Windham Life and Times – March 5, 2021

Black History in New England

Barzillai Lew played the fife at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Fort Ticonderoga and the surrender of General Burgoyne. Today his portrait hangs U.S. Sate Department in Washington D.C. ”The Flutist” Attributed to Gilbert Stuart

Barzillai Lew and the Lew Family

     Barzillai Lew was born on November 5, 1743, in Groton MA to Primus and Margaret Lew. Barzillai (pronounced BAR-zeal-ya) was often called “Zeal” or “Zelah.” His parents were free African-Americans who owned their own farm there. His father Primus was a musician who served in the French and Indian War. Barzillai also served in the French and Indian War with his father. Barzillai wed Dinah in 1768, whose freedom he needed to purchase for $400 before they could be married.

    Lew, living in Chelmsford, was listed as a fifer/drummer in Captain John Ford’s Company, in Colonel Ebenezer Bridge’s 27th Massachusetts Regiment on May 6, 1775. He was listed as 30 years of age, occupation cooper, a negro from Chelmsford, and a fifer and drummer. He was one of 150 African Americans who fought at Bunker Hill, on June 17, 1775, “which represented about 5% of the Patriot’s forces there.” “He is said to have played the tune “There’s nothing Makes the British Run Like Yankee Doddle Dandy.”

    “There were quite a number of the sons of Africa fighting side by side with their countrymen of the white race at Bunker Hill, several of whom were conspicuous for their bravery, among them Salem Poor, Titus Coburn, Alexander Ames, Barzillai Lew, and Cato Howe each of whom received a pension. This fact is established by the painting of Colonel Trumbull, who witnessed this battle from Roxbury and reproduced it upon canvas in 1786. He reproduced several Negroes in the front ranks fighting valiantly, with visible results.”

     Lew also participated in the Successful raid at Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 that brought the cannons back to Boston that drove the British out in 1776. 

   After Bunker Hill, Lew joined Dracut’s Joseph Bradley Varnum’s regiment, which marched to Ticonderoga in 1777. He was in Varnum’s regiment when the British general John Burgoyne surrendered to American forces at Saratoga, New York in 1777. “Varnum wrote in his diary. ‘Zeal is a fifer and fiddler for the grand appearance the day that Burgoyne’s Famous Army is brought in’”. He was also cited for bravery “The powder horn he carried throughout the war now sits in an African-American history museum in Chicago.”

    After his service in the American Revolution, Lew returned home and the family moved from Chelmsford to Dracut. “With wages from his military service, Barzillai and Dinah purchased a large tract of farmland on the far side of the Merrimack River on today’s Totman Road in Lowell’s Pawtucketville neighborhood (Pawtucketville was part of Dracut until 1872). They built a house near Varnum Avenue on Zeal Road named for Barzillai (now called Totman Road.) . (Zeal being Barzillai’s nickname.) Lew not only farmed, but he was also a cooper (barrel maker) sometimes for the Middlesex Canal Company. Together, Lew and his wife Dinah had thirteen children. Together, Lew and his wife Dinah had thirteen children. Zadock (1768) Amy (1771), Serviah (1773), Eucebea (1775), Barzillai II (1777), Peter (1779), Rufus (1780) – impressed at sea by the British in 1808, Eri (1782), Dinah II (1784), Zimri (1785), Phebe (1788), Lucy (1790) and Adrastus (1793).The family was active in the Pawtucket Church on Mammoth Road not far from their home. Lew passed along the family’s musical gift to his children and the family was active in the church’s choir. It should also be noted that the church organized the first anti-slavery meeting in the area in 1832.” “Barzillai, Dinah, and several of their sons and daughters sang and played wind and stringed instruments all over New England. They were noted throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as well-educated, skilled, and talented musicians. It was said “no family in Middlesex County from Lowell to Cambridge could produce so much good music.’  They formed a complete band in their family and were employed to play at assemblies in Portland Maine, Boston Massachusetts and other large cities and towns, as well as commencement exercises at several New England colleges.” “A long line of musicians and entertainers followed in the Lew family, and the patriarch Barzillai became so well known historically that Duke Ellington honored him with a piano composition, Barzillai Lew, recorded in 1943 on the Hurricane record label.”

