Abiel Smith School
Museum of African American History
46 Joy Street, Beacon Hill
historic space commemorates the history of African Americans from slavery
through the abolitionist movement, with a focus on the quest for educational
Here in the first building in the nation built for the sole purpose
of serving as a public school for black children. This historic site has
been transformed into
exhibit galleries and
store open to the
public Monday through Saturday year around. The site is also
to be rented for meetings and special events.
In 1787, Prince Hall petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for African
American access to the public school system but was denied. Eleven years
later, after petitions by the black parents for separate schools were also
denied, black parents organized a community school in the home of Primus
Hall, Prince Hall's son, on the corner of West Cedar and Revere Streets
on Beacon Hill.
1808, the grammar school in the Hall home on the northeast corner of West
Cedar and Revere Streets was moved to the first floor of the African Meeting
House. Not until the 1820s did the city government establish two primary
schools for black children.
The Abiel Smith School was named after a white businessman who left an
endowment of $2,000 to the city of Boston for the education of black children.
Constructed in 1834 and dedicated in 1835, the Smith primary and grammar
school replaced the Meeting House School to educate a great number of the
black children of Boston.
Between 1839 and 1855, Boston became embroiled in controversy over school
desegregation. William C. Nell, once a young student of the Meeting House
School, spearheaded a movement for "the day when color of skin would
be no barrier to equal school rights." Nell's Equal School Association
boycotted the Smith School.
In 1848, Benjamin Roberts attempted to enroll his daughter Sarah in each
of the five public schools that stood between their home and the Smith
School. When Sarah was denied entrance to all of them, Roberts sued the
city under an 1845 statute providing recovery of damages for any child
unlawfully denied public school instruction. Abolitionists joined the case
Charles Sumner represented Sarah, and black attorney Robert Morris acted
as co-counsel. The case was argued before Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, one
of the most influential state jurists in the country. On April 8, 1850,
Shaw ruled that Sumner and Roberts had not proven that Smith School instruction
was inferior to that of other public schools of Boston. Nell and his association
then took their cause to the state house.
A bill to end segregation in public schools failed in 1851, but a similar
measure was passed by the state legislature in 1855 and signed by the governor
in April. This bill outlawed segregation in Massachusetts public schools,
although the only segregated system by that time was in Boston. By the
fall of 1855, black children were finally permitted to attend the public
schools closest to their homes. The Smith School closed. The building was
subsequently used to store school furniture and, in 1887, became the headquarters
for black Civil War veterans.