Boston’s Black Heritage Trail

The Black Heritage Trail in Boston, sponsored by the Museum of African American History, traces the history of African Americans from the Colonial period through the 19th century through 14 landmark attractions. At the end of the American Revolution, the free black population outnumbered the slaves and by 1790, Massachusetts was the only state to record no slaves in its census. Early in the 1800’s, the African American community lived in the West End, between Pinckney and Cambridge, and Joy and Charles Streets, now known as the North Slope of Beacon Hill. Here, the newly formed free black community continued their struggle against slavery and inequality.

A walking tour of the 1.6-mile Trail begins with the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial on the Boston Common. The 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry Volunteers was the first black Regiment allowed to enlist in the Union Army in 1863. Commanded by Robert Shaw, a white volunteer, the assault on Fort Wagner was launched in an attempt to regain Charleston from the South. Sergeant William Carney, wounded three times in the conflict in saving the American flag, was the first black soldier to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Through the efforts of Joshua Smith, a former fugitive slave, the bronze Memorial, designed by August Saint-Guadens, was dedicated on May 31,1897. The names of the 62 who died in the conflict were inscribed on the base of the monument in 1982.

The George Middleton House, built in 1798 and the oldest residence still in existence in Beacon Hill, was originally owned by two bachelor Masonic friends, George Middleton, a liveryman, and Louis Glapion, a French mulatto hairdresser. Middleton, somewhat of a character and a veteran of the American Revolution, gained the title of Colonel as leader of the “Bucks of America.” Subsequently, a flag bearing the symbols of a pine tree, a deer, and the company name, was presented to him by John Hancock and is now carefully preserved by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Next on the tour is the Phillips School, built in 1824 for white children only, which served as a high school and then a grammar school. Black children attended school on the first floor of the African Meeting House until segregated schools were abolished and the Phillips School became one of the first interracial schools in Boston. The John J. Smith House, on Pinckney Street, owes its history to John Smith, a free black man born in Richmond, Virginia. A barber by trade, his shop was a center for abolitionist activity and a meeting place for fugitive slaves. After the Civil War as an officer in the 5th Cavalry, Smith was elected to the State House of Representatives and later moved to the house on Pinckney Street in 1878, as a member of the Boston Common Council.

Continuing along, we arrive at the Charles Street Meeting House, built in 1807 as an all-white Baptist church. By the mid-1830’s, however, church seating segregation was challenged by Timothy Gilbert, who brought in a few black friends. Expelled from the Charles Street Church, he and a few abolitionist friends joined forces to establish the first integrated church in America, the Tremont Temple. Purchased in 1876 by the growing black population after the Civil War, the building remained as the African American Methodist Episcopal Church until 1939.

Lewis Hayden, born a slave, escaped through the Underground Railroad to Detroit and then moved to Boston. Here, he and his wife Harriett became actively involved in the abolitionist movement from his clothing store and home on Phillips Street, which served as an Underground station for fugitive slaves. Lewis Hayden was also a member of the 54th Regiment and the state legislature. Upon his death, Harriett established a fund for “needy and worthy colored students in the Harvard Medical School.”

John P. Coburn established a clothing business in his home at 2 Phillips Street in 1843. Coburn, his wife, and adopted son lived and worked here, while he served as treasurer of the New England Freedom Association. As a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, he was tried and acquitted of harboring the fugitive slave Shadrach. Before his death in 1873, Coburn founded the black Massasoit Guards and established a private gaming house with his brother-in-law, Ira Gray.

The five Smith Court Residences, at 2 Smith Street, typify the houses of African Americans in the 19th century. These brick walkups, densely crowded and connected by pedestrian walkways, were often rented by one or more families and included a diverse group of people. A sampling of the residents included William Nell, the first black historian in America, George Washington, a deacon in the African Meeting House, and Joseph Scarlett, a black chimneysweep who became a successful owner of 15 separate properties.

A unique attraction on the Heritage Trail is the Abiel Smith School, a historic site at the Museum’s address on 46 Joy Street. After the petitions for public school admittance by Prince Hall, the founder of black Free Masonry, and the parents of black school children were denied, schools were held in the African Meeting House. Eventually, the Abiel Smith School, built in 1834 and financed by a white businessman with $2,000, opened to black children as the first of its kind in America. However, controversy continued until 1855 when legislation ended public school segregation. Since Boston was the only city in Massachusetts that had kept segregated schools, the Smith School was closed down and became a headquarters for black Civil War Veterans. Today, the Abiel Smith School is free to visit, Monday through Saturday, year round.

The African Meeting House, built in 1806 in the heart of the 19th century black community, was the site of significant historical events in the abolitionist movement of African American history. These events included the founding of the New England Anti-Slavery Society by William Garrison, a farewell address by Maria Stewart, the first black woman to make a public speech to a mixed crowd, and an anti-slavery speech by Frederick Douglas. Prior to its construction, black church services were held in Faneuil Hall and for a time after completion, the Meeting House was known as the Black Faneuil Hall. Cato Gardner, a black man, gathered the majority of the funds for the building and he is recognized as the first promoter with an inscription over the front door. At the end of the 19th century, the African American community had moved on to the West End and Roxbury and the building was sold to a Jewish congregation. Bought by the Museum of African American History in 1972, extensive restorations are ongoing.

Tours sponsored by the National Park Service run daily Memorial Day through Labor Day, or other times by special request. Self-guided tours are also available.

Museum Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Prices: No fees, although a donation to the Museum can be made at the Visitor Center.

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