Black Heritage Trail®

Museum of African American History

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During the 19th and 20th centuries, Boston’s free African American community led the nation in the movement to end slavery and to achieve equal rights. These remarkable patriots established businesses, founded organizations and created schools. Their houses of worship, homes, schools, and Underground Railroad sites make up Boston’s Black Heritage Trail®. Scroll down for more on the tour schedules, maps, and details about the city's free black community, or click on the footsteps to start an online tour of important American landmarks.

BOSTON WALKING TOURS

FREE GUIDED WALKING TOURS

Join interpretive rangers of the National Park Service Boston African American National Historic Site (BOAF) for guided walking tours departing from the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial (across from the Massachusetts State House) and ending at the nation's first African Meeting House, which anchors MAAH's Boston campus.

SEASONAL TOUR SCHEDULE

Our BOAF/NPS partners offer historically rich guided tours.
Free | 90 minutes | As seasonally scheduled;
also available by special appointment: 617.742.5415.
Interpretive Rangers' free guided tours of MAAH's
Black Heritage Trail® are conducted as follows:

Off-season Tours Available on Request

Call BOAF to schedule a Black Heritage Trail® walking tour, daily talks in the African Meeting House, or Faneuil Hall Visitor Center information: 617.742.5415.

NOTE: Schedules are subject to change.
SELF-GUIDED WALKING TOURS YEAR ROUND

Immerse yourself in amazing history any time your schedule permits. Download our audio tour or take a self-guided tour all year long. Get your map in the Museum Gift Store and Faneuil Hall Visitor Center.

AUDIO TOURS

Enjoy a voice-guided walking tour developed by high school students for families and children. Click here for audio tour download via CD Baby; available for only 99¢.

SELF-GUIDED TOUR MAPS

Click below to download the NHS Park walking tour brochure (PDF):
Boston African American NHS Park Brochure, Side 1
Boston African American NHS Park Brochure, Side 2

NOTE: The historic homes on the Black Heritage Trail® are private residences and are not open to the public. Only the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School are open to the public. For more information on our walking tours, please contact the museum.

Amazing History on the Black Heritage Trail®

Between 1800 and 1900, most of the African Americans who lived in the city resided in the West End, between Pinckney and Cambridge Streets, and between Joy and Charles Streets, a neighborhood now called the North Slope of Beacon Hill.

The first Africans arrived in Boston in February of 1638, eight years after the city was founded. They were brought by their enslavers, purchased in Providence Isle, a Puritan colony off the coast of Central America. By 1705, there were more than 400 enslaved in Boston and the beginnings of a free black community in the North End.

The American Revolution was a turning point in the status of Africans in Massachusetts. At the end of the conflict, there were more free black people than slaves. When the first federal census was enumerated in 1790, Massachusetts was the only state in the Union to record no slaves.

The all-free black community in Boston was concerned with finding decent housing, establishing independent supportive institutions, educating their children, and ending slavery in the rest of the nation. All of these concerns were played out in this Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Site 1

Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial

Beacon and Park Streets, Boston Common

Responding to pressure from black and white abolitionists, President Lincoln admitted black soldiers into the Union forces in 1863. The 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was the first black regiment to be recruited in the North.

Robert Gould Shaw, a young white officer from a prominent Boston family, volunteered for its command. The 54th Regiment trained in Readville (in the present day Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston).

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Regiment became famous for leading an assault on Fort Wagner as part of operations to capture the Confederate city of Charleston, South Carolina. In the hard-fought battle Shaw and many members of the regiment were killed.

Sergeant William Carney of New Bedford was wounded three times in saving the American flag from Confederate capture. Carney's bravery earned him the distinction of the first African American to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. A photographic reproduction of the 54th's saved national flag is on display across the street in the State House's Hall of Flags.

For 18 months of service, the 54th Regiment refused to accept a salary lower than their white counterparts. Ultimately, Congress relented and increased their pay retroactively. This high-relief bronze memorial to Colonel Shaw and the 54th Regiment was erected through a fund established by Joshua B. Smith in 1865. Smith, a fugitive slave from North Carolina, was a caterer, former employee of the Shaw household, and a state representative from Cambridge.

The sculpture is by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and the architectural setting by McKim, Mead and White. The monument was dedicated on May 31, 1897 in ceremonies that included Carney, veterans of the 54th and 55th Regiments, the 5th Calvary, and several speakers, including Booker T. Washington.

