Zipporah Potter Atkins

Zipporah Potter Atkins (July 4, 1645 – January 8, 1705) was a free African American woman who owned land in colonial Boston, during a time when few women or African Americans owned land in the American Colonies. The purchase of her home, dated 1670, makes her the first African American to own land in the city of Boston, and Anthony Johnson (colonist) was one of the earliest African-American landowners in what would become the United States.

Zipporah Potter was born to Richard and Grace, slaves of Captain Robert Keayne, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the mid-1600s. Children born to slaves in Boston at that time were considered free upon birth, explaining Zipporah’s status as a free African American in Colonial Boston. Taking the surname of Atkins upon marriage, Zipporah is reported to have had six surnames in total. Her marriage was reportedly officiated by the prominent Puritan minister Cotton Mather. After her death, Atkins was laid to rest in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground at an unknown location.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, right to left, Adelaide Cromwell, president of The Heritage Guild, and Vivian Johnson, The Heritage Guild researcher, unveil a plaque during a ceremony to honor Zipporah Potter Atkins, the first African-American to purchase property in Boston, near where her house stood Tuesday, May 20, 2014, in Boston. Atkins bought here house in 1670 in an area on the edge of what is today known as Boston’s North End.

According to historical records, Zipporah was able to purchase her property through an inheritance she received from her father. Her property was situated on the edge of Boston’s North End, near a mill pond that flowed into Boston Harbor. She owned her property while a single woman, managing to maintain control of her land through the course of her marriage. As she owned her property between the years 1670 and 1699, Zipporah was the first recorded African American woman to own land in Massachusetts.

Dr. Vivian Johnson, a retired professor of education at Boston University, discovered documentation of Zipporah’s property records around 2009. Following years of research on the part of Dr. Johnson, then-Governor Deval Patrick unveiled a memorial to Zipporah Potter Atkins on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. Dr. Johnson held a talk titled “Free, Black, and Female: The Zipporah Potter Atkins Story of Homeownership in Colonial Boston” at the Museum of African American History in Boston in May 2014.

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