Episode 31: Essential Workers

When Americans think of slavery they picture southern cotton fields, but slavery was an institution with deep roots in the North as well as the South. New England Puritans were among the country’s first slave traders, and an estimated one in three households in colonial Boston had an enslaved laborer. We might think of these unfree laborers as the essential workers of their day, upon whom the day-to-day operation of Puritan households and town economy’s often depended in light of critical labor shortages from England. Enslaved African women, like Elizabeth Freeman (pictured) formed a common presence in colonial New England towns, and though their labor was almost entirely uncompensated, their labor was – just as the essential but underpaid workers in the age of Covid – indispensable to the daily survival of local economies. Their presence has typically been erased historically in favor of pious platitudes about New England liberty and fial pietistic mythical nonsense about freedom loving ‘fathers’.

Our History

Still sleepy from their socially distanced tryptophan turkey fiesta, the Saucy Boys awaken in Episode 31 to the lies, damn lies, and sketchy statistics of capitalism’s pandemic chicanery. Essential workers may keep us fed in the time of COVID, but cold hearted capitalism won’t budge a federal minimum wage off its 2007 level of $7.50/hour. Starvation wages for essential workers. What gives? Is it really the iron law of wages, or just patriarchy, racism, and lowdown greed once again gaming a system that’s been ripping people off since the Pilgrim’s hustled their first free dinner from their Wampanoag hosts? If colonial New England is really the cradle of white America’s liberty, maybe that’s because those Puritans had a lot of free time and plenty to eat thanks to the uncompensated essential workers of their day: the enslaved African men and women who kept their Christian hearts and funny hats well provided for in hearth and home. Listen in as we turn the great American origins myth on its head and watch all the ill gotten coin drop from the pockets of the pilferers. Don’t touch that filthy lucre friends, unless you have plenty of hand sanitizer, cause it will make you sick. Help is on the way with another feisty episode of History Against the Grain.

To hear Episode 31 Essential Workers, click on the podcast link below:


Sources Referenced and Items of Interest

Richard Renaldi & Margaret Talbot, “Billions Served: During the pandemic, fast-food workers face risk and rudeness,” (November 30, 2020, The New Yorker).


Felicia Y. Thomas, Entangled with the Yoke of Bondage: Black Women in Massachusetts, 1700-1783


“The myth that New England slavery was benign has become so embedded in the region’s view of itself that it forces the recital of evidence to the contrary, including evidence about the treatment of enslaved women.”

Catherine Adams and Elizabeth Peck
Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England

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