The inscription on the reverse side of the monument was written by Charles W. Eliot, then president of Harvard University.

The 62 names listed on the lower portion of the monument are those soldiers who died during the assault on Fort Wagner. They were added in 1982.

Next Stop: George Middleton House
Site 2

George Middleton House

5-7 Pinckney Street

Built in 1797, this is the oldest extant home built by African Americans on Beacon Hill. Its original owners were George Middleton (1735-1815), a liveryman, and Louis Glapion, a hairdresser. Both Middleton and Glapion were members of the African Lodge of Masons founded by black educator Prince Hall.

OGeorge Middleton was a veteran of the American Revolution. Honorifically called "colonel," Middleton supposedly led the all-black company, the "Bucks of America." John Hancock, in front of his house on Beacon Street, was documented by William C. Nell as having presented the company with a painted silk flag bearing the initials JGWH, a pine tree, a deer, and a scroll bearing the name of the company.

During the Civil War, Nell donated the flag to the Massachusetts Historical Society where it is preserved today. Middleton in his old age on Pinckney Street was remembered by Lydia Maria Child:

"If became a frolic with the white boys to deride them on this day [the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, celebrated in June] and finally...to drive them from the Common. The colored people became greatly incensed by this mockery of their festival, and rumor reached us...that they were determined to resist the whites, and were going armed with this intention...Soon, terrified children and women ran down Belknap Street [now Joy Street] pursued by white boys, who enjoyed their fright. The sounds of battle approached; clubs and brickbats were flying in [all] directions. At this crisis, Col. Middleton opened his door, armed with a loaded musket, and in a loud voice, shrieked death to the first white who should approach.

Hundreds of human beings, white and black, were pouring down the street…Col. Middleton's voice could be heard above every other, urging his party to turn and resist to the last. His appearance was terrific, his musket was leveled, ready to sacrifice the first white man that came within his range. The colored party, shamed by his reproaches, and fired by his example rallied…."

Next Stop: John J. Smith House
Site 3

The Phillips School

Anderson and Pinckney Streets

This architecture is typical of 19th century Boston schoolhouses. Erected in 1824, this school building was open only to white children until 1855; it was the English High School until 1844 and the Phillips Grammar School until 1861. The school was then moved to a larger building at the corner of Anderson and Phillips Streets and renamed the Wendell Phillips School.

Before 1855, black children who lived in the neighborhood had to attend the school on the first floor of the African Meeting House or, after 1834, the Smith School. When segregated schools were abolished by legislative act, the Phillips School became one of Boston's first schools with an interracial student body.

Next Stop: John J. Smith House
Site 4

John J. Smith House

86 Pinckney Street

Born free in Richmond, Virginia, on November 2, 1820, John J. Smith moved to Boston at the age of twenty-eight. Smith went West for the 1849 California Gold Rush but returned to Boston no richer than when he left.

He became a barber and set up a shop on the corner of Howard and Bulfinch Streets. His shop was a center for abolitionist activity and a rendezvous point for fugitive slaves. When abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was not at his home or office, he was usually found at Smith's shop.

During the Civil War, Smith stationed himself in Washington, D.C., as a recruiting officer for the all-black 5th Cavalry. After the war, Smith was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1868, 1869 and 1872. In 1878, the year he moved to this house, he was appointed to the Boston Common Council.

John J. Smith lived at 86 Pinckney Street until 1893. He died on November 4, 1906.

Next Stop: Charles Street Meeting House
Site 5

Charles Street Meeting House

Mt. Vernon and Charles Street

This meeting house was built in 1807 by the white Third Baptist Church of Boston. The question arose sometime later as to whether this name was not strictly the property of the African church on Smith Court. The name was consequently changed to Charles Street Baptist Church.

The segregationist tradition of New England church seating patterns prevailed here. In the mid-1830s, they were challenged by one of the church's abolitionist members, Timothy Gilbert, who invited some black friends to his pew one Sunday to test the rule. Gilbert was expelled.

Joined by other white abolitionist Baptists, Gilbert went on to found the First Baptist Free Church which became the Tremont Temple, "the first integrated church in America."

