attended as a musician after he became blind such dances as sought him.
Henry Anthony died on September 4, 1880. We print here his entire obituary as it reveals the esteem in which he was held in the community.
The death of Henry Anthony, the aged mulatto, last Saturday, removes not only the oldest inhabitant of the village, but one whose long residence in this locality, had rendered a familiar associate and neighbor to all the earlier and more permanent inhabitants of this section. It is said that he has been a resident of Florence upwards of half a century–one stating that he has lived here between sixty and seventy years–and that he was evidently somewhat advance in life at the date of his location in the village. Those who have known him the longest, testify that he appeared nearly as aged fifty years ago as at the time of his death, and it is their conviction that he must have reached a hundred years of age, perhaps more. He had been united to four wives, one previous to his escape from slavery an three since, his last wife dying within the present year. He buried two children and one wife in the Florence cemetery nearly forty years ago. Naturally he was of a remarkably social nature, and enjoyed the companionship of his kind with a peculiar zest to the last day of his long and eventful life. Playing on the violin was his favorite musical recreation, and so well did he retain his faculties for performing on that instrument, that he furnished music for small private dancing parties with much acceptance, even during the last year of his life. Born to slavery in the state of Maryland, he escaped from bondage after having attained to years of manhood, and as all record of his nativity was left behind, the date of his birth is a matter of uncertainty. He had reached the yeas of manhood at the time of the war of 1812-1815 and having active connection as a drummer with the military events of that period, he held a vivid remembrance of his own personal record, at least, of that crisis. There are but few people in Florence whose absence would be more sensibly realized than that of this venerable mulatto. He had a cheerful word and a most cordial greeting for everybody he met, and although he possessed no book knowledge, his conversation was rendered spicy and interesting by that intelligence, which a long life of observation and experience so fully conferred. His funeral services were held last Sunday afternoon at the house of the friend where he died and where he had lived since the death of his wife, the Rev. E. G. Cobb and Theodore D. Weld conducting the exercises. His remains were buried in the Florence cemetery.