Visit The Robbins House

June, July & August: 11-4
(Closed Tuesdays)
September, October: 11-4
(Open Fri-Sun + Columbus Day)

320 Monument Street
Concord MA
(Located opposite the Old North Bridge)

(978) 254-1745
Making history come alive in Concord

Making history come alive in Concord

By Jim Callahan /

Read original post

If Ellen Garrison were alive today, she would have been thrilled to see the eager young faces gathered in the Robbins House to not only learn about Concord’s African-American history, but also to hear about the important role Garrison played in advocating for civil rights in the 1800s.

The young faces belonged to students in grades K-5 from the Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School, who, along with their parents and organizer Alison Kinney, visited the house on Feb. 16. Members of the Robbins House board and advisers engaged the students in a variety of activities, concluding with a presentation by Maria Madison, board president, as Ellen Garrison.

Garrison, who was born in the house in 1823 and attended public schools in Concord, would go on to become a teacher. In 1866, she challenged segregation in a Baltimore train station only one month after the nation’s first Civil Rights Act had been passed.

A courageous journey

Clad in a pale blue dress and faded straw hat, similar to what Garrison may have worn, Madison described to the students, gathered around in the upstairs attic, Garrison’s courageous journey. It took her from Massachusetts to Virginia and onto Maryland, Kansas and California, explaining the struggles she and other African-Americans faced during those times.

Ala Muhammed, 6, attending with sister Samya, 8, brother Josh, 10, and mom Desiree from Springfield, commented, “It’s a small house.” When asked about Ellen, Ala said, “They threw her out of the train station. They shouldn’t have done that.”

Added Josh, “All people should have rights. Back in the day, they didn’t. There were a lot of things that blacks couldn’t do.”

Annabelle Harwood, 10, attending with mom Lily from East Freetown, said she “learned about a lot of things and the civil rights (Act) of 1866.” Referring to Ellen’s encounter in the Baltimore train station, Annabelle said, “She had to be brave to say ‘I can sit here’.”

Personal learning

The Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School is a relatively new approach to teaching, with a mission to “pioneer personal learning in Massachusetts.” Providing online learning programs that students can access from home, GCVS delivers courses to students through a cloud-based platform accessed through computers and “smart” devices.

Staffed with 45 educators, Greenfield is a Title One public school with an emphasis on flexibility, which, its brochure says, “is tailored to a modern world of diverse interests and independent learners.”

Family Engagement Coordinator Alison Kinsey said she was excited to learn about the Robbins House, and the fact that it invited students throughout the state to take part in a unique field trip that honored African-American History Month. Students came from Natick, New Bedford, Methuen, Haverhill, Uxbridge, Revere, Shirley and other towns, while more than 60 other students were able “to attend” via a Skype-like platform enabling them to watch what was happening and ask questions.

Noted Kinsey, “Ellen’s (Garrison) life – the challenges she faced and overcame, her perseverance, fortitude and love of learning – what a great story for our children, some of whom face adversity for being different. I believe it’s especially important for young people today to find ways to be included in one’s community amid experiences of being excluded.”

How they lived

Ayla Allen, 7, with sister Autumn, 8, and dad David, said she was excited about the visit. She said they had been reading “a lot about African-American history”, and were interested in “seeing an old house and how a black family lived back then.”

“It’s a cool house,” said Geno Corey, 10, “but I’ve never seen one so small. And, oh yeah, I learned a lot about the first civil rights act.”

Other students like Jace LaPointe with mom Megan Vieira, and Holly and Bella Woisin, ages 7 and 9, respectively, and Camille Garcia, 11, shared similar sentiments. Cortana Reynolds, 5, took a somewhat different approach. “I learned some stuff,” she said, “but I really liked how they gave out oranges and those blankets we sat on.”

Madison said, “We (the Robbins House) are honored to be an important educational source for students across the state. Visiting this house is like stepping back in time to connect with the earliest African and American history. It’s where history comes alive for students in ways no text book can.”