After the Civil War, the black population of Boston increased considerably, and the largest of its churches purchased this building in 1876. The African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) remained here until 1939. It was the last black institution to leave Beacon Hill. Today the Charles Street A.M.E. is located on Elm Hill Avenue and Warren Street in Roxbury.

Next Stop: Lewis and Harriet Hayden House
Site 6

Lewis and Harriet Hayden House

66 Phillips Street

Lewis Hayden was born a slave in 1816 in Lexington, Kentucky. After escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad to Detroit, he moved to Boston with his wife Harriet and soon became a leader in the abolitionist movement. In Boston Hayden's political activities were based in the clothing store he owned on Cambridge Street, and in his home here on Phillips Street (then Southac Street).

The house was built in 1833. Hayden moved in as a tenant around 1849. Francis Jackson, treasurer of the Vigilance Committee, a radical abolitionist organization, purchased the house in 1853, possibly to assure that Hayden would not be harassed in his Underground Railroad activities. (Jackson's estate sold the house to Harriet Hayden in 1865).

In 1850, Southern slave owners were given legal sanction by the Fugitive Slave Act to retrieve their runaway slaves. Boston ceased to be a haven for escaped slaves. Hayden and his wife, Harriet, turned their home into an Underground Railroad station. William and Ellen Craft, a fugitive couple who masqueraded as master and slave, were sheltered here as were countless other fugitive blacks.

The Haydens reputedly kept two kegs of gunpowder under their front stoop. They greeted bounty hunters at the door with lit candles, saying that they would rather drop the candles and blow up the house than surrender the ex-slaves in their trust. Harriet Beecher Stowe visited the Hayden's home in 1853:

"When, in 1853, Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe came to the Liberator Office, 21 Cornhill, to get facts for her "Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin," she was taken by Mr. R.F. Wallcutt and myself over to Lewis Hayden's house in Southnac Street, thirteen newly-escaped slaves of all colors and sizes were brought in into one room for her to see. Though Mrs. Stowe had written wonderful "Uncle Tom" at the request of Dr. Bailey, of Washington, for the National Era, expressly to show up the workings of the Fugitive Slave-Law, yet she had never seen such a company of 'fugitives' together before."

During the Civil War, Hayden was a recruiting agent for the 54th Regiment. The Hayden's only son died serving in the Union Navy. In 1873, Hayden was elected to the state legislature. From 1859 until his death in 1889, he held the position of Messenger to the Secretary of State. Harriet Hayden survived her husband. In her will she established a scholarship fund for "needy and worthy colored students in the Harvard Medical School."

Next Stop: John Coburn House
Site 7

John Coburn House

2 Phillips Street

John P. Coburn was born about 1811 in Massachusetts and died in 1873. After working as a housewright in the 1820s, Coburn established a clothing business from his small house in the cul-de-sac off of Phillips Street.

Coburn later commissioned Boston architect Asher Benjamin to design a house for his new property on this corner between 1843 and 1844. Coburn, his wife Emmeline, and their adopted son Wendell lived here. Coburn embraced Garrisonian principles in the 1830s and went on to become treasurer of the New England Freedom Association, a petitioner in the Boston desegregation campaign, and a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee.

In the last capacity he was arrested, tried, and acquitted for the 1851 rescue of the fugitive slave Shadrach. Later in the 1850s, Coburn was co-founder and captain of the Massasoit Guards, a black military company. Coburn also established a gaming house here with brother-in-law Ira Gray. It was described as a "private place" that was "the resort of the upper ten who had acquired a taste for gambling." John Coburn died in 1873. He left the bulk of his estate to his adopted son.

Next Stop: Smith Court Residences
Site 8-12

Smith Court Residences

3-10 Smith Court

The five residential structures on Smith Court are typical of the homes occupied by black Bostonians in the 19th century. Number 3 was built in 1799 by two white bricklayers. It was a double house with a common entryway. Black families began renting here between 1825 and 1830. In 1865, it was purchased by black clothier James Scott. William C. Nell boarded here from 1851 to 1865. Nell was America's first published black historian, a community activist and leader in the struggle to integrate Boston's public schools before the Civil War.

Number 5 was built as income property by a lawyer between 1815 and 1828. George Washington, a laborer and deacon of the African Meeting House, purchased the house in 1849. He lived in the upper part of the house with his wife and nine children, while the first floor was rented out.

