In the early 1800s a young African-American woman named Jenny Cumfrey moved to Springfield, Massachusetts. Like an increasing number of African-Americans living in the North in the first half of the nineteenth century, Jenny was a self-liberated enslaved person. But she hadn’t escaped slavery from the Deep South. She had found her way here from the state of New York, where slavery was still legal.
Shortly after her arrival Jenny fell in love with another Springfield resident, Jack Williams. They were married in Springfield’s First Church on Court Square by Reverend Bezaleel Howard in 1802. At that time, First Church membership included many of the most prominent members of the Springfield community, and so it is quite likely that both Jack Williams and Jenny were well-known throughout the town. After their marriage they set up a modest home in a small cabin on what was then the outskirts of the town on the banks of Goose Pond, near present-day Mason Square.
In 1808, Peter Van Geyseling, a resident of Schenectady, New York, arrived in Springfield and claimed Jenny as his property. Although slavery was not legal in Massachusetts, a slave owner from another state could retrieve escaped slaves and return them to the state of origin. Once the news of Jenny’s plight spread through the town, Reverend Howard quickly developed a plan of action.
The only way to save Jenny was to buy her freedom. Soon, many of the town’s most prominent citizens came forward with donations to raise the $100.00 (a sizable sum at that time) necessary to purchase Jenny from Van Geyseling. The bill of sale was signed by 19 residents, including a man listed simply as “Simon, negro” a former slave. What makes this event extremely important is its early date — 1808. Long before Abolitionism gained traction in the 1830s as a major movement in opposition to slavery, some Springfield residents were already becoming aware of the injustice of slavery and were taking steps to oppose it.