The Role Of Museums In Unmasking Society’s Inequities

The Role Of Museums In Unmasking Society’s Inequities

Reposted from HuffPost

By Maria Madison, ScD

Whether through a painting, artifact or object, thoughtful museums and historic sites share stories that can shape society. Annually, thousands of individuals visit our small historic site, The Robbins House, in a quiet corner of the world in Concord, Massachusetts. The house commemorates the legacy of a previously enslaved Revolutionary War veteran and his descendants. Visitors are surprised to learn that there was slavery in the North. Once that is explained, they believe that the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves and everyone became equal citizens. Once that history is explained, visitors then believe that the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments made everyone equal. Once the Reconstruction Era and its demise are explained, visitors believe everyone was made equal by the first Civil Rights Act of 1866, or the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

This theme is aptly captured in Tracy Jan’s 2017 Boston Globe article, “Economic equality gains overestimated.” In her article Jan quotes Jennifer Richeson of Yale University, “So many of us grew up hearing this story about America that basically said there was slavery and then that was fixed. Martin Luther King marched and then that was fixed. And then we had Obama…That’s a nice, clean story that makes everyone feel good even though it’s shockingly inaccurate.”

Based on our visitors’ comments, I believe it is also the story taught through the school system. It’s a nice clean story that supports teachers’ comfort zones. In this way, we can’t necessarily blame the museum visitor, whether they are a PhD from Princeton, or students from urban or suburban public schools. This information isn’t in most curricula.

Thoughtful museums and historic sites can fill the inequity knowledge gap by connecting the past to the present. In her book, “Artifacts and Allegiance, How Museums Put the Nation and the World on Display,” Brandeis University graduate and sociologist Peggy Levitt ’80 reveals how “museums create citizens.” Maybe we can hope that museums create informed caring communities as well.

Sites such as the Robbins House have the unique opportunity to teach audiences about centuries of persistent inequity that either produced or prohibited transgenerational wealth and health. Often museums must inform audiences of what they were not offered in school: that inequities in citizenship, home and land ownership, education, employment and labor, justice and health have persisted by race, ethnicity, gender and lineage, to the present.

Visitors need to hear that the Revolutionary War did not provide independence for the enslaved; the Constitution was not written for all people; the Bill of Rights neither provided nor protected land rights; that voting rights acts did not assure fair and accurate representation in government (with gerrymandering and only 10 black senators to date, for example), and Reconstruction was arguably the nation’s most important experiment in equality, and was subsequently defunded.

Museums and historic sites have the unique opportunity to reveal the vast overestimation of progress toward racial economic equality. They can also demonstrate, as Tracy Jan puts it, that widening “gaps persist between black and white workers when it comes to hourly wages, annual income, and household wealth.”

While connecting the past to the present, museums and historic sites have the unique opportunity to describe the widening gap between the numbers of men and women in the workforce. A 2017 New York Times article shows “Women in Retreat,” noting that there are now 12.7 million more women without paying jobs than in 2000.

Museums and historic sites have the unique opportunity to explain that “Blacks and Hispanics are more underrepresented in this nation’s colleges and universities than 35 years ago.” Yet the gender balance at many of the same universities continues to be equal despite that fact that girls outperform boys on college entrance criteria. The only way to achieve the gender balance is by over-sampling white male applicants, yet no affirmative action court case has ever been raised against white males.

Museums and historic sites have the unique opportunity to tell visitors that black families are seven times more likely to be homeless than white families, though only representing less than 15 percent of the population.

