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By Dr. Donna A. Seger,
I’ve written about the Remonds, the African-American family who lived, worked, and strove for a succession of causes in nineteenth-century Salem quite a bit, but I think there is more to write, and more to learn. I live right next to Hamilton Hall, which was the center of many of their activities, and it’s really difficult for me NOT to think of it as their hall, their place. Rather intimate spaces in our home, including my study, the kitchen, and our dressing room (I know, who has a dressing room? Well, we live in a town house with interconnected bedrooms so that’s what we call the room adjacent to our bedroom as that’s pretty much all we do in there), look out to the Hall and so I feel like I am constantly in its presence or their presence. Charles Lenox and Sarah Parker Remond are the famous Remonds, as they were both very active speakers for the Abolitionist movement here in America and also (in the case of Sarah) in England, but it is their father, John Remond (1788-1874), who captivates me. He was an incredible man in so many ways and I am constantly trying to understand the historical landscape which he navigated so successfully. He arrived in Massachusetts from Curaçao in 1798 as a lone ten-year-old and over the next decade established himself in several occupations, married Nancy Lenox of Newton, and became settled in Salem’s newest assembly house, Hamilton Hall. During the following decades, his primary occupational identity as caterer and manager of the Hall was supplemented by a succession of provisioning roles: restauranter, grocer, wholesaler. He acquired properties in Salem and supported the various entrepreneurial and activist pursuits of his eight children. “Venerable” and “famous” are the adjectives employed in his 1874 obituaries, indicating that he attained a high level of respect for the accomplishments of his long life. In retrospect, his career looks like the proverbial American success story, unencumbered by race (I’m sure this is not true, but it looks that way from afar). Those most “American” of commemorators, the Daughters of the American Revolution, even included several items associated with John Remond items in their 1897 exhibition at Copley Hall in Boston , including the bottle of Schiedam gin given to him by his mother, Marytelia, on the day he disembarked for the United States.
Undated photograph of John Remond, Collection of Hamilton Hall; advertisement in The Salem Literary & Commercial Observer, 1827 January 13; Catalogue of a Loan Exhibition of Ancient and Historical Articles, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1897; John Remond’s gin bottle on display in the “Salem Stories” exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum.
I saw John Remond’s gin bottle—his sole childhood possession!—at the Peabody Essex Museum the other day, where it is featured in the “Salem Stories” exhibition (see above): I think he would be pleased with its display both in Copley Hall at the end of the nineteenth century and here in Salem in the twenty-first. While his professional struggles are not immediately apparent and overwhelmed by his achievements, his personal struggles to claim the identity and rights of an American citizen are manifest, so I think he would have been particularly pleased by his inclusion in the DAR exhibition. There were several moments during his life where we can see his strong desire for citizenship: his naturalization in 1811, his son John Lenox’s acquisition of a Seaman’s Protection Certificate in 1839 (even though he was not, to my knowledge, a seaman), his own acquisition of an American passport in 1854, and his obvious frustration with his daughter Sarah’s inability to leave Britain five years later when the U.S. Department of State failed to recognize the passport that it had issued her in 1858! In the interim the Dred Scott decision had invalidated the paper trail of citizenship he had so carefully crafted for himself and his children, placing them all in a terrible limbo.
The paper trail records the paper trail: The National Era, The New York Times, and the Salem Register cover the passport paradox, 1858-1860. Sarah’s middle name was incorrectly presented as Lenox rather than Parker in the rather haughty Times!
Sarah Remond ultimately obtained a visa which enabled her to travel to Italy and back home for brief periods: she became a British citizen in 1865. From the vantage point of 1860 however, her father was in evident distress. In a long article published in the Salem Register in July of that year, he asked the reporter, or the readers, or the government: if we cannot be citizens either home or abroad, what is going to become of us?
Transportation segregation was another issue confronted by the eldest Remond son, Charles Lenox Remond: Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor’s Colored Travelers. Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War presents essential context for the restricted mobility of African-Americans both home and abroad. School segregation was an issue for all the Remonds, who moved to Newport for a lengthy period of time in 1835 after Sarah and her sister Caroline were expelled from Salem High School, only to keep fighting and return once the public schools were desegregated. This struggle will be the focus of an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum later this spring!
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