Francis Prince Clary is a 19th century black chemist who has written from the history of Harvard and Cambridge

Francis Prince Clary, circa 1860. (Photo: (Harvard College, Class of 1861, William Hathaway Forbes Class Album/Harvard Archives)

When the United States tore itself apart over slavery, the Harvard class of 1862 prepared to graduate. To compile their personal class albums, students can choose from a list of photos, each of which they slide into an album page.

Most of the photographs were single portraits of faculty and classmates, but the “Scenes from the College” collection featured Harvard buildings and Cambridge landmarks. People, too: group photos of the class and two student societies, the “Goodies” (the local women who cleaned the student dorms) and “Molyneux”—Aaron Molyneux-Hewlett, gymnasium director and the university’s first black teacher.

Below the College Views section is a separate, untitled, section featuring photos of Clary and Lexie. Lexi was the class dog. Clary was Francis Prince Clary.

Later Harvard science, Clary, as Charles Lennoxwas a “character” – someone he was in Harvard but is not considered a science conservative From Harvard. However, Clary, like Lennox and Hewlett, actually played an unusual and historic role at the university, and off campus was a well-recognized figure in the black abolitionist community. Clary was the right-hand man of Harvard chemistry professor Josiah Parsons Cook as he helped Cook establish a systematic approach to understanding matter. and though he left no writing that we know of, Clary was clearly an intellectual, involved not only in science but also in classical and popular music as well as the mechanics of Massachusetts politics. His story was written from Harvard and Cambridge like Lennox and many other blacks, and now his story is beginning to unfold.

The history of Black Cambridge and Boston is often told as separate stories of extraordinary individuals. Research shows that this history is actually a story of family networks embroiled in a community that refuses to accept its submissive role assigned to it in Massachusetts.

Rev. Thomas Ball, by Thomas Badger, circa 1825. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Francis Prince Clary was the product of such a family network. He was born in Chelsea sometime around 1820. His father, Prince Clary, was appointed with Cato Gardner, Scipio Dalton, and Joseph Ball in 1806 to collect subscriptions for the construction of the African Baptist Church. Prince Clary was born around 1770. His immediate origins are unknown, but it is possible that he was enslaved. Frances’ mother, Diana (often “Anna”) Bassett Clary, was born about 1783 in Chelsea, the daughter of Sampson and Belle (sometimes “Beolah”) Emerson Bassett. John Bassett of Lynn had enslaved Sampson but had him emancipated in 1776. When Belleha married Sampson that year, she lived in Malden, her surname indicating that she was enslaved by the family of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grandfather there. Through the Bassett family, Diana appears to have been related to the leading Caesar Paul family either by blood, marriage, or adoption. Caesar’s son Thomas was the first pastor of the African Baptist Church.

Given this background, Francis had heard stories of enslavement, kidnapping, and discrimination in churches and elsewhere but also of agency and individual and collective achievement of black people. These stories must have fueled his calling in adulthood.

The earliest known record of Francis Prince Clary’s existence is found in the vital records of Medford, where he and his siblings—Elizabeth Chadwick, George Charles, James Bassett and Margaret Jones Clary—were baptized in 1831. (Another sister, Anne Maria, does not appear in this record.) As a young man, Clary lived in Boston. By 1842, he was operating a clothing store at 44 Brattle St. (now Boston City Hall Plaza) and live on Southac Street (now Phillips).

In 1843 he married Maria Jane (sometimes Jane Maria) Lewis, daughter of Samuel Alexander and Susanna Maldrey Lewis. His marriage was embedded into Clary’s family of another prominent black activist, the Cambridge Louises. The Lewis family were the nieces and nephews of Kwok Walker, whose lawsuits in the 1780s were among those that led to slavery being declared unconstitutional in Massachusetts. Almost all of the Lewiss were involved in civil rights activism. And while some moved to Boston or elsewhere, many worked at Harvard—providing Clary a path to annihilation.

Their combined activity and the close constraints of Boston’s Black neighborhoods meant that it would have been impossible for Clary not to be in regular contact with several members of the Lewis family in his youth. In addition, William F. Bassett, related to Clary’s mother, had married Dina/Diana Lewis, sister of Samuel Lewis, in 1827; WF and his brother, Benjamin Paul Bassett, appear frequently in announcements of Clary-related events.

Notice of a social party included in the editor’s newspaper for July 21, 1843.

For example, in 1843 Clary was one of the ticket agents for a “Social Soiree” run by B.P. Bassett, Henry Weeden, and George Washington (well-known members of the Black Beacon Hill community) celebrating August 1st—the day in 1834 on which he entered the Act Abolition of slavery comes into force in the British Empire. Like WF Bassett, who taught music at the African Meeting House, Clary was a musician. His marriage to Maria represented the further joining of two important families.

In 1844, the Clary family was still living in Boston when Francis Prince Jr. was born. By 1849, Junior and possibly other children had died, a son Herbert Augustus was born and the family moved to the Lewis family compound in Concord and Garden Streets in Cambridge.

All this time Clary, and possibly Maria, battled behind the scenes the color-based caste system that Massachusetts maintained long after it outlawed slavery in the 1780s. Marriage between “whites” and “coloreds” was illegal; Schools were segregated where there were more than a few black children in towns or cities; Black parishioners had to sit in porch “negro benches” in many churches; Black passengers were mandated to separate cars (sometimes goods) on trains and outdoor seats on carriages, regardless of the weather. Often, those who protested were assaulted. As The Editor reported, the community blamed the death of Maria’s uncle, Peter Bates Lewis Jr. in 1845 on being forced to take an outside coach from Lowell to Cambridge on a rainy winter’s day.

Massachusetts likes to praise itself for its anti-slavery history, but Clary’s activities are a chronicle of the black struggle against the prejudice, discrimination, and legal restrictions his people were forced to endure here through the nineteenth century and beyond.

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About the Cambridge Black History Project

The Cambridge Black History Project is an entirely voluntary organization of individuals with deep roots in Cambridge. We are committed to researching, accurately documenting, preserving and illuminating the journeys, achievements and challenges of Black Cantabrigians, and raising awareness of their stories through educational outreach to the Cambridge community and beyond.


Special thanks for the research assistance of Charles Sullivan and staff of the Cambridge Historical Commission and Alyssa Pacey in the Cambridge Room of the Cambridge Public Library.

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