Data suggest that the majority of museum and historic site visitors are the same demographic that overestimate progress made in equality: mid- to upper-income whites. According to Tracy Jan’s article, “research shows whites are the most delusional and overly optimistic about racial economic equality even before the civil rights movement.” The researchers state it is “not surprising that Americans who don’t have much contact with other races and incomes have drawn false conclusions about other people’s economic experiences” (quoting Krauss of Yale). “Wealthy blacks have more racially and economically diverse social networks compared with wealthy whites, who have little understanding of the economic outcomes of most black Americans. The researchers said their study highlights the limitations of economic policies such as graduated income tax and loan forgiveness for college students to address the gaping wealth and income disparities between racial groups.“

In his 2017 New York Times article, “It’s Not Easy to Prove Racism. This Study Does,” Justin Wolfers states “[racism] occurs not only in the labor market and the criminal justice system, but also in countless small frictions every day. The culprit may not be a hate spewing white nationalist, but rather a librarian or a school administrator or a county clerk, unaware that she’s helping some clients more than others.” And they are very likely museum and historic site visitors, with the potential to break the trend of persistent and growing inequities.

Maria Madison, ScD, is the associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. She is also the founder and president of the Robbins House, a Concord, Mass.-based historic site and nonprofit organization focused on raising awareness of Concord’s African, African American, and antislavery history from the 17th through the 19th centuries, and its regional and national significance.

Robbins House Outdoor Exhibit Feedback

Robbins House Outdoor Exhibit Feedback

Installed July 2017

The Robbins House recently installed a timeline of the long Civil Rights movement listing local, state and national events. We invite visitors to let us know what current events they’d add, since our timeline ends in 2017 but will stand in front of the Robbins House for years to come. Much has happened just in the few months since the outdoor exhibit was installed. Here is a response we just received:


New Research Discovery!

Ellen Garrison, 19th Century Robbins House Civil Rights Activist, Buried in John Brown’s Family Pasadena Cemetery

1892 Mountainview Cemetery records in Pasadena, CA, reveal that Ellen Garrison Clark died of tuberculosis at age 69.

While visiting California last week, Robbins House president Maria Madison took time out to visit the Mountainview Cemetery in Pasadena / Altadena, where we knew Ellen Garrison was buried. Here’s what she found out…

Spotlight on… Jayne Gordon, Concord Historian

Spotlight on… Jayne Gordon, Concord Historian

Many people know Jayne Gordon as the Concord historian, leading tours around town, answering questions and conducting classes that focus on the town’s rich history. But as those who know her would be quick to point out, Concord historian is much too narrow a description for who she is and what she does…

A hidden treasure at the Robbins House

A hidden treasure at the Robbins House

Robbins House board member Jayne Gordon is talking to a crowd of about 20 people attending one of Freedom’s Way’s Hidden Treasures event at the house on May 13 when a sharp rap on the front door causes her to pause. Moments later Peter Robbins, aka Joe Zellner, strides into the room wearing a top hat and coat and carrying a long walking stick.

Robbins House Advisory Board Member Joe Zellner – Better than a time machine

Robbins House Advisory Board Member Joe Zellner – Better than a time machine

Until they perfect a time machine that can take you back across the centuries, Joe Zellner might be the next best thing.

As a character interpreter trained and certified by the National Association for Interpretation, Joe brings viewers and listeners back hundreds of years with an engaging, thoughtful and provocative persona that not only captures the person he’s portraying but also the time period they are living in. He can move from Peter Robbins, the son of a formerly enslaved Revolutionary War veteran; to JB Sanderson, a teacher, preacher, abolitionist, and trans-continental pioneer; and then on to Solomon Pierce, father of four and a private in the 54th MVI during the Civil War.

Joe finds out what he can about the individuals he’s impersonating as well as the historical landscape, but cautions that interpreters should avoid conjecture. “Our true selves know what happens afterward,” he says, “but the person we’re impersonating doesn’t. We have to avoid going beyond that line.”

When he’s not interpreting, Joe is a historical re-enactor with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Company A, and serves as the president of the Board of Directors of that nonprofit organization.

