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Representative Benjamin Swan

“I came into the world to make it a better place. That is my mission.”

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This icon was commissioned in 2014 by Trinity United Methodist Church in collaboration with The Forest Park Middle School Springfield, Mass.

Benjamin Swan has dedicated his life to serving his community and the cause of social justice. From  leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, to his role as an elected representative in the Massachusetts state legislature, he has faithfully served the people of the Springfield area for 50 years.

Ben Swan was born in Belzone, Mississippi, the eleventh child of George and Sallie Johnson Swan. With his family, he migrated to Springfield in 1950 and graduated from the former Technical High School in 1952.  The family’s deep spiritual roots, its appreciation for education and commitment to public service were instilled into Ben and his siblings at an early age.  He attended Howard University, Marquette University, and American International College, with an MEd and a DEd from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst. He also holds a BFA from Fashion Art School.

It is not his formal education, however, which makes him an “Icon” of  civil rights within the Springfield community, but for the variety of ways he has fought for and acted on behalf of  the rights and welfare of all its citizens. As early as the 1960’s he served in several roles with the Springfield branch of the NAACP. In 1963 he was the Western Massachusetts coordinator of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Later that year he organized the Springfield chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. As a formidable civil rights activist, Swan helped to organize and lead the 1965 protest against police brutality which grew out of  the Octagon Lounge incident in the Winchester Square neighborhood of Springfield. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma in 1965. He ran for mayor of Springfield twice and in 1994 was elected to the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from the 11th Hampden District (Springfield) and has been re-elected to the State Legislature ten times. Currently he is the only African-American serving in the legislature from the western part of the state.

As a state legislator, Rep. Swan serves in leadership positions on several key committees and is known for such legislative priorities as economic development, housing, health care, police-community relations and inmates within the state prison system. Youth education and development are among his  greatest concerns. Through his legislation, a youth development center was created in Springfield as a vehicle to reduce youth involvement in the criminal justice system. More recently he argued in the legislature against new and more stringent voter ID laws, equating the proposals to the Jim Crow rules in the South. He spoke about his efforts in Alabama during the Civil Rights era to help black people take tests given by Southern poll workers used to prevent them from voting. “Here we are…trying to slide in voter identification…something that is clearly designed to take away the rights of poor people, people of color.”  “It makes my heart weep,” he continued, “that here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts there would be people in my home state who would want to take away those rights.”

For many years, Ben Swan has been the host of “The Black Love Experience”, a radio talk-show on WTCC (Springfield Community Technical College) which focuses on historical perspectives and public affairs. He is the recipient of numerous awards and citations for his community service, among them the WGBH-TV “Eyes on the Prize” award in 1988 and the NAACP James F. Hennessy Medal in 1993. He is also a member of Prince Hall Masonry and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. He is also a US Army veteran of the Korean War.

Ben is married and the father of five sons and three daughters. He has an extended family living in the Springfield area, many of whom are active in community affairs.

 


 

Captain Jonathan Walker The Man with the Branded Hand March 22, 1799 — April 30, 1878

A gift to The Zion Union Heritage Museum 2014 in honor of its current President John Reed and his wife Karen.

Captain Jonathan Walker, “The Man with the Branded Hand”, in 1844 attempted to take seven slaves from Florida to freedom in the British islands of the Caribbean. He was arrested, tried and imprisoned for a year in Pensacola Florida. In compliance with the Territory of Florida’s law, his right hand was branded with the letters, SS, to indicate “Slave Stealer”. The brand was reinterpreted by Northern abolitionists to mean “Slave Savior”.

Jonathan Walker was born, March 22, 1799, on Cape Cod in Harwich, Massachusetts. The Walkers were farmers, but at age 17, Jonathan went to sea. He became a carpenter and wheelwright, building and commanding boats. His travels exposed him to a variety of people and cultures which contributed to his abolitionist convictions: “I made up my mind that slavery ranked with the highest wrongs and crimes that were ever invented by the enemy of man…” He and Jane Gage, married in 1822, had nine children. They moved to Pensacola in 1836 for several years, but returned to Massachusetts because Walker did not want to bring up his children “among the poisonous influences of slavery.”

