Sean Osborne, Lexington resident and the founder and former president of the Association of Black Citizens of Lexington (ABCL), is clearly a student of history. Names, dates, and events large and small flow freely as he talks. Just don’t ask him to recount his own history. “Uh, I think it was ’98, maybe ’99,” he says in response to a simple “when did you move to Lexington?” He adds with a self-aware laugh, “I’m not too good on my own stuff.”
Whenever he did land in town — “yeah, it must have been ’99,” he later recalls — it did not take long for Osborne to notice the chorus of community groups that were beginning to exercise their voices in local matters. As former chair of the Human Rights Committee, he says, “I spent a lot of time listening to people talk about the good and the bad and the ugly about Lexington and I started to see this interesting thing with other community groups.” Soon thereafter, he was having lunch with some fellow Black men nearby. “We were going into the ‘why don’t I know anyone in Lexington who’s Black’ and so forth,” he explains. “So I asked a question that any good engineer should ask, which is, okay, who do you know? As they were listing the Black folks that they knew, I noticed there was no overlap,” which also meant there was no sense of community. “Let’s change that paradigm,” Osborne thought.
ABCL took shape soon thereafter. Osborne’s idea was to develop more political and economic might for Black residents through what he calls “social adhesion.” “The social part is important,” he says, “in that it helps you get to the other end.” ABCL members strategically decided that one of their first projects should dovetail with Lexington’s role as a birthplace of U.S. history. “We fall all over ourselves trying to be more important than Concord in 1775,” Osborne says with a chuckle. “We [at ABCL] could do that [too]…because we have three lovely Black veterans of April 19th, 1775, from Lexington.” With that, the Black History Portrait Banners were born.
Osborne had already done some initial legwork for the effort — that became part of a broader initiative called the Black History Project of Lexington — thanks to his own passion for the subject. “My love for history started off with European history, medieval history, because [as a military brat] I was living in Germany from ages four to eight.” The country offered everything a young boy might dream of Osborne recalls. “There’s nothing more fun than a little boy and his castles or a little boy and his tanks.” His father, a commanding U.S. Army officer, fed that interest with a particular emphasis on military history, traveling with his two young sons and wife throughout Europe in the Cold War ’70s.
When it came to the history of his own country (he was born in New Jersey), Osborne was not quite so enchanted. When he returned to the southern states as a preteen, what was recounted or taught in school didn’t sync with what he had learned from family, friends and written histories by Black Americans. “I’m living in Louisiana and Georgia and Virginia. And the story that makes no sense but is very popular is that the South had the best soldiers and the best generals. Then why did you lose?” the precocious preteen wanted to know. Osborne’s interest in setting the historical record straight took root.
ABCL’s banner project is a positive and educational manifestation of that frustration. The 24 men and women — from doctors, to lawyers, scientists, writers, farmers, soldiers, orators and more — represent four centuries of contributions of Black residents to American history and culture. Some of the names are well known: Shirley Chisholm. Martin Luther King. Edward Brooke III. But many are far less so, including Paul Cuffe, the first free Black citizen to visit the White House and have an audience with a sitting president, and Florence Beatrice (Smith) Price, the first female composer of African descent to have a symphonic work performed by a major national symphony orchestra. “That’s been the fun part,” Osborne says. “I really enjoyed learning more about them.”
It was while doing research on the banner candidates that Osborne stumbled over Quock Walker. According to ABCL’s website, Walker was “the key plaintiff in a series of cases in the early 1780s that led to his [self-emancipation] and the abolition of slavery in the Commonwealth.”
“So, I’m picking up things here and there about Quock Walker,” Osborne recalls. “Finally, all my little research comes together [and] I’m like, oh, Quock Walker was the man!” he exclaims, even today. “Okay. So why is his story lost?” he fumed.
“I was being pissy with my wife [about Walker’s lack of recognition],” Osborne says. “And my wife said, ‘yeah, why are you talking to me? Why don’t you write an editorial and get it published?’ I’m like, why not? I needed a windmill to tilt at,” he laughs. In quick succession, the history buff drafted and published an opinion piece, attracting enough attention and interest that he took on a new role: Quock Walker lobbyist. Thanks to his persistence and the support of State Senator Cindy Friedman (D-4th Middlesex), in 2020 the Massachusetts Senate unanimously adopted a resolution to recognize July 8 as Quock Walker Day (also known as Massachusetts Emancipation Day). The following year, Friedman and State Representative Michelle Ciccolo (D-15th Middlesex) filed identical legislation to formalize the date; the bill was finally approved by both houses in November 2022.
July 8, 2023 will be the Commonwealth’s first statewide celebration of Quock Walker and the exceptional fortitude and courage he brought to advocating for his own emancipation and that of other enslaved Blacks. For Osborne and ABCL, it will be the third such affair. While Osborne lists the many activities that will mark the date — in Lexington and in other towns throughout Massachusetts — he barely takes a breath before launching into other initiatives that ABCL has in store for the weeks and months to come and the many partnerships they hope to build along the way. “It’s those little connections that give us the broader story,” he explains. It’s a story — and a history — that Osborne clearly believes everyone needs to understand.