The Company provides historical reenactment and interpretation of the regiment, as well as portrayals of selected officers and enlisted men. It also takes part in Making History on the Common, sponsored by The Friends of the Public Garden for Boston public schools, which features about 20 organizations that recreate people and occurrences that have occupied the Boston Common over the centuries – from the first Native Americans at the site, to livestock grazing on the Common, to numerous protest events.

The Glorious Fifty-Fourth
The 54th MVI was mustered and paraded from the Common in May 1863. Joe will portray Solomon Pierce of the 54th Massachusetts regiment on June 5th in Making History on the Common to tell the story of the “Glorious Fifty-Fourth.”

In 1863, the Governor of Massachusetts authorized the recruitment of an infantry regiment composed of African American enlisted men, commanded by white officers: the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. It was the first regiment of African American soldiers to be raised in the North. They were greatly heralded for their valor in their first major engagement in the assault on Ft Wagner in Charleston Harbor, SC, July 1863. Their valiant performance in that battle changed the opinion of the Federal government about the ability and willingness of black Americans to fight for the Union and freedom. In 1897, a memorial to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was dedicated on the Boston Common and is prominently located across from the State House.

Recently, Joe portrayed Peter Robbins at the Robbins House as part of Freedom’s Way’s Hidden Treasures event, which explores “treasures” hidden in plain sight throughout 45 communities in Massachusetts during the month of May.

And when not interpreting or reenacting, how does Joe spend some of his time? Reading about people – past and present – and visiting, of course, other historical sites to hone his craft!

Joe Zellner portrays Solomon Pierce, father of four and a private in the Civil War 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Concord Academy students visit the monument on the Boston Common dedicated to the 54th Regiment of African American soldiers and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

The transformative power of place…

The transformative power of place…

The Concord Historical Collaborative coordinates efforts and activities in Concord to present its rich history through diverse educational opportunities and fosters an appreciation and stewardship for Concord’s historical resources.

Many museums and historic sites are engaged in meaningful public service, often pushing us beyond our comfort zones, toward the hard stuff.

Last year I went rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. Trepidation hit me as I clutched the rocks like a salamander. With an expert guide yelling, “lift your butt!” and my own curiosity, I clawed my way to the top.

Trepidation hit me again at Rwanda’s Kigali Genocide Memorial (KGM) last week, where I was visiting while on a break from a work assignment. “Genocide” is defined by the 1948 United Nations Convention as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

A dread welled up inside, asking why? Why visit this painful history?  Similar to dangling on the side of a rock, no one was telling me that I had to experience pain to achieve some deeper appreciation of life.

As I entered the KGM, I was greeted by large text, “Ubuzima,” alongside statues in a circle. Ubuzima is Kinyarwandan for “life” but also means “health,” as if the two are synonymous. In fact, it seems this is the goal of today’s Rwanda with the Presidential decree to “wipe out poverty in 2017” – to transform the country to a level of cleanliness modeled after, and in partnership with, Singapore. The country presents a public face of transformation through remembrance and radical cleanliness. So “Ubuzima” seems a fitting starting point to the KGM, which hosts the annual assembly of citizens sharing their stories, regardless of which side they were on in 1994 when over 800,000 people were killed in the Rwandan genocide in 100 days.

After the greeting of Ubuzima, the journey gets more complicated. As you wind your way through the dark hallway’s “passages of history,” you begin with the stories “Before the Genocide” and “Our Rwanda,” reminders of the centuries of peace among a multiethnic population living side by side. That was before 1994….

Next the KGM exhibits focus on the impact of colonialism, the introduction of eugenics by the occupying powers, theories full of pseudoscience pitting ethnicities against each other. The result of this imposed ignorance and fracturing is captured in the remaining two-thirds of the KGM. The long, winding hallway captures the ethnic cleansing encouraged by the Belgian colonialists, followed by civil war, then the “Path to a Final Solution,” genocide and atrocities against children, women, and men, in churches, schools, and streets, and into the throngs of papyrus hideouts. Graves surround the exterior of the building. With no place to hide, millions were tortured, murdered, or worse, while the world paid scant attention. Official cables to UN Headquarters in New York asking for help went unanswered.  By the end it was estimated that over two-thirds of the population of Rwanda was displaced, fleeing out of guilt, fear or confusion, or held hostage. “The Refugee Crisis,” tribunals, and societal remembrance continue today.