Captain Walker returned alone to Mobile, Alabama in 1843 to build boats. A year later, he sailed to Pensacola in his own boat to raise a copper-laden wreck. It was here, in June 1844, that he met four slaves who asked him to take them to freedom in the Bahamas. He was surprised when three additional slaves arrived at the midnight meeting place. Walker became ill on the voyage and his passengers could not navigate the ship. Suspicion was aroused by the sight of one white man with seven black black men. They were seized by hunters hired by two plantation owners to retrieve their missing slaves and e taken to Key West where the court ordered all eight men sent to Pensacola to await trial.

In November, a local jury found Walker guilty of “slave stealing”. Along with being fined, imprisoned and pilloried with eggs, he suffered an unusual form of punishment administered by a U.S. Marshal. Having located a blacksmith to make a branding iron, Marshal Ebenezer Dorr “took the iron from the fire…applied it to the ball of my hand, and pressed on it firmly, for 15 or 20 seconds. It made a splattering noise…as the skin seared and gave way to the hot iron.” SS had been branded into the heel
of his right hand. During his time in prison, Walker wrote a letter addressed “Dear Wife and Children” in which he described his capture and imprisonment. Expressing concern for his wife and their meager finances, he concluded: “The Lord Jesus has been abundantly good to me through my afflictions…I feel and trust that his Spirit will accompany me through, for I cannot let Him go….” This letter was circulated among abolitionists and reprinted in many newspapers, including Cape Cod’s Barnstable Patriot and William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. Walker was finally released in May of 1845 after friends in the North raised money to pay his fines, jail expenses, and lawyer’s fees.

After prison, Walker joined the abolitionist lecture circuit. He was hailed a hero by William Lloyd Garrison and was the subject of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “The Man with the Branded Hand”. He would display his wounded hand to illustrate the cruel effects of slavery “upon the soul of man”. Though he had raised money for the abolitionist movement, by the early 1850’s Walker was penniless. He and Jane moved to Wisconsin where, as social reformers, they set about to establish communities where all assets would be held in common. After two failed attempts, they moved to Michigan and settled near Muskegon, where they became farmers. Jane died in 1871; Jonathan died in 1878. There is a monument to the Man with the Branded Hand at the Evergreen Cemetery in Muskegon where he is buried. Perhaps there is no better epitaph to Captain Walker’s career than the words of Frederick Douglass: “His example of self sacrifice nerved us all to more heroic endeavor in behalf of the slave.”


 

From Slave Ship to Freedom

Jeffrey Brace 1742-1827

This icon was presented in 2011 to Green Mt. College, Poultney, Vt. as a gift, honoring this former slave who helped settle the town of Poultney in 1761.

Jeffrey Brace, born Boyrereau Brinch, was captured and enslaved in Africa at the age of 16. He was taken to Barbados and then New England. After being the slave of numerous cruel owners, he was sold to Widow Mary Stiles of Woodbury, Connecticut who treated him humanely and taught him to read. Baptized a Christian, he read and memorized the entire Bible. He became a powerful voice for the Abolitionist Movement in New England.

Serving in the Revolutionary War for five years, he was honorably discharged with a badge of merit and was granted his freedom. In 1777, Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery. Hearing “flattering accounts of the new state”, in 1784 Brace moved to Poultney, Vermont. He and his family were among the first to settle this town. Here he bought land, and with his wife, Susannah Dublin, an African-born ex-slave and widow; they cleared and farmed the land.
Later, in 1802, Brace and his family, which now included 3 children, moved to Sheldon, in northern Vermont, where they bought 50 acres of land for $250.00

In 1810, after the aging Brace had become blind, he wrote his autobiography with the assistance of Benjamin Prentiss, a lawyer in northern Vermont. It was titled “The Blind African Slave”. The account is one of the very few “slave” narratives that has recorded the journey from capture in Africa, the Middle Passage across the Atlantic, and then finally to eventual freedom in America. Brace died in 1827.


 

Obama Family

Obama Family

This was a gift to The Zion Union Heritage Museum in 2009 to honor of its past President Harold Tobey and his wife Donna. 

The Obama Family was given to the Zion Union Heritage Museum and dedicated to it’s first President and wife, Harold and Donna Tobey.