He Fled to Boston, for Freedom
Peter Byus (d. 1867)
At about age 36, Peter Byus escaped slavery in Virginia and settled in Boston. Against all odds, he became a man of means. His monument depicts a bondsman breaking free from his chains, and is based on the seal of the British Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
Voiceover: Tyrone Latin
Special Thanks: Stephen Pinkerton, Docent, for
historical research and image of last will and testament
Location: MAGNOLIA AVENUE, Lot 3752
It has been a little over a year since I began roaming historic Mount Auburn Cemetery with video cameras, still cameras and digital audio recorders, looking for compelling stories about some of the people interred here since 1831. Most of the inscriptions on gravestones and monuments are terse:
MARY A. COOK
MAR. 21, 1832
MAY 25, 1905
But others tell a story. The monument to Peter Byus reads like the preface to a novel:
IN MEMORY OF PETER BYUS
BORN IN HAMPSHIRE COUNTY VIRGINIA. A SLAVE.
AT THE AGE OF ABOUT THIRTY-SIX
HE FLED TO BOSTON, FOR FREEDOM. WHERE
HE RESIDED FOR THE LAST THIRTY YEARS, OF HIS LIFE.
HE DIED THE 27TH OF FEBRUARY 1867
AGED 66 YEARS.
HE WAS A SINCERE CHRISTIAN, A TRUE FRIEND AND AN HONEST MAN.
Peter Byus’ narrative is further fleshed out by his last will and testament, a document that lives on to this day. It bears wrinkled, yellowing witness to a uniquely American journey. The language of that time is poetic, philosophical and thoughtful.
March 25, 1867
"I, Peter Byus of Boston in the County of Suffolk and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, being in feeble health, but of sound and disposing mind & memory, also - conscious of the uncertainty of human life, do make, publish & ordain - this my last Will & Testament…”
Against all odds, Byus becomes a man of means. Like many people who expect to pass away, he arranges to leave some funds for a relative. But pause here, Dear Reader, and consider the heartbreaking implications of this bequest.
“I give, devise and bequeath to my brother Alfred Brown the sum of five hundred dollars, and as my said Brother is now in one of the Southern States & either a slave or lately emancipated, so there may be some difficulty in communicating with him…”
He goes on to specify items and funds from his estate for his friends and for the woman who nursed him during his illness. But throughout his will, he is mindful of those less fortunate than he.
“I give, devise & bequeath all my furniture, books & all articles of use & ornament to the Union Mission & home for little wanderers in Baldwin Place, to be used & appropriated, so far as may be, for the benefit of Children of Color…”
Byus can’t forget the millions of recently freed slaves. People who, like himself, had been sentenced to a lifetime of chattel slavery solely by accident of birth.
“All the rest and residue of my estate I give and bequeath to the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society to be appropriated by them to the use and benefit of the most necessitous of my own race and color.”
Throughout, Byus’ final document shows his enduring religious faith.
“& I am grateful for this day of apparent deliverance of my race in this Country from the degradation and barbarism of slavery and I am grateful to my God, that after having been a slave myself for thirty seven years, that my deliverance was effected and that I have been enabled to save something that I can leave behind me to aid in the blessed work of elevating & saving those of my Brethren whom the Providence of God is now emancipating.”
I have filmed and photographed Peter Byus’ monument in the heat of Summer, a blizzard of winter, and in Spring and Fall. It never fails to break my heart. For my exhibit, “earth.sky”, I asked Tyrone Latin, a gentleman with a fine voice, to come to my studio and record excerpts from the Will while my images float by on multiple screens.
By the time of Byus’ death in 1867 - two years after our Civil War -- although human chattel slavery had officially been ended throughout the United States, African-Americans suffered greatly as a result of poverty; lack of access to education, jobs and health care; legal and extra-legal discrimination of all kinds in public and private accommodations; harassment and false imprisonment; and violence perpetrated by civilians, government officials and terrorist gangs. These conditions resonate today, a century and a half later. - Roberto Mighty