I used to hear that [one of the Rwandan tribes] were the cause of the genocide. But after learning and discussing, I decided that what I had heard was not true. Now I look for my own truth.”
—Callixte, Peace Dialogue Club, Ecole Secondaire, Rwanda

The final passage at KGM, through the children’s room, states, “We will never forget these innocent lives that were taken. They died because they lacked a peaceful society in which to grow and flourish. We, who were also children then and have our own children now, must ask ourselves, ‘‘What kind of Rwanda do we want for our children?’’ Whatever we do, whatever sadness we have, whatever anger we have, we must promote peace.”

In this age of “fake news,” museums and historic places can help us find truths.  What we do with that knowledge is truly an open and important question.

By Maria Madison, president and founder, The Robbins House – Concord’s African American History

Ellen Tested our Nation’s First Civil Rights Bill

Ellen Tested our Nation’s First Civil Rights Bill

Baltimore, MD Train Station

Robbins House Humanities Director Elon Cook visited Baltimore’s President Street train station in costume, where Ellen Garrison defended her right to sit in the ladies’ waiting room on May 7, 1866. The Civil Rights Bill of 1866, enacted on April 9th, was the first US federal law to define citizenship and affirm that all citizens are equally protected – it was mainly intended to protect the civil rights of African Americans in the wake of the Civil War.

Concord’s African American History Goes to School

Concord’s African American History Goes to School

The Concord Education Fund (CEF) granted $16,000 this past spring to a team of teachers led by Robbins House board member Johanna Glazer for curriculum development work on African American history and updating the material in the 1976 book, Concord: Its Black History. The Concord and Concord-Carlisle school systems have committed to funding the website development pieces of this project. This grant also serves as a match for educational resources for our Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS) grant.

What happened to Ellen Garrison Jackson’s 1866 Court Case?

What happened to Ellen Garrison Jackson’s 1866 Court Case?

Board members visited the Maryland State Archives in May and found… that Ellen Garrison Jackson’s case challenging the 1866 Civil Rights Act was dismissed. The next step is to determine why?



MD State Archives legal scholar explains that the Latin letters “ne” following Ellen and Mary’s name in the May 1866 court record suggest that Ellen and the other African American teacher were “non est” or not there/present when summoned; but we know from Ellen’s letters that she was awaiting her summons. Was the court unable to find Ellen’s address through the Freedman’s Bureau? How hard did they try? What do you think?

Board member Maria Madison and Director Elon Cook discuss Ellen Garrison Jackson’s legal case with Chris Haley, son of Roots author Alex Haley, Director of the Maryland State Archives.

Board member Maria Madison and Director Elon Cook discuss Ellen Garrison Jackson’s legal case with Chris Haley, son of Roots author Alex Haley, Director of the Maryland State Archives.

Recent Research Revelations

Recent Research Revelations

Hot Off the Press! or, the National Archives Records of the Freedmen’s Bureau

Scholar-in-residence John Hannigan just discovered a letter confirming that Caesar Robbins’ granddaughter Ellen Garrison purposely challenged the very first Civil Rights Act of 1866, enacted in April. In early May 1866, Ellen Garrison Jackson waited for her train in the ladies waiting room of the Baltimore train station and was “forcibly ejected.” Ellen went to the Freedman’s Bureau for support, which resulted in an arrest of the train depot officer and a court case – Ellen raised a legal suit against the train depot officer.

