By Maile Blume
This year, as Malden celebrates its 375th anniversary, the community is reflecting on its complex history and path towards the future. As Malden acknowledges the community it has become, the First Parish in Malden is also recognizing the peoples who experienced displacement and enslavement by early colonial settlers of the area.
Reverend Otto Concannon, a minister of the First Parish in Malden, said that the creation of the church in 1648 was integral to the founding of the town. “You needed a church in order to have a town, so those things were sort of inextricably linked at the time,” he said.
Today, the First Parish in Malden is grounded in shared values of inclusivity and equity, said Concannon, adding that the congregation seems to be particularly passionate about social justice. The congregation is also LGBTQ+-friendly, he said, making it a welcoming space for people with a diversity of gender and sexual identities.
During his recent sabbatical, Concannon felt called to research the history of the church, and encountered stories that allude to the church’s relationships with Indigenous people of the land as well as people who were enslaved by the colonial settlers. Concannon worked closely with the director of the Malden Public Library, Dora St. Martin, to learn more about these topics.
“Our church is not entirely, but majority white, and has historically been that way for its whole existence,” said Concannon, adding on the church’s history, “What is our responsibility as a congregation to dig into that, to reckon with that, to learn about that, to make reparations for that?”
Digging into Malden’s origins
One of the stories that Concannon came across in his research is that the land where Malden, Everett, and Melrose were established was bought by early settlers for 21 coats, 19 fathom of Wampon (a currency created by the settlers), and three brussels of corn, from the widow of a Pawtucket leader, Nanepashemet.
One of Concannon’s sources suggests that the widow was unaware of the full implications of the deed. After her death, her son Wenepoykin petitioned to have a small parcel of the land returned to him and his community, and this petition was denied at the same time that parcels of land were being distributed among the European settlers for free.
Wenepoykin fought in “King Philips War”, a war between Indigenous peoples and colonizers. According to Concannon, early settlers and founders of the First Parish in Malden fought on the colonizers’ side of this war. During the conflict, Wenepoykin was captured, and enslaved to European settlers in Barbados.
Concannon found it challenging to find many records of people who were enslaved in Malden, and learned that settlers who enslaved people often did so in secrecy to avoid paying additional taxes.
“How much evidence do we need in order to say, ‘Well, it probably happened here, so we should act as if it did and we should act on our values and morals of taking responsibility for the ways in which we are today benefitting from that?’” he asked.
At the same time, Concannon found records of people who were enslaved and also members of the church, and of a minister who would hold marriage ceremonies for these members. A few ministers also signed petitions to end slavery, said Concannon.
“The thing that I’m really cognizant of is whose stories we hear — who we’re hearing the stories of is mostly ministers,” he added.
Tracing the thread
Although the church has evolved throughout its existence, there is also a thread of connection that ties it to the past, said Concannon: “You know, we’re not the same people that we were in 1648, but there is a line, right? You could go through, and people knew each other all throughout that history. So it’s like that group of people morphed and merged until they became who we are, right?”
Some ways that the church community is moving forward with this knowledge are by considering how they can lend their space to groups that have been historically marginalized, allocating part of their budget to a reparations fund that goes to an Indigenous or Black-led organization every year, and exploring new possibilities for getting connected to ongoing work happening in the state to support migrant and immigrant communities.
“I think it’s important to recognize that the church exists not just for the people who come to it, but to help the people that come to it be citizens of the world, be able to bring their values to the world and do justice and good in the world, not just so that we can exist and be like a club of people who are friends, right?” said Concannon.
He added that amid the exploration the church is doing into its history, there is still a lot of gratitude for the community: “I think that the people who came before us helped us create this place where we can ask these questions and helped us to be able to dig deep and explore and continue to challenge ourselves. And I think there’s a lot more challenging that we need to do.”
The First Parish in Malden will join several local organizations in recognizing Malden’s 375th anniversary this year. Malden’s 375th committee is planning a year-long series of celebrations and commemorative events. A full list of city-wide events that honor Malden’s history can be found at: https://www.cityofmalden.org/1041/Maldens-375th-Anniversary-Page.