     They kept an elegant coach and fine span of horses and came on the Sabbath to the Pawtucket Society Church in as much style as any family in the town of Dracut. Dinah Bowman Lew may have been the first African-American woman pianist in American history. Barzillai Lew died in Dracut on January 18, 1822, at 78 and was buried in Clay Pit Cemetery. Years later, Dinah Bowman Lew petitioned and received from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts a pension for her husband’s military service in the American Revolution.”

    Adrastus Lew, Zimri’s son, married Elizabeth Freeman of Derry, New Hampshire in 1844. They purchased and cleared a piece of woodland off Riverside Street in the Pawtucketville section of Dracut (now Lowell) and built a house which still stands on Mount Hope Street. In 1912, at the age of 91, Elizabeth Freeman Lew recounted in an interview with the Lowell Sun: “The house where I live was, one of the houses which in slavery times, formed one of the underground railroad where runaway slaves would come for shelter and protection on their way to Canada. Those were terrible times.” Adrastus and Elizabeth had five sons and one daughter. James, moved to Cambridge, formed a popular dance band, and served as the music advisor to the Cambridge School Committee. William and Fred had a successful dry-cleaning and dyeing business in Lowell.”

    Harry “Bucky” Lew, the great-great grandson of Barzillai Lew, was the first black man to play professional basketball in the United States. Like generations of Lews, Bucky Lew was a talented musician and played a violin solo at his graduation from Pawtucketville Grammar School. In 1902, at the age of 18, he was recruited to join Lowell’s Pawtucketville Athletic Club “P.A.C.” of the New England Professional Basketball League. His teammates considered him one of the best double dribblers in the league, which was still legal. The team manager hesitated to put Lew in the game, but the local press put pressure on the team to play Lew. He got his first chance after a series of injuries to other players resulted in being allowed on court.

“Years later “Bucky” Lew was interviewed by Gerry Finn for the Springfield Massachusetts Union on April 2, 1958 about that first game. “I can almost see the faces of those Marlborough players when I got into that game,” said Lew, who was seventy-four when the article was published. ‘Our Lowell team had been getting players from New York, New Jersey Pennsylvania  and some of the local papers put the pressure on by demanding that they give this little Negro from around the corner a chance to play. Well, at first the team just ignored the publicity. But a series of injuries forced the manager to take me on for the Marlborough game. I made the sixth player that night and he said all I had to do was sit on the bench for my five bucks pay. There was no such thing as fouling out in those days so he figured he’d be safe all around.'”

“It just so happens that one of the Lowell players got himself injured and had to leave the game. At first this manager refused to put me in. He let them play us five on four but the fans got real mad and almost started a riot, screaming to let me play. That did it. I went in there and you know . . . all those things you read about Jackie Robinson, the abuse, the name-calling, extra effort to put him down . . . they’re all true. I got the same treatment and even worse. Basketball was a rough game then. I took the bumps, the elbows in the gut, knees here and everything else that went with it. But I gave it right back. It was rough but worth it. Once they knew I could take it, I had it made. Some of those same boys who gave the hardest licks turned out to be among my best friends in the years that followed.”

“The finest players in the country were in that league just before it disbanded and I always wound up playing our opponent’s best shooter,” Lew said. “I like to throw from outside but wasn’t much around the basket.”

“Of course, we had no backboards in those days and everything had to go in clean. Naturally, there was no rebounding and after a shot there was a brawl to get the ball. There were no out-of-bounds markers. We had a fence around the court with nets hanging from the ceilings. The ball was always in play and you were guarded from the moment you touched it. Hardly had time to breathe, let alone think about what you were going to do with the ball.”

“Lew has never been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. His daughter, Phyllis Lew, had been trying to get her father included since the 1970s”

What an incredible family story! 




History of the Town of Groton: Including Pepperell …, Volume 42; Volume 440

5. By Caleb Butler,_Caleb_1848,_p._278-3

6. Harry Bucky Lew: First Black Professional Basketball player:



9. History of Dracut, MA



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