Ellen wrote to the Maryland Freedman’s Bureau commissioner:

I feel as though I ought to strive to maintain my rights. As long as our friends have passed a law for our protection we ought to contend for our rights and let our friends see that we appreciate their efforts in our behalf.
I remain yours most respectfully,
Mrs. E. Garrison Jackson

To learn more about Ellen Garrison Jackson and how her life in Concord began her remarkable civil rights activism, visit the new Ellen exhibit, which will go up in The Robbins House at the end of June.

I feel as though I ought to strive to maintain my rights. As long as our friends have passed a law for our protection we ought to contend for our rights and let our friends see that we appreciate their efforts in our behalf.   I remain yours most respectfully, Mrs. E. Garrison Jackson

Inaugural Annual Report

Inaugural Annual Report

The Robbins House just launched our first-ever annual report (pdf).  View the PDF to see:

  • Town Manager Chris Whelan’s feedback on the impact of The Robbins House in Concord
  • What we’ve accomplished in just 6 years, and what we plan to do next
  • Our sustainability challenge and how you can get involved

Robbins House board members attend IMLS AAHC Conference

IMLS Convening for Museum Grants for African American History and Culture (AAHC)
Wednesday, May 25th, Washington DC

Our exciting IMLS (Institute for Museums and Library Services) grant has allowed us to hire a scholar in residence assisted by a humanities expert, create costumed reenactor programming, develop school curriculum resources, and plan to update and republish material in the 1976 book, Concord: Its Black History. This conference is an opportunity for us to share experiences with other grantees, learn from each other, and strengthen our professional network.

Robbins House board members Maria Madison and Liz Clayton, along with Humanities Director Elon Cook, will not only attend this conference, but will take a day to follow the 1860’s trail of Ellen Garrison to…

  • The Baltimore train station where Ellen was thrown out of the segregated section of the waiting room, to
  • the Baltimore City Criminal Court, to research the court dockets and court minutes and try to determine – finally! – whether the court case against the train stationmaster ruled for or against Ellen Garrison and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and then finally to
  • Port Deposit, Maryland to find the site of the schoolhouse where Ellen taught newly freed men, women and children after the Civil War.

Gaining National Momentum

The Robbins House included in more high profile Black History & museum conferences

The Future of the African American Past
May 19-21, 2016, Washington DC

Robbins House president Maria Madison will attend this upcoming conference sponsored by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, The American History Association, The History Channel and The National Endowment for the Humanities. The second conference in 30 years, this inspiring program covers round table panel discussion on The Long Struggle for Civil Rights and Black Freedom.

Ellen Garrison/Harriet Jacobs Pop-up Exhibit

Ellen Garrison/Harriet Jacobs Pop-up Exhibit

Robbins House Humanities Director Presents Ellen Garrison/Harriet Jacobs Pop-up Exhibit

During February’s Black History month, Robbins House humanities director, Elon Cook, created a temporary pop-up exhibit to help Concord Academy students reading Harriet Jacobs’ autobiographical novel Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl connect her story to the African American experience in Concord. Like Robbins House 19th century resident Jack Garrison, Harriet Jacobs fled slavery in the South to gain her independence in the North; her book was anonymously published just before the start of the Civil War. Jacobs eventually settled in Boston and is buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery.

The exhibit highlighted the book’s feminist lessons about self-respect, gender and racial power dynamics, and social justice. It also drew direct parallels to the writing and life of Robbins House resident, Ellen Garrison – Jack Garrison’s daughter. Ellen and Harriet likely ran in the same abolitionist, equal rights and racial justice circles in the Boston area in the early 1860s. Both women wrote eloquently about the humiliation they felt after being ejected from public transportation because of their race. And both women were determined in their demands for better treatment for themselves as “respectable persons” as well as for all people of color. The exhibit is rounded out with images that connect Harriet and Ellen to modern social justice acts and movements.

The Garrison/Jacobs pop-up exhibit was shown to the Women’s Parish Association from First Parish in Concord this week. If you’re interested in visiting the Robbins House for a private tour before our season opens Memorial Day Weekend, please contact

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