Number 7 was built some time between 1802 and 1811. Number 7A behind Number 7, is in Holmes Alley. Number 7A was built as a double house in 1799 and sold the next year to Richard Johnson, a mariner, and David Bartlett, a hairdresser. In the 1860s, black chimney sweep and entrepreneur Joseph Scarlett bought both 7 and 7A as rental property. In the 19th century, Holmes alley had several houses similar to 7A. They stood where there are backyards today. Such housing development in the middle of blocks, with an elaborate system of pedestrian alleys, was typical when African Americans lived in the West End.

Number 10, next to the African Meeting House, was built in 1853 for Joseph Scarlett. Originally, it had two brick stories with another story of dormer windows and a pitched roof. Scarlett lived on Bunker Hill Street in Charlestown. At the time of his death in 1898, he owned 15 properties. He left bequests to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, then on North Bennett Street, and to the Home for Aged Colored Women on Myrtle Street.

The brick apartment houses on the west end of the court and on the corner of Joy Street are typical of the tenements developers began to build in this neighborhood between 1885 and 1915. They were built to satisfy the need for inexpensive, dense housing units for the waves of post-1880 European immigrants to Boston. Usually wooden houses were torn down to make way for these four and five story brick "walk-ups."

Next Stop: Abiel Smith School
Site 13

Abiel Smith School

Museum of African American History

46 Joy Street, Beacon Hill

This historic space commemorates the history of African Americans from slavery through the abolitionist movement, with a focus on the quest for educational equality.

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 a museum store open to the public Monday through Saturday year around. The site is also available 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.

In 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 in 1849.

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.

Next Stop: African Meeting House
Site 14

African Meeting House

Museum of African American History

46 Joy Street, Beacon Hill

The African Meeting House on Beacon Hill was built in 1806 in what once was the heart of Boston's 19th century free black community.Today, it is a showcase of architecture and African American community organization in the formative years of the new republic, and a preeminentNational Historic Landmark.

The Meeting House was host to giants in the Abolitionist Movement who were responsible for monumental historical events that changed this nation, including:

  • The founding of the New England Anti-Slavery Society by William Lloyd Garrison in 1832;
  • The 1833 farewell address of Maria Stewart, a black woman and the first American born woman to speak publicly before a gender-mixed audience;
  • An 1860 anti-slavery speech by Frederick Douglass given after being run out of Tremont Temple;
  • The 1863 recruitment to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

The African Meeting House is the oldest black church edifice still standing in the United States. Before 1805, although black Bostonians could attend white churches, they generally faced discrimination. They were assigned seats only in the balconies and were not given voting privileges.

Thomas Paul, an African American preacher from New Hampshire, led worship meetings for blacks at Faneuil Hall. Mr. Paul, with twenty of his members, officially formed the First African Baptist Church on August 8, 1805. In the same year, land was purchased for a building in the West End.

The African Meeting House, as it came to be commonly called, was completed the next year. Ironically, at the public dedication on December 6, 1806, the floor level pews were reserved for all those "benevolently disposed to the Africans," while the black members sat in the balcony of their new meeting house.

The African Meeting House was constructed almost entirely with black labor. Funds for the project were raised in both the white and black communities. Cato Gardner, a native of Africa, was responsible for raising more than $1,500 toward the total $7,700 to complete the meeting house. A commemorative inscription above the front door reads: "Cato Gardner, first Promoter of this Building 1806."

The facade of the African Meeting House is an adaptation of a design for a townhouse published by Boston architect Asher Benjamin. In addition to its religious and educational activities, the meeting house became a place for celebrations and political and anti-slavery meetings.

On January 6, 1832, William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society here. In the larger community this building was referred to as the Black Faneuil Hall. The African Meeting House was remodeled by the congregation in the 1850s.

At the end of the 19th century, when the black community began to migrate from the West End to the South End and Roxbury, the building was sold to a Jewish congregation. It served as a synagogue until it was acquired by the Museum of African American History in 1972.

The $9.5-million-dollar historic restoration, complete with new elevator and stair tower making it accessible for all, has returned the African Meeting House to its 1855 appearance, with elegantly curved pews and pulpit, period wainscoting and wall finishes, cast-iron posts and golden chandelier. This National Historic Landmark, now open to the public after being closed six years, welcomes visitors with Words Spoken at the Meeting House etched on granite panels towering in the new courtyard entryway.

To find out about renting the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, click here.

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